#52 – Use MOPP Suits Often at Work so Soldiers Get Used To It
Why I Wrote This Thought
During the Cold War there was a significant threat that Russia would use either chemical weapons or tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield. Accordingly, we had to be prepared to fight and conduct our missions wearing our mission oriented protective posture (MOPP) gear. We also had to be able to use our chemical and radiological reconnaissance, detection, and decontamination equipment. Basically, we had to be able to fight and conduct every mission to the same standard whether we were wearing our normal uniforms or our MOPP gear.
As a LT I had been to all the NBC courses and had been through both individual and collective NBC training to include extended operations in MOPP gear during field exercises. I had enough experience to know that without extensive training and repetition military tasks and missions could not be conducted effectively in MOPP. Most MOPP training that was conducted at the time was for short periods and quick offensive or defensive engagements such as an assault or defense of a battle position. The key I believed was that all company tasks, to include maintenance, refueling, rearming, long-distance movements and Troop Leading Procedures (TLP) had to be conducted in MOPP sufficiently often as to gain expertise and comfort.
I mention TLP specifically because that is a cognitive effort and just thinking is hard if you are unaccustomed to wearing MOPP. Rather than thinking and planning about the upcoming mission you find yourself thinking about how uncomfortable you are. Even drawing graphics and writing notes for FRAGOs is tough in the rubber gloves.
What We Did in the Troop
So when I was a Tank Battalion Commander I was lucky to have as my CSM the Trooper who had been the Armorer in the Cavalry Troop I commanded. As a CSM one of the first things he said to me after the change of command was, “You aren’t going to make us where MOPP every Thursday again are you?” Because, that is what we had done in the Troop. By wearing some level of MOPP one day every week our Soldiers and leaders became effective at doing their job so encumbered.
We kept the normal training schedule, the only thing different was the uniform. If your platoon was performing maintenance services on vehicles or weapons, you wore MOPP. Conducting a monthly inventory, you wore MOPP. Training for the Tank Crew Gunnery Skills Test, you wore MOPP. Patrol training in a local training area, you wore MOPP…you get the idea.
Now, we would not wear MOPP 4 all day long, as that would have been sadistic, or as we say today, toxic. We usually only had full MOPP 3 or 4 with our masks on for an hour a day. We varied it so that the Soldiers got used to the different MOPP levels. Or sometimes we would wear just masks and gloves to practice detailed tasks such as assembly/disassembly of weapons with small parts under difficult conditions. We always ensured lunch was at the lowest MOPP levels so Soldiers could relax and eat.
Another thing was that every Thursday PT in the morning was in MOPP. Soldiers had to be able to run distances and perform physical tasks while wearing their MOPP because they would have to do that in combat. Had dinner with some friends just this past week, one of whom had been a LT in the Troop and he was telling the others about having to run PT in the snow in Wildflecken Germany wearing MOPP 4. He laughs about it now, but still emphasized to the others its importance at the time.
Each Thursday we also trained in one NBC related task. That might be how to operate the decon apparatus or check for contamination with a dosimeter. It might be how to go through MOPP exchange if you were in a contaminated area for a long time. Or it might be how to put out the chemical detectors or send a NBC report over the radio. Repetition of tasks is the key to acquiring skills and by doing one task each Thursday we got those reps.
Home Station Training provided a start point for field training. In force-on-force field training exercises at the Troop level we might not win in MOPP 0, but we almost always won in MOPP 4. And when we went to Hohenfels for Squadron-level training our Troopers were able to accomplish their recon and security missions even in a NBC environment.
Lastly, we sent every Soldier, NCO and Officer we could to as many NBC schools as we could. Our training NCO was always on the prowl for slots in any NBC school that some other unit might not be able to fill and the 1SG had a standing list for who was next up to attend each of the various schools. In my mind the fastest way to build confidence in a Soldier is to send them to school for formal training in a subject. And once trained they are inclined to maintain that expertise by reading the latest doctrine or articles in journals and wanting to master each new piece of gear as it is fielded.
What I Did Later in My Career
During my first stint as Battalion S-3 I had a commander who was willing to go with once a month rather than once a week, so we took a similar approach, just not quite as often. The second time I was a Battalion S-3 and then Brigade S-3 was after the Cold War had ended. For Desert Storm everybody got excited that Saddam might use chemical weapons, so almost from the moment units were alerted in CONUS there was continuous training in MOPP.
But, after no chemical weapons were used in Desert Storm and the 90s were focused on peacekeeping the focus on NBC training waned, admittedly with good justification. We would do some good NBC training and MOPP practice in the run up to a CTC rotation, but that was about it.
The pattern was repeated for the invasion of Iraq in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Concern and training for the use of chemical weapons prior to and during the invasion and then waning interest after no chemical weapons were employed and we transitioned to COIN.
Today, we are preparing once again for potential large scale combat operations against countries that have and might employ nuclear, biological and chemical weapons against our formations. While the threat isn’t the day-to-day one that we faced during the Cold War, it is still there and it requires effective training to overcome. In my opinion each unit ought to have a regular, sustained program to build NBC-related skills and to build the Soldiers’ and leaders’ confidence they can execute their missions successfully under contaminated conditions. It doesn’t have to be once a week, but it ought to be comprehensive and designed into the annual training program. Because, if you are called with no notice to deploy and fight, it is too late to try to build the expertise and confidence necessary to fight, survive and win in a NBC environment.