U.S. military at the ready to seize chemical weapons

(CBS News) In a suburb east of Damascus, Syria, there is new fighting where an alleged chemical weapons attack happened on Wednesday. Syria's opposition says hundreds of civilians died from exposure to toxic gas. The Assad regime denies those claims. The White House is calling for an investigation by United Nations inspectors that are already inside Syria.

More shells hit Damascus after alleged "gas" attack

Meanwhile, the U.S. military is getting ready to seize chemical weapons, anywhere in the world. CBS News' David Martin went on a training mission with the famous Army unit, the 82nd Airborne.

In the early morning hours recently, paratroopers training at Fort Bragg, N.C., conducted an assault on a compound where they'd been told chemical agents are stored. After a decade of fighting insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was a new mission for the soldiers in Col. Mike Fenzel's brigade. Fenzel told CBS News, "It's one that we haven't really addressed over the last 12 years because we have been focused on Afghanistan and Iraq.

It was just an exercise, but Maj. Gen. John Nicholson, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, said it was designed to deal with a real world threat. Nicholson said, "As we look at the evolving situation in Syria and other places around the world, we're preparing to deal with the reality of securing chemical weapons."

The 82nd Airborne is kept on constant alert, ready to load and launch 1,000 paratroopers and their gear within 18 hours to anywhere in the world. In the exercise CBS News observed, they jumped from 800 feet to seize two dirt air strips in the woods of North Carolina. Frenzel said, "One airfield is challenging by any measure. Two airfields, simultaneously, creates incredible command and control challenges."

Martin asked, "When chemical weapons are involved, what does that do to the operation?"

Frenzel said, "It increases the difficulty in terms of the equipment you have to carry, increases the difficulty in terms of expertise you have to integrate into the operation."

Most of the troops in the 82nd are combat veterans, but few have had experience dealing with chemical weapons. In an exercise, they found a component for the deadly nerve agent VX, one of the chemical agents Syria is known to have. Fenzel said, "It weighs on our troops because it is the fear of the unknown, that they haven't trained for it before -- they're not sure what to expect."

Seizing Syria's chemical weapons would be a major, high-risk operation. The exercise CBS News witnessed, alone, used 30 aircraft to drop the troops and their equipment, and in the real world, those low, slow-flying planes would be exposed to ground fire. But it is an operation the 82nd Airborne Division is preparing for, should they ever get the order.

Watch David Martin's full report above.

Comments

Follow Us