Several weeks ago, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said the U.S. is planning what to do about Syria's vast chemical weapons program once Bashar Assad's regime falls. The Syrians are believed to have hundreds of tons of chemical agents, including sarin, one of the deadliest chemical agents. A few drops can be lethal.
So the central question is this: How can those sites be secured so they don't fall into the wrong hands?
NPR has learned that the 82nd Airborne Division just wrapped up a nine-day training exercise at Fort Bragg, N.C., working with Army chemical experts from the 20th Support Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, to get ready for a possible mission to deal with those deadly chemicals in Syria.
Thousands of paratroopers jumped in and practiced fighting a foe and surrounding buildings. They wore chemical protective gear, practiced using chemical detectors and corralled mock chemical munitions for containment.
"In support of our roles to the Global Response Force mission, we are taking prudent measures to ensure we are trained and ready for any mission we are called to execute based on volatile regions across the world," says Lt. Col. Virginia McCabe, a spokeswoman for the 82nd.
As part of that global response, the 82nd always has a brigade on a "short string," ready to deploy in 18 hours.
Officials say U.S. Central Command, whose responsibility includes Syria, has not ordered any unit to take on this mission. But the Army and the paratroopers want to be ready — just in case.
If the paratroopers are called upon to do the Syria mission, they envision a post-Assad situation, where they are invited in by a new government, though they might have to be aware of certain hostile elements or militias that could put up a fight, what the military calls "uncertain conditions."
Officials say the exercise revealed gaps in training and equipment. Now the 82nd is consolidating equipment, such as chemical detectors and alarms as well as decontaminants — just in case the call comes to move out.