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Recovering Chemical Warfare Materiel

The U.S. Army’s Recovered Chemical Warfare Materiel Program must effectively manage limited resources amidst intense regulatory and public scrutiny to ensure support requirements can be met in a cost-efficient manner.


By Geoffrey Carton, David Hoffman and Col. J.C. King, USA (Ret.)


 Intrusive work at chemical warfare materiel sites is generally conducted in a vapor containment system, which is maintained under negative pressure. Any vapors released during intrusive operations are contained in the structure and filtered prior to discharge to the atmosphere. PHOTO COURTESY USACE BALTIMORE DISTRICT


The objective of the U.S. Army’s Recovered Chemical Warfare Materiel (RCWM) Program is to ensure that appro­priate response actions are taken to address chemical warfare materiel, munitions with an unknown liquid fill and other mate­rials of interest (such as chemical agent identifications sets) in the United States. In compliance with applicable regulations, the program addresses munitions recovered during range clearance activities, investi­gates chemical warfare materiel sites, and responds to emergencies to protect human health and the environment. 

Chemical warfare materiel, munitions with an unknown liquid fill, and other materials of interest may be present as a result of past military production, testing and training activities. Historically, the burial of excess, obsolete or unserviceable chemical warfare materiel, including in the sea, was an accepted practice. Until the late 1950s, disposal procedures typi­cally consisted of burning and chemical neutralization followed by burial. These methods often left chemical agent resi­due or intact chemical warfare materiel. Chemical warfare materiel also could have remained on the surface or in the subsur­face after live-fire training or testing.

According to a 2012 National Research Council report, “Remediation of Buried Chemical Warfare Materiel,” there are nearly 250 chemical warfare materiel sites in the United States. The cleanup costs of one site in Washington, D.C.—the former World War I American University Experiment Station (AUES)—exceed $150 million. In 2007, the Army cost-to-complete esti­mate for the known inventory of chemical warfare materiel sites was between $2.5 billion and $17 billion. The actual cost will depend on the remedy selected for each site.



The history of substantive U.S. research of chemical warfare began following the Germans’ first successful chemical attack in 1915. Upon its entry into World War I in 1917, the United States began an extensive program to develop, test and manufacture chemical weapons. This continued until 1969 when it ceased the production of lethal chemical agents and chemical munitions, and Congress effectively banned open-air testing of lethal chemical agents. The United States began producing binary chemical warfare materiel in 1987, ceasing production in 1990. In 1993, the United States signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (which went into force in 1997) prohibiting develop­ment, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and requiring destruction of former production facilities and known chemical warfare materiel.

Since available treatment for chemical warfare materiel largely consisted of open detonation or open burning, there was little incentive to investigate or remediate sites and, as such, recovery was handled on an ad hoc basis. In 2001, the Army fielded the Explosive Destruction System, its first transportable, fully contained system for treatment of chemical warfare materiel. The successful demonstration of the system’s capabilities—including on-site destruc­tion at sites like AUES—has allowed the Department of Defense to increase its planned investigation of chemical warfare materiel sites. However, the crews and equipment that provide for the RCWM Program Support Functions are limited.Therefore, they must be managed to ensure their availability for planned and emergency responses as well as for other requirements (such as support to the Department of State). Proactive manage­ment of the program’s portfolio of planned responses and assets is vital to ensuring requirements are met, costs are controlled, and a duplication of efforts is avoided.

External constraints affecting the program include public and regulatory scrutiny, regulations preventing the inter­state movement of RCWM, compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the involvement of numerous agencies. The subsequent impacts of these constraints include extending the timeline for regula­tory review and approval; a strong prefer­ence for onsite treatment; notification of treaty organizations and accommodation of international inspections; and the complex­ity of interagency coordination.


Operators prepare munitions for treatment in the Explosive Destruction System, a transportable system that provides access to and neutralizes the chemical fill of munitions, all within a sealed stainless-steel vessel. The system has processed more than 2,000 items since it entered service in 2001. PHOTO COURTESY U.S. ARMY CHEMICAL MATERIALS ACTIVITY/RECOVERED CHEMICAL MATERIEL DIRECTORA



In 2005, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology & Logistics directed the Secretary of the Army to recommend how the RCWM Program should be restructured and managed. The Army developed an implementation plan to address “the recovery and destruction of buried chemical warfare materiel at active installations and Formerly Used Defense Sites subject to the Defense Environmental Restoration Program.”

Understanding the need for resource management, the implementation plan was to examine the consolidation of the associated resources for recovery and destruction of buried chemical warfare materiel sites into a single office within the Army. In 2007, the Secretary of the Army endorsed the RCWM Program Implementation Plan. The plan’s scope was expanded beyond Defense Environmental Restoration Program sites to be able to provide a comprehensive approach for addressing every situation, regardless of the site or circumstances of recovery, in which chemical warfare materiel might be encountered and require a provision of RCWM Program support functions. This expansion includes addressing explosives or munitions emergencies in which muni­tions or other materials of interest with an unknown liquid fill are encountered in the public domain or during operational range clearance activities.

The plan also includes provisions for meeting other interagency requirements on a reimbursable basis. This expansion was necessary to avoid duplication of effort, help ensure consistency, and allow for the efficient work-loading of limited resources. Over the past five years, deployments have averaged 18 per year for assessment of munitions with an unknown liquid fill and two per year for destruction of RCWM.



Congress authorizes the Defense Environmental Restoration Program appropriation to fund environmental response actions, with the exception of such activities on operational ranges.

A separate and special appropriation—the Chemical Agents and Munitions Destruction, Defense (CAMD,D)—is authorized for expenses for the destruc­tion of other chemical warfare materiel that are not in the chemical weapon stockpile. CAMD,D funds the entire RCWM Program support functions including:

  • Assessment and destruction of RCWM, at no cost to the supported activity.
  • Sustainment of the crews and equipment required for assessment and destruction of RCWM.
  • Required research, development, test and evaluation of equipment improvements to meet new requirements and to evalu­ate off-the-shelf technology to support RCWM assessment and destruction.
  • Explosives or munitions emergencies involving munitions with an unknown liquid fill or chemical warfare materiel.
  • Archival research.

The base-level funding needed for provision of the RCWM Program support functions is estimated at $40 million to $50 million annually, or $1.2 billon to $1.5 billion in total assuming the program extends for 30 years. A 2007 high-end estimate of the total CAMD,D funding required to complete every chemical warfare materiel site was $16 billion—but that amount may be less depending on the final remedy selected for each site as agreed to by environmental regulators.


According to a 2012 National Research Council report, “Remediation of Buried Chemical Warfare Materiel,” there are nearly 250 chemical warfare materiel sites in the United States. The cleanup costs of one site in Washington, D.C.—the former World War I American University Experiment Station (AUES)—exceed $150 million. 


Because the Department of Defense is accelerating the pace of chemical warfare materiel site investigations, requirements for provision of RCWM Program support functions will likely increase. The program requires keen forecasting to anticipate the number and type of deployments and when they might occur. This must be done enough in advance to have funding, crews and equipment available. 

The cost of maintaining trained crews and specialized equipment for provision of RCWM support functions also is significant—requiring effi­cient management of program assets to ensure every requirement is met, including support of explosives or munitions emer­gencies.By effectively managing limited resources, the RCWM Program continues to meet applicable environmental and safety requirements.



To ensure adequate funding and work loading, the RCWM Program Integrating Office works with each of the service’s Active and BRAC Restoration Program Managers, and the Formerly Used Defense Sites Program to develop a five-year work plan. CAMD,D funding is requested on a six-year Program Objective Memorandum cycle. It is necessary to identify the sites where work will be performed, the nature of the work, and to estimate the number and kinds of munitions and chemical agents that may be recovered far in advance.

Close and continuous coordination between the services, installations and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (as program executor) is necessary to allow the RCWM Program to synchronize known require­ments with CAMD,D funding.



The RCWM Program faces numerous challenges, including intense regulatory and public scrutiny; uncertainties about the quantity of munitions; compliance with safety standards and applicable environ­mental laws and regulations; and public perceptions about the potential dangers associated with chemical agents.

Yet through close coordination with numerous stakeholders, advance plan­ning and effective budgeting, the program is working to overcome these challenges to create a safer tomorrow.



Geoffrey Carton is Senior Analyst, CALIBRE Systems Inc.; 301-807-2704, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

David Hoffman is Program Manager, Recovered Chemical Warfare Materiel Program Integrating Office, U.S. Army Chemical Materials Activity, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.; 410-436-8728, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Col. J.C. King, USA (Ret.), is Director for Munitions and Chemical Matters, Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Environment, Safety & Occupational Health; 703-697-5564, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..