The U.S. military has canceled a major field exercise that tests its response to a nuclear attack, angering some officials who say that what is now planned for this month will be a waste of time.
U.S. Northern Command in Colorado withdrew from major participation in this month's National Level Exercise (NLE), a large-scale drill that tests whether the military and the Department of Homeland Security can work with local governments to respond to an attack or natural disaster.
The exercise was canceled recently after the planned site for a post-nuclear-attack response — Las Vegas — pulled out in November, fearing a negative impact on its struggling business environment.
A government official involved in NLE planning said a new site could not be found. The official also said the Northern Command's exercise plans for "cooping" — continuity of operations, during which commanders go to off-site locations — also had been scratched.
"All I know is it's been turned into garbage," said the official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information. "It's a nonevent."
The NLE, which is supposed to be a series of hands-on exercises to test the system in the event terrorists use a nuclear device, has become instead a "tabletop exercise at best," the official said.
Maj. Michael Humphreys, a Northern Command spokesman, said the military officials decided to delink the Ardent Sentry exercise from the National Level Exercise, but he stressed that the command conducts other exercises and "cooping" at other times.
"This exercise enabled both the [Defense Department] and other agencies to review their processes and procedures, and focus future training efforts on closing gaps and additional areas identified during the exercise," Maj. Humphreys said. "This year, Ardent Sentry will not be linked with the NLE."
He said NorthCom will work with the Pentagon in its role in the NLE.
In a statement to The Washington Times, the Pentagon said: "It was necessary to cancel the field exercise portion of the NLE due to the inability to get another state/local community to engage on short notice after the original venue was changed. NorthCom still has a requirement to exercise its core requirements. It is just doing this at another location."
Created after the Sept. 11 attacks, the NLE is the country's largest exercise of its kind — combining activities among the military, Department of Homeland Security and local governments to test their joint, emergency response capabilities.
Homeland Security spokesman Clark Stevens said his department still plans major field work.
"NLE 2010 provides an important opportunity to exercise and assess emergency response and recovery capabilities in the face of a major disaster or a terrorist attack against the United States," Mr. Stevens said.
"Working with local partners in a number of states, the scenario will allow emergency response officials at all levels of government to test response plans, communication capabilities, and interagency coordination — tools that are vital to the effective response in a real-world event."
The field exercise in Las Vegas was to simulate terrorists detonating an improvised nuclear device assembled with smuggled weapons-grade uranium.
The 2009 NLE focused on intelligence sharing between the federal government and local law enforcement after a terrorist attack abroad.