Posted Feb. 18, 2003


Insight on the News - National

Issue: 04/29/03




U.S. Forces Face The Bio-Chem Test

By Kenneth R. Timmerman

Are U.S. troops unprepared to fight if Saddam Hussein uses chemical or biological weapons? Or are the nervous Nellies of the antiwar movement just trying to create panic?


Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes was all doom and gloom in a recent report on preparations under way at the Pentagon to train and equip troops to fight in an environment contaminated by chemical or biological weapons. According to Wallace and his cooperative witnesses, the troops haven't received proper training, their equipment is faulty and they are going to die. For military commentator David Hackworth, a retired Army colonel whose harsh criticism of Pentagon bureaucrats appeals to many on both left and right, the Defense Department has made a mockery of nuclear-biological-chemical (NBC) training. "Truth to tell, the troopers call [NBC] 'nobody cares,'" he told Wallace. Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) told Wallace: "It's a fact that a vast majority of our troops are not properly trained in biological and chemical warfare. And it's a fact that by not being properly trained they're not ready."


Wallace went on to cite a series of government audits during the last two years -- one by the Department of the Army, several others by the General Accounting Office (GAO) -- that found significant shortcomings in the battle-worthiness of gas masks and other protection gear. "A U.S. Army spokesman said many of the small tears in these gas masks could be fixed with duct tape," Wallace said. Right on point, Shays responded, "It's a pretty pathetic comment, isn't it?"


So are U.S. troops heading into a death trap in Iraq for which they have been ill-prepared by the Pentagon leadership? Or is it all just hype, intended to scare any who remain undecided on the war?


Few military planners doubt that Saddam would use his chemical and possibly his biological weapons, as Insight reported several weeks ago [see "Justice Looms for Saddam, Cronies," March 4-17]. But whether those weapons would be effective or even dangerous to U.S. military personnel remains a matter of hot dispute.


As commanding general of the U.S. Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command, Maj. Gen. John Doesburg is the Pentagon's top officer in charge of designing protective gear and making sure it gets to the troops in a timely fashion. He reminded reporters at a specially organized briefing following the 60 Minutes report that the effectiveness of chemical- and biological-warfare agents depends mightily upon the weather.


Too cold, he said, and mustard gas "would, in fact, be frozen. It freezes at roughly 56 to 58 degrees Fahrenheit," rendering it militarily useless. Too hot, and sarin and VX nerve gas evaporate. Too much light, he said, and many biological agents simply die. In fact, Doesburg and other military analysts point out, for Saddam to launch an effective military strike using chemical or biological weapons against U.S. troops, the weather would have to be just right and the quantities of agent would have to be simply massive.


The United States abandoned its offensive chemical- and biological-weapons programs more than 30 years ago, not because of arms-control agreements, which only came into play later on, but because the Pentagon never was convinced they were of any significant military use. "The general view was that these things weren't battlefield weapons," says Stephen Bryen, a former deputy undersecretary of defense. "The Iraqis reinvented them as weapons of terror by using them against their own Kurdish civilian populations in 1988."


During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, U.S. troops repeatedly donned bulky protective gear in the desert as faulty chemical-weapons detectors sounded false alarms. When a real chemical threat approached from toxins released into the air by the controlled explosion of an Iraqi chemical-munitions bunker, not even commanding Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf paid any attention. As a result, the Pentagon now believes, some 161,000 soldiers were exposed to low-level contamination from nerve gas that has led to a complex of diseases known collectively as gulf-war syndrome. Since then, the Pentagon says, it has worked hard to field better detectors and better protective gear, and to improve the training troops receive.


The Pentagon claims that virtually all of the false alarms that occurred in Kuwait during the 1991 fighting originated from non-U.S. systems carried by specialized vehicles loaned to the coalition by Germany and the Czech Republic. Since then, the United States has developed a new detector, called the Automatic Chemical Agent Detector Alarm (ACADA). It uses ion-mobility spectroscopy, which the Pentagon claims makes it more reliable than the older M8 detectors that were based on chemical reagents and were sensitive to heat as well as to all kinds of battlefield pollutants.


The ACADA system was tested extensively against more than 80 battlefield pollutants to eliminate false alarms without diminishing its accuracy in detecting actual chemical-weapons agents. "Now, is that to say we won't have a false alarm? We might," says Brig. Gen. Steve Reeves, the Pentagon's program executive officer for chemical and biological defense. "We still can get about 1 to 2 percent false alarms on this system if it's overwhelmed with an interferent. You know, if you held it up to the tailpipe of a vehicle, why, yeah, it would probably go off. But 98, 99 percent of the time, we've got an improved detector and we're convinced that we fixed the problem."


The Pentagon says it has purchased more than 20,000 of the new chemical-weapons detectors and has deployed them extensively throughout the Persian Gulf theater with U.S. troops. New biological detectors also have been deployed that are programmed to detect the 10 biological-weapons strains Saddam is known to have developed.


In his 60 Minutes exposé, Wallace also raised fears that the chem-bio protective gear used by U.S. troops was massively unreliable. "Somewhere out in the field are up to 250,000 defective protective suits, with holes and torn seams -- part of a batch of 800,000 defective suits that were distributed," he said, referring to a report from the GAO released last October. But the Pentagon says the GAO audit referred to chem-bio suits left over from the 1991 war, known as the "battle-dress overgarment," or BDO. Wallace showed file footage of troops struggling to don the heavyweight rubberized suits as chemical alarms went off in training exercises, suggesting that U.S. troops were sitting ducks to an Iraqi chemical attack.


The new suits, called the Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology (JSLIST), are made of a lighter-weight material that can be laundered, while the masks have been redesigned to allow soldiers a wider angle of vision. The Pentagon has procured more than 1.5 million of the JSLIST suits, distributing two to each soldier and three to each Marine in the battle theater. Once contaminated, each suit offers complete protection for up to 24 hours, at which point soldiers must head to a decontamination area and wash off before changing into a new suit.


And just in case of an unlikely, massive and sustained Iraqi chemical-weapons attack against U.S. troops, the Pentagon has stockpiled another 3 million of the older suits. "The thing about the battle-dress overgarment is this report has to do with suits that were produced more than a decade ago," Reeves told reporters. "The actual important numbers here are three and zero. We checked three times, and there are zero defective suits in our contingency stocks."


What about those missing 250,000 suits that so outraged Shays? Retired Col. Dave Shaver, a former teacher at the U.S. Army War College, says, "Someone on his staff should have told him that these suits were 'expendable' supplies, and no longer needed; that some were consumed in training, and excess quantities were destroyed."


As for the lack of training, Wallace forgot to mention that the U.S. Army Chemical School at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., this year will graduate more than 6,300 nuclear, biological and chemical specialists. "There are some 15,000 of these specialists in the Army, spread across the active Army, the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard," says Col. Tom Spoehr, commander of the 3rd Chemical Brigade and director of training for the school.


These specialists are assigned to combat units and train others to detect chemical and biological attacks and decontaminate equipment. As part of their training at Fort Leonard Wood, Spoehr says, they undergo drills with live nerve agents. "We have trained over 65,000 people in this facility without a single accident or incident." That battlefield confidence is essential to troops in the field.


But the real fear of military planners is of a massive humanitarian disaster, provoked by Saddam to slow down an allied advance on Baghdad and to generate international pressure on the United States to stop the war before he is overthrown.


Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld laid out the risks to WMAL radio talk-show host Chris Core on March 4. "If force has to be used and Saddam Hussein's regime decides that the game is up, they could conceivably use chemical or biological weapons on their neighbors, neighboring countries," Rumsfeld said. "They could use them on U.S. forces or coalition forces in neighboring countries or in Iraq. They could also use them on their own people and blame it on the coalition forces, which they've done before. They have used these chemical weapons on their own people. So that certainly is a risk that is among those risks that we have to consider."


Mike Amitay of the Washington Kurdish Institute says Kurdish groups in the north have received nothing in the way of assistance to prepare for an Iraqi chemical or biological attack. His organization has offices in northern Iraq to coordinate humanitarian assistance, and he is worried about the almost total lack of protection or decontamination equipment for Kurdish civilians. "We're even more concerned about covert deployment, poisoning of wells, human disease carriers, the covert introduction of biological weapons," he tells Insight. "Given the high rate of respiratory diseases and other serious medical disorders in northern Iraq, it would be very difficult to detect a covert BW [biological-weapons] attack."


The Pentagon has begun to sketch out what U.S. military and civilian-aid agencies are prepared to do to aid the Iraqi people should Saddam turn his weapons against them.


"We are deploying a full range of capabilities to the field and will be able to address medical emergencies, including chemical- or biological-weapons attacks," a senior Pentagon official tells Insight. "Will we help civilians? Of course we will. We're Americans. That's what we do."


Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine. email the author