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Defending Against Iraqi Chemical, Biological Threats

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 3, 2003 – If Saddam Hussein decides to use chemical or biological weapons against U.S. forces, he may well kill or injure more of his own forces than Americans.

"The United States fields the best-trained and best- equipped forces in the world," said Army Maj. Gen. John Doesburg, commander of Soldier Biological and Chemical Defense Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. "The Iraqi capability is extremely limited. We have - and I don't want to overstate it - a hundred percent better capability to operate in a chemical and biological environment than the Iraqis do."

Doesburg, along with Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Reeves and Army Col. Thomas Spoehr, answered questions about chemical and biological defenses today during a Pentagon press meeting. Reeves is DoD's program executive officer for chemical and biological defense. Spoehr is commander of the 3rd Chemical Brigade at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

Chicken Sentinels Idea for the Birds

By Jim Garamone

American Forces Press Service

- Classify this one under the it seemed like a good idea at the time category.

Marines in Kuwait imported some 43 chickens to serve as chemical and biological attack detectors. Perhaps this was someone's modern-day version of the canaries once used in coal mines to detect toxic methane gas. If the birds stopped singing, it was time to leave the mine.

Brig. Gen. Stephen Reeves, DoD program executive officer for chemical and biological defense, told reporters at a March 3 Pentagon news briefing that chickens won't work. The actions of nerve agents on the body are entirely different from methane, he said without further detail.

It actually takes more nerve agent to kill a small animal than a human," he noted ominously. About 10 times more, he said.

Finally, I just have to tell you from personal experience, having had a great uncle with a chicken farm, chickens are spectacularly nervous animals, Reeves said. They will literally worry themselves to death.

It seems maybe they did. All 43 of the Marines' chickens died. And no one's hatched a plan to replace them.

The men said that Iraqi forces being endangered by their own weapons of mass destruction doesn't mean Hussein won't use them anyway.

"You can never forget the fact that he used them in the past," Doesburg said. "Inside his mind is something that says, against everything we know and everything we feel in the world, that it's OK to use chemical agents, because he's done it."

The general said Hussein did not use chemical weapons against the coalition in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "He probably has some grave reservations about using those chemical and biological agents, but we're going to be prepared," he said.

When the Iraqis used chemical agents against Iran and the Kurds in the 1980s, they used them in the "classic" way. He said they placed persistent agents along the front line and nonpersistent agents along any axis of attack. He expects that if used today, the Iraqis might try something different.

But U.S. troops are trained to operate in such environments. Spoehr said there are 15,000 nuclear, biological and chemical specialists at all levels of the Army. These specialists train fellow soldiers how to operate in an NBC environment. They also advise commanders on defensive actions. In addition, there are specialized chemical and biological defense units at division and corps levels.

"The training they get is rigorous and demanding," Spoehr said. "They learn how to operate and maintain equipment, the properties of the agents and how to predict hazardous areas."

Every service member must successfully complete training at the Chemical Defense Training Facility - "the Super Bowl of chemical training." They train with toxic agents and with the equipment they will use in the field.

There have been many changes to the chemical and biological agent defense equipment since the Gulf War. "We have put out 19 new systems over the past few years. These include chemical and biological agent detectors, new individual protection systems new collected protection systems, new decontamination systems and new reconnaissance systems," Reeves said.

During the Gulf War, one persistent problem was chemical and biological detectors often rang with false alarms. "We learned our lessons from the Gulf War," Reeves said. "Alarms often reacted to some battlefield contaminants like diesel fuel, JP-8 and insecticides. Based on that, we developed the automatic chemical agent alarm. It's more sensitive and has been tested against more than 80 battlefield 'interferents.'"

Reeves said this wouldn't totally eliminate false alarms. "We may still get 1 or 2 percent false alarms," he said. "But it's a great improvement."

Reeves and Doesburg also addressed a report indicating that 250,000 chemical suits were defective. "What we've issued is the Joint Service Light-weight Suit Technology to those who are deployed," Doesburg said. "In that report, they were referring to the battle dress overgarment, which is another suit that we had."

The new suits are up to snuff and in fact are lighter and less hot than the older battledress overgarment. While the BDO is still in inventory, it serves as a back up to the new suits. "If we have to issue some of those BDOs, we will inspect every one of them before they are issued to any soldier, sailor, airman or Marine," Reeves said.

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Related Sites:
DoD News Transcript: Briefing on Chemical and Biological Defense Readiness, March 3, 2003


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