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Knowledge Key to Combating Chemical, Biological Warfare

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 23, 1999 – "Know thine enemy." That sage advice is key to combating chemical and biological warfare, according to a top military expert in the field.

Too often, people ascribe magical properties to these hazardous substances that they simply do not have, Army Col. John V. Wade said. "There is no magic there. These things obey certain laws of chemistry and physics. They are very hazardous, but there are a lot of hazardous chemicals that we potentially bump into in our daily lives."

Service members need to be aware of and educate themselves about the growing chemical-biological threat, he advised. "Learn about it. Learn to respect it, but don't have an undue fear of it, because we have the best protective gear in the world."

Wade has specialized in chemical and biological defense for the past 16 years. On Oct. 1, 1998, he became deputy for counterproliferation and chemical and biological defense to the director of defense research and engineering and the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology.

Protecting service members from chemical and biological warfare is a top Pentagon priority, he said. The Defense Department has made major strides in the field since Saddam Hussein put chemical and biological warfare on the world's front pages during the 1991 Gulf War.

"Here was an adversary we knew had used chemical warfare in their 10-year war with Iran, and now we had indications that they also possibly had biological weapons," Wade said. "In the Gulf, we were ill-prepared for biological warfare. We did not have any bio-detectors. We had an enzyme antibody-based technology, barely out of the laboratory, similar to today's home pregnancy tests."

Before Desert Storm, countering chemical and biological warfare was not particularly high on anyone's list of training requirements. Such training tended to be an end-of-exercise drill or the final task of field training, he said.

"We maintained an interest by scaring people," he recalled. "We did training, but in many cases it was rote. Everybody went through the motions. You knew you had to put on your protective mask and overgarment in X amount of time."

The Gulf War changed all that, said Wade, who served as medical chemical-biological warfare adviser to Army Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf, Desert Storm commander. "It put a real focus on chemical-biological operations," he said.

"If you had tried to get a group of people together a year earlier to talk about the threat and how to counter it, you'd have had a hard time keeping the audience's rapt attention," he recalled. "Suddenly, the specter was real, due to the fact that we were up against someone who could truly use it against us."

It was a lecturer's dream, Wade said. "I'd go into a large combat support hospital with a couple hundred people crowded into a tent, and I could talk until my voice gave out. They hung on every word. They wanted to know how to cope with casualties and how to avoid becoming casualties themselves."

Since Desert Storm, Wade said, the military has made marked progress on two fronts -- awareness and technology. Units now train more frequently with chemical and biological defense equipment that, in the past, was locked away and issued only occasionally. Today, service members do their jobs while wearing protective equipment. "We're busting it out of the package and learning how to use it comfortably," he said.

Chemical-biological defense has been more fully integrated into training programs. "This is now just another facet of being a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine that you have to assimilate into the rest of your military skills," Wade said. "We realized that's how we're going to fight, so we started training that way. Even the basic block of training on personal protection is far more robust now than when I entered the service 22 years ago."

Pentagon officials also focused on acquiring better personal protective equipment. "We now have the best equipment on the planet, bar none," Wade said. "Our new M-40 series masks are excellent. They're lighter, more user friendly and more comfortable.

"The old chemical protective suit was bulky, heavy and charcoal- based," Wade noted. "It absorbed everything. You couldn't lie down in it on a wet rifle range. You could wear it once. You couldn't launder it." The new suit used by the services is lighter, washable and made of a high-tech material that doesn't rely on absorbent charcoal, he said.

During Desert Storm, the military had limited detection capabilities, particularly in the area of biological agents, Wade said. "We talked about 'chemical,' but 'biological' was like the box under the bed that you knew was there but didn't have the nerve to open." Prior to 1990, most people could not have even named a biological warfare agent, he said. "Based on the tremendous media exposure that we received in the Gulf, most people would now immediately rattle off 'anthrax.'"

The military has worked hard to improve its detection capabilities. It developed detectors tailored specifically for ground and naval forces and able to detect incoming agents at greater distances, Wade said.

"Today we have the Improved Chemical Agent Monitor and the Automatic Chemical Agent Detector and Alarm. These are much better than the alarms we had in the Gulf," he said. "These new systems have a lower false positive rate, better sensitivity and better discrimination between agents."

Today's detectors, and the next generation, are "exquisitely sensitive -- we're talking a factor of somewhere around 1,000 to 10,000 times more sensitive than what will actually cause you harm," Wade said. And, he noted, sensitivity equates to time -- the sooner you detect a cloud of agent coming, the more time you have to get into your mask and suit.

"In the future, we're going to go a step further," Wade said. The services are developing joint requirements and detection systems, such as a joint-service lightweight chemical agent detector that will be smaller, lighter and require less maintenance than current equipment. "There's a lot more solid- state technology going into it."

Detectors will be tied together into network arrays. More than one alarm will confirm an attack, Wade said. A joint warning and reporting network also is in the early development stage that would have all the detectors talking to each other, he added. "Within our chemical-biological community, we didn't have any real good organic communication, so there were some time lags in passing along warnings. Alarms would go off, but units couldn't talk to other units in a timely fashion to confirm their validity."

Many detection systems, particularly bio-detectors, will be located at higher echelons, Wade said. Technologies such as sensor arrays may not be evident to the service member at the squad or company level.

"There's going to be a bigger umbrella of detection capability that includes a warning and reporting system, not a device sitting outside your perimeter that you service twice a day," he said. "That may take a little bit of a mental adjustment on everyone's part.

Overall, he said, the chemical-biological defense program has shown real growth, particularly in procurement. "We are a threat-based program that is addressing validated warfighter needs," Wade said. "If you looked at where we were in the Gulf, we could probably provide 30 percent of the equipment and material necessary for two major contingencies.

"Now, within our projected five-year budget, we will be able to meet more than 70 percent of that requirement," he continued. "We have a lot of equipment ready to go. Most units are familiar with it, they're comfortable with it and they're training with it."

Wade advised service members to become familiar with the new technology as it's fielded -- "and we are fielding more new equipment all the time."

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