The military has geared up defenses
against these invisible killers since the threat of
biological weapons became a reality during Operation Desert
Storm. Since then, the military has fielded new protection
equipment and detection systems, and more counter measures
are in the works.
Still, many people don't understand the
nature of biological agents, how they would be deployed or
how to protect themselves, according to Col. John V. Wade,
an Army medical department officer who has specialized in
the chemical/biological warfare field for the past 16 years.
During Desert Storm, Wade served as Army
Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's medical chemical/biological
warfare advisor. On Oct. 1, 1998, he became deputy for
counter proliferation and chemical and biological defense to
the director of defense research and engineering and the
undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology.
Biological warfare encompasses "a mixed
bag of bacterial agents, viruses and toxins," Wade
explained. Lumping all biological warfare agents together as
a class is almost as dangerous as comparing biological and
chemical agents directly, they can be very different, he
said. Depending on the situation, some are contagious,
others are not.
"If you and I in this room are exposed
to these agents, unprotected, we're in trouble," Wade said.
"But when we leave the room, we may not necessarily 'spread
it' in a contagious sense, unless some of the agent remains
on our clothing and is physically transferred to someone
Usually, we think of biological agents as
an aerosol threat, according to the Pentagon expert.
"Think of that as taking a liquid in an
atomizer and putting it out in very, very small micro
droplets. Aerosols behave a lot like chemical vapors.
There's a lot of water vapor in a room, but we can't see it,
or feel it, or taste it, or touch it. That's really what
we'd have in a biological event."
These deadly 'bugs' do have some natural
enemies, Wade said. "Most biological agents don't weather
well. There are lots of things that make it difficult for
these biological agents to exist. You put them out in
ultraviolet light and they die. They don't like drying out.
The same environmental factors that keep us from having one
cold after another, will help us out to some extent in the
case of a biological attack."
Biological agents can be dispersed one of
two ways, Wade explained, either by what's known as a "line
source" or a "point source."
platoon is dug in at a forward location. Miles away, an
enemy boat sailing along a river or coastline, or possibly a
train traveling a rail line, releases a spray. The enemy has
determined the prevailing wind will carry the disease-laden
aerosol in your direction. This "line source," Wade pointed
out, "can cover a very sizable piece of geography."
A more commonly envisioned scenario
involves a point source, Wade said. This is where the enemy
launches a missile or other munitions which, upon
detonation, spews biological agent directly on you -- the
"Either way, what the enemy is trying to
do is take the organism or the toxin and disperse it into
the atmosphere so that the target troops then inhale it," he
said. "That's really the threat of most of these agents.
Just like the common cold, we get them via
"Because the agents are very small
particles they can make it through our nasal passages --
evading all of the normal protective measures we have to
filter things out -- and get down to the deep lung area
where they then cause disease."
Unlike a chemical agent attack which
would cause an almost immediate reaction, a biological
attack would not cause a reaction until after an incubation
period. "Generally it takes 24, 36, 48 hours before our
troops would start showing what oftentimes are non-descript,
flu-like symptoms which then progress to whatever symptoms
the specific agent would normally cause," Wade said.
So, how do you defend yourself against an
attack you don't even know has happened?
Wade said the
best defense comes from using a combination of immunization
and physical protective measures. He pointed to the anthrax
vaccine as a key countermeasure against a biological warfare
attack. Wade, who has already had the entire series of
anthrax shots as well as several annual boosters, said DoD
is also working to develop a number of vaccines to protect
against other biological threat agents.
When vaccines are not available as a
biological countermeasure, Wade said the answer is "rapid
detection, warning, reporting, and masking." He said it was
important to note that the protective mask is "effective
against every known biological agent, including those for
which we don't yet have vaccines."
Defense officials are developing and
fielding smaller, lighter, and simpler biological detectors,
Wade said. "We have a number of systems that can now be
deployed on the battlefield."
The Biological Integrated Detection
System, known as 'BIDS,' is a mobile lab suite that can
detect four different agents simultaneously. It's mounted on
the back of a heavy HUMVEE and manned by four individuals.
The Army deploys BIDS companies as corps or theater level
assets to do bio-detection for all forces.
BIDS are point detectors, Wade noted.
"You have to wait for the cloud to come to the BIDS system.
We have the same type of system aboard ships called the
Interim Biological Agent Detector or IBAD." After detecting
what appears to be an unnatural agent, the systems first
provide a warning, then determine specifically what the
biological agent is.
"The individual doesn't need to know
immediately whether it is anthrax or plague," Wade said,
"they simply need to put on protective equipment. As a
command, we'd need to know what agent it was so that if
there are specific medical counter measures, we can start
immediately to protect those who didn't get their masks on
Biological agents are considered
"strategic weapons," Wade noted. "They're not a good
tactical weapon. So if someone is going to use them, we want
our detection arrayed out in front of, or dispersed
throughout, troop locations to give us early
Defense officials also have developed
(acquired) a long-range biological detector, Wade said. It's
a laser-scanning instrument mounted on a Blackhawk
helicopter that can look out about 50 kilometers. "It can't
identify specific agents, but it's looking for that
telltale, cigar-shaped plume that comes from someone laying
down a line source," he said.
"If we can see it 50 kilometers off, that
gives us a tremendous amount of time either to prepare for
it coming our way, or to go out and sample that cloud," Wade
continued. "In the future, we'll have detectors that are
light enough and small enough to go on an unmanned drone
vehicle that will fly through the cloud, find out what it
is, and report back."
Wade calls the military's 'Portal Shield' device
one of its biggest successes since the Gulf War. This
system, deployed in the Persian Gulf region in February 1998
during Operation Desert Thunder, is about two thirds the
size of a typical office desk. It's fully modularized,
self-contained, and it can detect eight different agents.
"The beauty of this device is that it's a
network sensor," Wade said. Depending on the geography, as
many as 18 sensors may be arrayed around a port or an
airfield. The sensors talk to one another, so you're not
relying on just one of them sounding an alarm.
Using an array system, the false positive
rate very quickly gets down to zero, Wade noted. In Bahrain,
U.S. forces have run more than 3,000 tests during
'round-the-clock' monitoring by the Portal Shield deployed
there. The false positive rate was less than one half of one
percent, he said.
Defense officials are also developing
more user- and environment-friendly decontaminates. "We're
working on improved technologies which are easier on us, as
well as sensitive equipment such as electronics, while still
being effective in eliminating the agents," Wade
"The equipment and materials we have for
decontamination right now are pretty sturdy," he continued.
"Super tropical bleach is almost as hazardous in terms of
being a caustic to human skin as some of the biological
agents themselves are. You sure want to have your gloves and
all your protective equipment on if you're involved in using
Defense officials are also evaluating what
actually needs to be decontaminated after a biological
attack, Wade added. "When we were maneuver oriented, we
always said we'd avoid contamination. We'd go around it, or
button up and go through it. We sure weren't going to stop
and live there."
But, if you can't move because you're
stationed at a port or airport, Wade said, defense officials
need to know what key areas need to be decontaminated.
"We're doing studies to see if you take a
plane up to 30,000 feet and fly it at 600 to 700 knots, is
there anything left to decontaminate," he said. "Does the
flight line have to be decontaminated? What happens when a
hazardous material oozes into concrete? We're doing studies
now to answer the questions, 'How clean is clean?' and 'What
has to be cleaned for us to be able to continue our
Countering the Anthrax Threat
Key to Combating Chemical, Biological
United States Department of Defense
Office of Counterproliferation and Chemical/biological Defense
Army Medical Chemical Defense Research
Research Laboratory Army Science and Technology Master Plan International
Research Capabilities-chemical and Biological Defense
U.S. Army Medical Research
Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID)
Chemical and Biological