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Pentagon Battles Unknown Preparing for a Toxic War

Military: Despite gains since Gulf War, soldiers fighting in Iraq could be exposed to many agents.

September 29, 2002|JOHN HENDREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FT. LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — Defense strategists have made sweeping advances since the 1991 Persian Gulf War to protect U.S. troops from chemical and biological warfare: intensified training, improved gas masks, cooler and lighter protective suits, and sensors to detect hazardous agents sooner and from greater distances.

Yet the science of defending against such weapons remains in its infancy. As another war looms against Iraq--the only nation known to deploy toxic agents since World War II--even the world's best-trained and -equipped soldiers are vulnerable. The Pentagon has sought to prepare for the worst by sending chemical specialists to the Chemical Defense Training Facility at Ft. Leonard Wood, the only site where actual toxins are used in military training. About 60,000 already have trained at the facility, which expects 4,500 more from all four branches of the armed services this year and 6,000 next year. They, in turn, train their front-line colleagues.

Some recent technological advances hold the prospect of saving hundreds of soldiers' lives. For example, a specially equipped vehicle that during the Gulf War could not identify chemical weapons on contact without forcing soldiers out of its protective hull can now spot a toxic cloud three miles off without stopping.

But for biological weapons, that kind of advance detection remains several years away. The best equipment available today can detect biological agents only half an hour after exposure, though usually in time to treat victims. Even that marks an improvement over 1991, when biological weapons couldn't be detected at all.

More worrisome, this equipment--a two-person lab mounted on a Humvee--can identify only 10 biological agents. (Which 10 is classified information, but likely includes those Iraq is thought to possess--anthrax, botulinum, ricin and aflotoxin--as well as often-mentioned threats such as plague and smallpox.)

Novel biological agents could go undetected, killing or incapacitating soldiers who might not show the effects for hours or even days. Because existing devices search the air, they would not detect if a man infected with smallpox--a kind of walking time bomb--strolled past.

"One of my biggest fears is that there will be something that is totally unknown and unexpected," said Anna Johnson-Winegar, a former United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq and now deputy assistant secretary of Defense for chemical and biological defense.

Lethal agents also could be modified to maximize their effect and make them even harder to spot. VX, for example, could be turned into a nearly undetectable "dusty VX" by impregnating the liquid toxin on a particle of silicone or dust and making it airborne.

"And that's not even going into the whole area of the genetically engineered microorganisms," Johnson-Winegar said. "It's pretty easy to make them antibiotic-resistant or put some type of a coating or shell on them so that our detectors don't work." Knowing which weapons Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has is tricky because of his elaborate security measures and the fact that the technology used to make these weapons can be as simple as a beer-fermenting vat. No weapon inspectors have gone into Iraq since 1998.

What does seem clear is that Hussein is more likely to resort to chemical or biological weapons in a new U.S. attack--a point emphasized by British Prime Minister Tony Blair when he presented a British intelligence dossier against Hussein on Tuesday. During the Gulf War, Hussein was deterred by the expectation that he could lose the war and still retain power as long as he did nothing to provoke an overwhelming response from coalition forces. (Some speculate that Gulf War Syndrome, a malady among returning U.S. troops, was the result of an unknown agent, although none has been found.)

With President Bush insisting on ousting the Iraqi leader this time, Hussein "will not hesitate to use these weapons," says former Iraqi Gen. Najib Salhi, who defected in 1995. Although special operations soldiers likely would be among the first on the ground in an assault on Iraq, military strategists believe Hussein would probably direct chemical and biological attacks at larger fixed targets such as airfields and bases. "Port facilities [and] airfields are always more lucrative to hit because there are more people there," said Gen. Paul V. Hester, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, Fla.

Iraq has loaded toxic weapons on Scud missiles and, according to U.S. intelligence officials, has equipped unmanned planes with crude spraying devices, though it's not known whether these delivery devices are effective. Even so, the vulnerability is extreme.

In general, chemical weapons such as mustard gas and VX can kill quickly over a limited area but lose their lethality over time and distance. They can be detected in nanoseconds by the right equipment, giving soldiers time to don protective gear.

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