Bio-Defense Program Poses 'Sticky' Issues

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Military technology not necessarily adequate for homeland defense

The Pentagon's chemical-biological defense program is well equipped to handle threats to military units in the battlefield, but is not prepared to tackle emerging homeland security missions, experts said.

A case in point is the protection of local communities that surround military bases in the United States, said Albert J. Mauroni, a defense policy analyst and a former U.S. Army Chemical Corps officer.

When developing contingency plans for terrorist threats, military installations should take into account what would happen to the civilians around the base in the case of a biological attack, Macaroni said. There already is a chemical stockpile emergency preparedness program in place, but there is no equivalent effort for biological defense. "There are policy and funding constraints to taking immediate action," said Macaroni. "There's a lot of sticky policy issues that have not been decided yet and until that happens we will continue to have vulnerability."

The upshot, he said, is that the Defense Department must figure out how to deal with emerging threats at home. "The [Defense Deparment's] chemical and biological program has addressed the wartime requirement and we don't have any direction on what to do with homeland defense," he said. "We thought that the bases in the U.S. were always going to be safe."

The force protection policy already in place states that installation commanders have to set up contingency plans for chemical and biological threats. However, it is up to the installation commanders to assess the situation, evaluate the threat and implement a force protection plan. "Not everyone is convinced that a chem-bio threat is their number-one priority," said Macaroni. "Explosives may show up more on their radar screens." Many commanders, for example, would like to use some of their base-operation money to bolster protection against conventional truck bombs, versus biological attacks.

Macaroni suggested that military base-- protection plans should be tied in with the public health system and work together with other U.S. agencies that traditionally deal with biological threats. However, he said, there are unsolved issues that stem from having to balance the need to protect military forces against the need to safeguard the general public. "We can't lose sight of making sure that forces can do the job on the field," he said. "Protection of the homeland is the number one issue that we still have to fight."

Even though the biological defenses developed for military use are not necessarily appropriate for homeland defense, Mauroni said, technologies could cross over to the civilian sector. Among the most important civilian systems needed, he said, are medical surveillance devices.

In recent years, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been exploring the use of biological cells and tissues as detector components for sensor devices that will report on chemical and biological toxins.

David Siegrist, director of studies for countering biological terrorism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, said that more needs to be done to develop electronic signatures for mass-spectrometers that can detect certain proteins. This technology, he explained, could help first responders automate the detection process.

An underwriters' laboratory is needed, he said, to test commercial technologies that are vying for government attention. That way, "people would know which products are reliable and have been tested in realistic environments and would perform well," Siegrist said.

Many of the existing technologies, he said, should be deployed at joint military-- civilian locations. "It is important for mission accomplishment that even the local civilians who help the service receive protection," he said. "As some of these detection systems become more reliable and timely, it is a step that should be taken. …