Gaps in the Line

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Pentagon Spurs its Biological And Chemical Defense Programs

The Pentagon is trying to buttress the military's defensive posture against biological and chemical weapons by focusing on the development of advanced vaccines and improved therapeutics, Department of Defense officials said.

Acknowledging areas that are seen as lagging, officials highlighted steps such as a reorganization within the Pentagon and dedication of new money to speed up the evaluation of products. Defending citizens and soldiers against mass casualty attacks is a centerpiece goal of the Pentagon's ongoing review that drives strategy and funding.

"The Quadrennial Defense Review is really all about weapons of mass destruction," said Klaus Schafer, deputy assistant for chemical and biological defense, during a recent conference. "There are tremendous changes going on in this area."

A surge in money is fueling this effort. For the department's proposed 2006 budget, $1.5 billion has been allocated for chemical and biological defense. The budget also slates $2.1 billion from 2007 to 2011 for Pentagon chem-bio defense programs.

The money is being spent on joint programs in an effort to reduce redundancies and lower prices. "The all-service agreements brought a little consternation among the services, who thought they had control over these things," Schafer noted.

Leonard Izzo, the technical director for chem-bio defense for the Joint Requirements Office, said that JRO is now in the lead at the Pentagon for coordinating all purchases of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear equipment. "It's increased our workload significantly," Izzo said.

He noted that the office needed more funds, but "received about half the current increase we felt we needed ... We feel that, with the QDR, we will have the chance to improve our procurement funding situation."

He added that senior officials believed that soldiers had the gear to get their current jobs done, and were not eager to commit too much money on paraphernalia when better advances may be available down the road.

"Instead of kicking (products) back to the tech base for improvement, the Department of Defense looks to see if an incremental increase in capability is good enough," he said. "We've been doing that more lately ... We are over-designed for traditional agents and deficient against emerging threats."

Also addressed in the QDR is the question of who gets the equipment: Should it be dedicated to certain units or embedded into all forces? Another balance that needs to be addressed is the correct mix of equipment between active and reserve forces, Izzo said.

The Pentagon is conducting a study of the rate of consumption of expendable items, such as rubber gloves, that are critical during a biological or chemical emergency, Izzo added. This study has the potential to reshape some procurement strategies.

Schafer said that interagency cooperation and international research agreements would go a long way to help reduce risk and make better use of investments. As examples, he cited efforts to reach out to the Department of Homeland security to set shared equipment standards and coordinate research and governmental approval of new drugs with the United Kingdom. He also praised cost reductions coming from outsourcing. For example, most clinical trials for countermeasure medicines are done in India. But much heavy lifting is needed in federally run labs, officials said. Investments in the military's infrastructure are necessary to speed the delivery of vaccines, said John F. Glenn, technical director of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

Many government experts cited a bottleneck at USAMRIID, which tests new products developed by a multitude of agencies, including the departments of Energy, Homeland security and Defense, as well as academic sources. Since each product must be tested at USAMRIID, delays can ensue before orders can be placed. …