U.S. Forces Face the Bio-Chem Test: Contrary to the Claims of Some Antiwar `Nervous Nellies,' War Planners Say U.S. Forces in the Persian Gulf Are More Than Able to Cope with Iraqi Chemical or Biological Attack. (the Nation: Military Preparedness)

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Are U.S. troops unprepared to fight if Saddam Hussein uses chemical or biological weapons? Or are the nervous Nellies of the antiwar movement just trying to create panic?

Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes was all doom and gloom in a recent report on preparations under way at the Pentagon to train and equip troops to fight in an environment contaminated by chemical or biological weapons. According to Wallace and his cooperative witnesses, the troops haven't received proper training, their equipment is faulty and they are going to die. For military commentator David Hackworth, a retired Army colonel whose harsh criticism of Pentagon bureaucrats appeals to many on both left and right, the Defense Department has made a mockery of nuclear-biological-chemical (NBC) training. "Truth to tell, the troopers call [NBC] `nobody cares,'" he told Wallace. Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) told Wallace: "It's a fact that a vast majority of our troops are not properly trained in biological and chemical warfare. And it's a fact that by not being properly trained they're not ready."

Wallace went on to cite a series of government audits during the last two years--one by the Department of the Army, several others by the General Accounting Office (GAO)--that found significant shortcomings in the battle-worthiness of gas masks and other protection gear. "A U.S. Army spokesman said many of the small tears in these gas masks could be fixed with duct tape," Wallace said. Right on point, Shays responded, "It's a pretty pathetic comment, isn't it?"

So are U.S. troops heading into a death trap in Iraq for which they have been ill-prepared by the Pentagon leadership? Or is it all just hype, intended to scare any who remain undecided on the war?

Few military planners doubt that Saddam would use his chemical and possibly his biological weapons, as INSIGHT reported several weeks ago [see "Justice Looms for Saddam, Cronies," March 4-17]. But whether those weapons would be effective or even dangerous to U.S. military personnel remains a matter of hot dispute.

As commanding general of the U.S. Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command, Maj. Gen. John Doesburg is the Pentagon's top officer in charge of designing protective gear and making sure it gets to the troops in a timely fashion. He reminded reporters at a specially organized briefing following the 60 Minutes report that the effectiveness of chemical-and biological-warfare agents depends mightily upon the weather.

Too cold, he said, and mustard gas "would, in fact, be frozen. It freezes at roughly 56 to 58 degrees Fahrenheit," rendering it militarily useless. Too hot, and sarin and VX nerve gas evaporate. Too much light, he said, and many biological agents simply die. In fact, Doesburg and other military analysts point out, for Saddam to launch an effective military strike using chemical or biological weapons against U.S. troops, the weather would have to be just right and the quantities of agent would have to be simply massive.

The United States abandoned its offensive chemical--and biological-weapons programs more than 30 years ago, not because of arms-control agreements, which only came into play later on, but because the Pentagon never was convinced they were of any significant military use. "The general view was that these things weren't battlefield weapons," says Stephen Bryen, a former deputy undersecretary of defense. "The Iraqis reinvented them as weapons of terror by using them against their own Kurdish civilian populations in 1988."

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, U.S. troops repeatedly donned bulky protective gear in the desert as faulty chemical-weapons detectors sounded false alarms. When a real chemical threat approached from toxins released into the air by the controlled explosion of an Iraqi chemical-munitions bunker, not even commanding Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf paid any attention. As a result, the Pentagon now believes, some 161,000 soldiers were exposed to low-level contamination from nerve gas that has led to a complex of diseases known collectively as gulf-war syndrome. …