Military leaders pursue advanced defensive systems against nerve agents, poisonous gas
Despite its overwhelming arsenal of conventional weaponry, the U.S. military is still playing a fast game of catch-up to negate the devastation caused by enemy chemical or biological strikes.
Because of this technology gap, military planners are concerned that an enemy will seize victory not through force-on-force combat, but, instead, by the threat of disseminating deadly biological and chemical agents on the battlefield.
And even if U.S. forces engage the foe, commanders know that troops can be slowed significantly by the necessity of donning bulky masks and clumsy protective suits.
In anticipation of these grisly scenarios in 21st century battlefields, the military services are aggressively seeking technological and doctrinal tools to help them both prepare and cope with chemical-biological threats. These tools generally fall under the umbrella of what the Pentagon calls "chembio defense."
The Defense Department's most recent blueprint of military strategy, the Quadrennial Defense Review, says the threat or use of chemical and biological weapons is a "likely condition of future warfare, including in the early stages of war," when the aim is to disrupt U.S. operations and logistics.
International efforts to curb the proliferation of chem-bio weapons, which the United States has not manufactured for more than two decades, have not deterred renegade Third World nations, assert officials. And they acknowledge it is unlikely that this menace will disappear in the foreseeable future.
When it comes to chem-bio weapons, "there are still people out there in other countries building them and planning on how they can use them" against the United States, says Army Secretary Togo West, during the 15th Worldwide Chemical Conference at Fort McClellan, Alabama, sponsored by the Army Chemical School and supported by ADPA/NSIA.
"We are going to face these issues in regular warfare," he says, because enemies know that chemicals can be "stealthy, silent" killers which could easily dissolve the U.S. conventional military advantagenot to mention shatter troop morale and willingness to fight.
Chem-bio defense projects, officials point out, are also getting heightened attention from communities outside the Pentagon, such as Congress and civilian government agencies, because the technologies being developed to protect troops are also applicable to safeguarding civilians against terrorists attacks, for example.
One of the Pentagon's new missions, as it turns out, is "domestic preparedness" and "first response" in cases of chem-bio strikes against civilian populations. About two years ago, for example, hundreds of Tokyo subway riders were gassed in a terrorist foray.
The Army Chemical and Biological Defense Command (CBDCOM), Edgewood, Maryland, is leading the domestic preparedness program to train localities in chem-bio protection, detection, decontamination, and mass casualty care. "We are the only growth industry" in the Army, says CBDCOM Commander Maj. Gen. George E. Friel, USA.
One huge challenge in responding to a terrorist attack, he says, is the large number of players who have a stake in the operation-from federal response teams including the metropolitan medical strike staff to the local police and elected officials.
CBDCOM's quick response force includes Army units such as the technical escort group and the Marine Corps chemical and biological quick response force (CBIRF). Other chemical depots nationwide are also participants. When trouble hits a city, however, Gen. Friel found that the Pentagon is "not in charge of anything... The mayor is in charge.
"It's an interesting process," and organizational details are still evolving. The "broken piece" in the program, he says, is hospitals. "Public health officials are not prepared to handle chem-bio attacks. …