CHARLESTON, S.C — During operations near the Iraqi city of Fallujah, ground forces came across bottles full of potassium cyanide and sodium cyanide in an insurgent safe house. Sitting next to them were paint guns with five- and 10-gallon canisters and instructions on how to mix the ingredients into a chemical weapon.
Coalition forces later ran an experiment, following the recipe and using the chemicals to see if the improvised weapon would have been effective.
“They were not only simple to do, but they worked,” said Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Reeves, joint program executive officer for chemical biological defense, at a National Defense Industrial Association conference.
The possibility of insurgents using homemade biological and chemical weapons is part of an ongoing debate on what kind of protective suits and masks ground forces need. Critics say current suits are designed for a Cold War scenario, where enemies could lay down artillery shells with chemical weapons for extended periods, necessitating the need for suits that could be worn for several hours.
Insurgents do not have such capabilities. Their delivery system is more likely to be something crude such as the paint guns found in Fallujah, experts said.
The issue of how much protection is needed is critical because some of the old complaints about the ensembles remain. They are hot, especially in the desert climate. They are bulky, making movement awkward. And the breathing resistance created by the filters makes exertion during missions difficult.
Shorter exposure time translates to thinner and less cumbersome outfits.
One former Marine officer, who wore the protective suits in the opening weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom, suggested that the ensembles currently used may have been ineffective had Saddam Hussein’s troops launched weapons of mass destruction.
The central problem was not a lack of protection, but overprotection, said Darren Wheeler, now an analyst for MKI Systems, who works as a consultant to the joint program.
The suits were too hot and cumbersome for Marines in combat situations, he said.
Many of the problems were logistical. The division lost one of its five Fox reconnaissance vehicles, which are designed to detect the presence of chemical weapons. The division sent it back to Kuwait for repairs, but never got it back.
Furthermore, one company’s suits were left behind in Kuwait. Mask repair kits weren’t readily available, and troops lacked training on how to keep the masks in working condition.
“This created logistical challenges in a logistically challenging environment,” Wheeler said.
The leadership did not stress the importance of keeping the equipment functioning, Wheeler said. Mask maintenance, for example, was not emphasized. There was also a lack of knowledge on how to match sizes with the soldiers’ body types.
The suits aren’t flame retardant, Wheeler argued, but rather flame accelerants.
Wheeler said he still has scars on his legs from the ill-fitting and uncomfortable boots. For troops carrying large packs, footwear is crucial. Furthermore, when not in use, the boots were “space hogs” in the backpacks.
With roadside bombs being their number one concern, coupled with the perception that the equipment is imperfect, “commanders see this as a problem they can’t solve,” Wheeler said. But the bottom line is that not enough assessment of the types of new threats has gone into the design of the protective gear, he said. Failure to prioritize the kinds of chem-bio threats likely to be encountered and attempts to protect soldiers from every threat for extended periods make the suits hotter and less practical.
Tony Ramey, capability area program officer for individual protection for the joint office, said, “we currently have the best individual protection in the world for the war fighter.”
However, there are still gaps, he added.
The U.S. military must decide whether it wants to deal with the traditional or emerging threats, Wheeler and other conference parti- cipants said.
One example of an emerging threat is to-xic industrial chemicals. The fear is that troops may be exposed downwind to chemicals such as chlorine gas used in industries by accident, or by an act of sabotage. The next generation of protective gear must take into account the numerous chemicals that aren’t weaponized, but can be encountered in these differing scenarios.
Currently, the joint office is skewing more toward biological threats than chemical threats, Ramey said.
Such diseases as anthrax, smallpox, ebola, encephalitis and others could be bio-engineered to produce even deadlier strains, said Air Force Col. Joseph Palma, deputy special assistant and medical director of chemical and biological defense and militarization programs.
Bio-engineered diseases could pose a bigger threat to U.S. security than several nuclear weapons exploding simultaneously in several different cities, he said.
“If you think Katrina was a challenge, think through that one,” Palma added.
Reeves said these emerging threats mean “our mission sets are continually expanding.”
Canada, meanwhile, has ended the debate. Scott Duncan, head of the soldier and systems protection group of the chemical and biological defense section at Defense R&D Canada, said the nation’s military has decided that the Cold War days are over. It is designing suits for attacks that are less massive, but more unpredictable, as seen in asymmetric warfare. Canadian requirements call for the gear to deliver chemical protection for two hours and biological protection for 30 minutes. This will allow the new generation of suits to be 25 percent thinner and 35 percent lighter, he said.
“Well defined short duration protection available all of the time is more effective than too much protection that is not needed most of the time,” Duncan said.
How realistic is it for someone to be continually exposed for two hours? Duncan asked. What sort of enemy can deliver and sustain that level of exposure? The chemical-biological protection community needs a “reality check,” he said.
Improved equipment is in the pipeline, U.S. military officials insisted.
The joint service general purpose mask will replace the M-42 series masks for ground forces and other models used by the Navy and Air Force, and go into full-rate production within one year, according to Bill Fritch, program manager of the respirator engineering and acquisition team.
The new masks will minimize the number of parts, therefore reducing the need for maintenance. They will have the capacity to accommodate internal microphones.
Toxic industrial chemicals are an ever evolving and challenging threat, he said. The new mask will have a secondary filter for added protection. When it is time to replace the filter, a color strip will turn blue so there is no guesswork, Fritch said.
For comfort, the front will not have any buckles.
“Basically the users want something that enables them to perform their mission better,” Fritch said.
For masks, the main issue has always been breathing resistance, especially for soldiers who are laboring in combat conditions.
While the new masks have lowered resistance, scientists are still looking for the silver bullet that will allow air to flow as freely, as it would under normal circumstances.
Palma said this too needs further analysis. There are myriad chemical agents out there. What are the most likely to be encountered?
As for the suits, boots and gloves, heat continues to be the primary challenge, he said. The joint service lightweight integrated suit technology outfit will be the next generation for protective material.
Scott Paris, deputy project manager for individual protection for ground ensembles, said, “We’re still not there on heat reduction.”
Development of the JLIST suit has taken into account lessons learned from Operation Iraqi Freedom, Paris said. New boots and gloves will go into low-rate production in December. They are designed for better comfort. The overalls will follow in the first quarter of 2007.
“The complexity of the human population is mind boggling,” Paris said. There are so many shapes and sizes to go along with the different types of missions and movements that must be performed, he said.