BALTIMORE — Despite a dizzying array of threats, the Defense Department’s office in charge of outfitting troops with chemical-biological gear believes that it can get away with less protection.
“The bottom line is the traditional challenge levels we design to and test to are probably a bit excessive,” said Darren Wheeler, a member of the test and evaluation team at the office of the joint program manager for individual protection.
Those traditional challenges are rooted in Cold War era threats such as poison gas lobbed at troops in artillery shells.
Today, there are other risks, such as toxic industrial chemicals — or TICs. These are commonly used in manufacturing. However, just as insurgents in Iraq managed to manufacture roadside bombs using off-the-shelf products, they could manufacture an improvised weapon of terror out of chlorine gas.
Early 2007 saw a spate of toxic industrial chemical attacks in Iraq in which dozens were killed and injured, including U.S. troops. In these cases, insurgents detonated trucks laden with explosives and chlorine gas in public areas.
Chlorine is a common chemical used widely in industries and at sewage treatment plants. It wasn’t clear whether the bulk of the casualties were caused by the explosion or the gas clouds.
But many Iraqi citizens ended up in emergency rooms complaining of being sickened by the toxic fumes.
Chlorine gas is just one TIC. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration lists about 100 that can be used as a terrorist weapon. They come in gas, liquid or solid form. Their nature can transform when they interact with other chemicals, oxygen or water.
Members of the joint office are participating on a task force that will attempt to draw a more complete picture of the different TIC threats.
This is important as the office moves ahead to design the next generation of protective suits.
The list of TICs, shows “that there is a solvent for every [clothing] fiber ever made in there,” said Christine Cole, director of apparel research at Clemson University.
Despite the prevalence of industrial chemicals and the fact that they can cause bodily damage, their potential use as a weapon may not require the same amount of protection if an adversary employs nerve agents such as sarin, VX or soman — gasses that were manufactured specifically to kill.
“A reduction in protection is defensible and warranted although it will be up to the user community to make those ultimate decisions,” Wheeler said at a National Defense Industrial Association conference on chemical/biological protective clothing.
The first community that may embrace this new way of thinking could be the U.S. Special Operations Command. SOCOM officials have approached the joint program office about developing a new generation of chem-bio protective gear.
Lowry Brooks, a member of the office’s acquisition team, said that SOCOM might will serve as a “catalyst” and that other services may follow suit.
The office is working with the Rand Corp. think tank to study the current threats and help SOCOM determine what level of protection is necessary for their specialized missions.
The tradeoff of less protection may result in gear that is more comfortable and user friendly.
Danielle Fleming, joint project manager for individual protection, said there is no request for proposals for a new special operations ensemble yet. She said SOCOM wants gear that can be disposed of after 12 hours, and material with less of a “thermal burden” than the current, joint service lightweight integrated suit technology, or JSLIST.
This thermal burden — the amount of heat that builds up in the suit — is crucial, experts at the conference said.
Protective gear is hot and uncomfortable. Once it goes on, there is inevitably a drop in the wearer’s performance, said Rose Guerra, human factors technical lead at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Command.
Vision, hearing and communications, dexterity, mobility and maneuverability are all lessened when protective gear goes on, she said.
The suits, masks, boots and gloves can chafe, and when the temperature outside soars — as it often does in many war zones — the suits become dangerously hot, said Samual Cheuvront, principal investigator at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, thermal and mountain division.
A human cools off by sweating, and this sweat must be carried away as vapor. Dripping off the body doesn’t help, he said. As the body heats up, bloods flows to the skin.
“Heat is continuing to be stored and it’s just a matter of time before you go down,” he said.
Muscles are also “hogs for blood,” Cheuvront said. Soldiers undertaking strenuous tasks, such as combat operations, require more blood in more places. Soon, there is reduced blood flow to the brain.
Protective clothing that does not allow perspiration to dissipate can cause heat stroke or heat exhaustion. And then there are the effects of dehydration, he noted.
“There is a cardiovascular price to pay” for wearing such clothing in high temperatures, he added.
Some experts suggest that lighter suits that allow more vapor to disperse through the protective layers solve some of these problems. Other options include micro-climate or internal cooling systems, which are now commonly found in bomb squad suits or chem-bio suits worn aboard aircraft.
It might be possible to install cooling in the suits, said Cheuvront.
About 200 watts of power are needed in a vest with a micro-climate system to cool pilots or those in vehicles such as tanks where they can tap into a power source, he said. But dismounted soldiers, already loaded down with electronic devices that require multiple batteries — have enough to carry, he said.
A dismounted soldier cannot carry 200 watts of power, he said. But one model showed that 32 watts worth of cooling power reduced the number of heat related casualties after four hours of activity from 50 percent to 10 percent.
“That’s a very manageable amount for micro-climate cooling,” he said.
It’s not a given that a new Special Operations Command ensemble will drive other services to require less protection, Fleming said.
“Whether [other services] add additional requirements into it, or they just want to see what comes out of it, or they automatically jump in and say ‘we want to be part of that,’ we’ll just have to wait and see,” she said.
Special operators have unique missions and requirements.
“They have to maintain their ability to have a rapid operational tempo and they need to maintain their lethality,” Wheeler said. “And lethality for a special operator, any special operator, translates to survivability.” The ability to use their communication devices and the ability to hide using camouflage are also important to them, he added.
Scenarios SOCOM provided to the office suggested that troops will rarely encounter contamination of more than 1 gram per meter squared, Wheeler said.
The amount of contaminant per meter squared is the standard the chem-bio community uses to determine how much protection is needed.
That’s not to say that the traditional chemical threats have disappeared and that suits should only protect against small amounts of toxic industrial chemicals.
The Cold War is alive and well on the Korean Peninsula, where U.S. bases and major cities such as Seoul lay well within reach of North Korean long-range artillery, Wheeler noted.
Still, the joint office is questioning whether current protection levels are unduly high even for a Korean “D-Day” scenario.
Using open source literature, researchers have modeled how much nerve agent the North Koreans could potentially launch into a battle zone with their short-range and long-range artillery.
Short-range artillery — with ranges of about 16 kilometers or less — can place the most amount of nerve agent in one area. Scud and theater ballistic missiles travel farther but can’t deliver as much gas.
Worst-case scenario numbers showed that North Korean short-range artillery could dump as much as 200 tons of agent into the theater. Plugging in numbers such as troop dispersal, how many combatants would seek overhead cover, and the amount of agent per square kilometer, the model suggested that 99.4 percent of troops using gear that can protect against 3 grams of contaminant per meter squared would be protected.
The other .6 percent would not necessarily end up as casualties, Wheeler noted. Many of them might be decontaminated in time.
The JSLIST has been in the military since 1997 and afford the wearer up to 10 grams per meter squared of protection.
Fleming said the joint office would like the next generation of protective gear to lower the protection to 5 grams per meter squared.
The office also wants to push a new way of doing business by making sure other programs incorporate chem-bio protective gear into new equipment from the beginning of their development.
Complaints from soldiers that the gear doesn’t fit or interferes with items like helmets and backpacks stems from a lack of coordination with the joint office.
“Getting in on the ground floor of future programs is absolutely key for us,” said Brooks.