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Dallas Morning News February 20, 2003

Gearing up for bio-battle

Protective suits might be put to test in Iraq

By DAVID McLEMORE / The Dallas Morning News

FORT HOOD, Texas - Nobody laughs at the awkward movements as soldiers in Kevlar helmets and camouflage fatigues wrestle themselves into baggy protective suits and gas masks that seem straight out of science fiction.

There's nothing funny about it. With the increasing likelihood of war in Iraq, these troops of the 1st Cavalry Division must become proficient in all the deadly possibilities of encountering nerve gas or killer pathogens as weapons.

So they learn the differences between attacks involving VX gas and anthrax. They practice climbing into a biochemical protective suit in eight minutes or less. They are trained to deal with the stifling heat of the protective suits. They are taught just how much warfare has changed. For soldiers of the 1st Cav, it's just another day at the office.

The 1st Cav, the Army's premier armored cavalry division, could go into combat should war begin.

"If it happens, it happens," said Pfc. Victor Hernandez of San Bernardino, Calif. "We train every day so we'll be ready if it does happen."

Training is constant, said 1st Sgt. Alexander Figueroa, a divisional nuclear-biological-chemical warfare trainer. Every day, about 300 troops train and retrain on what to do in a gas or biological attack.

"Everyone goes through the training, from commanding general on down," 1st Sgt. Figueroa said. "Nobody is left out."

At the heart of the military's protection against chemical and biological attack is the JSLIST (Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology) suit, which includes an improved mask, boots and a camouflage-design decontamination package that's lighter and more protective than its predecessor.

The suit, which the Pentagon began buying for all services in 1997, starts with a jacket and pants made of chemical-resistant synthetic fibers.

Information on the JSLIST suit sounds like a strange TV ad. Styled in four-color green woodland camouflage or three-color desert style, the JSLIST suit is durable up to 45 days, can be laundered up to six times and will provide 24 hours of protection against liquid and vapor chemical agents.

The gas mask and shoulder-length hood allow each soldier to breathe safely in a contaminated area.

Newly designed rubber galoshes - known as multipurpose overboots, or MULO - fit over combat boots, and rubber gloves cover the hands.

The new-generation M40 mask has a larger filter, is easier to change and is quicker-sealing that its predecessor.

The troops say that the eyepieces don't fog up and that, with a special adapter, they can sip water from a canteen.

$183, and very hot

The JSLIST suit, which costs about $183, isn't comfortable. Temperatures can rise to 110 degrees on a hot day, and it's awkward to move around in.

"Wearing chemical protective clothing while under enemy fire in a hot ambient temperature is a stress of the very highest order," said Bernard J. Fine, a retired scientist from U.S. Army Natick Laboratories, in a report by GlobalSecurity.org, a nonprofit public-policy organization based in Alexandria, Va., and keyed to defense, space and intelligence issues.

As the existing supply of older-version protective suits becomes obsolete by 2007, there is a looming shortage of biochemical suits, according to GlobalSecurity.org, in part because the supply of new suits, boots and masks is not entering the inventory as quickly as planned.

With 1.5 million JSLIST suits for use in military units and civilian agencies, national defense analysts don't anticipate any immediate shortfalls for the about 180,000 troops deployed to Iraq or on alert to go.

Still, the suits represent a challenge, analysts say.

"In my judgment, engaging an enemy who, whether by actual use of or feigned use of chemical or biological agents, forces our military personnel to don chemical protective clothing puts us at a disadvantage so severe as to require a great deal of forethought," Mr. Fine said.

Other critics, such as syndicated columnist and retired Col. David Hackworth, aren't convinced that the Pentagon has given young soldiers all the necessary training and techniques they need against an enemy willing to use chemical and biological weapons.

"Desert Storm showed us that Saddam Hussein is more than willing to use weapons of mass destruction," Col. Hackworth said. "My big concern is whether the training and equipment provided will do the job."

In October, the General Accounting Office reported that 250,000 suits were defective and unaccounted for in the Army's inventory system.

The Defense Logistics Agency confirmed that 80,000 gas masks with the wrong gaskets had been issued to the armed forces, primarily the Navy and Marine Corps. About 19,000 remain in circulation, the agency said.

The report angered Congress.

"When we go into Iraq, the Pentagon needs to be absolutely certain no one will be told their mask can't be fixed because the [Defense Department] bought the wrong-size gasket," said U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., national security subcommittee chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform.

At the 1st Cav, which has been fully equipped with the JSLIST suits for two years, senior noncommissioned officers say they are happy with their gear.

"It can be hot and uncomfortable, but it's still a marked improvement over the older ... suits we had," 1st Sgt. Figueroa said. "They're much lighter and easier to move around in."

Motivation is a key to successful training, he said. Among troops, there is a keen awareness that use of chemical-biological agents on the battlefield is a reality.

"Every soldier that leaves this training sees it as a lesson that could save his life," 1st Sgt. Figueroa said. "Everyone leaves happy. They're glad they came."

Biochemical training calls for four levels of increasing protection, known as Mission Oriented Protective Posture, based on different configurations of mask, boots and gloves with the JSLIST suit. Maximum protection, MOPP-4, is what the troops are training for this day.

Suddenly, a training sergeant signals "Go!" A squad of the 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment scrambles into its suits.

8 minutes to suit up

"They get eight seconds to put on the mask and eight minutes to get fully suited," trainer Sgt. 1st Class Celestine Blake said. "That includes their field gear and Kevlar body armor. We want them to act like it's second nature when the alarm goes off."

Soldiers move in a blur of green, juggling helmets as they pull on the mask. The camouflaged JSLIST suit goes on in two pieces.

Troopers help each other tighten straps while others struggle with unwieldy-looking gloves and rubber boots. The sergeant ticks off the time remaining. Two minutes.

One soldier has trouble fitting his combat boots into the MULO overshoe. One minute.

A buddy, safely in his gear, gives him a hand but the MULO won't accept his foot. Three. Two. One.

The sergeant blows a whistle. "Sorry," she says. "You're dead."

The training moves on to new horrors.

Soldiers learn decontamination techniques, using pads impregnated with charcoal. They train to differentiate between biological agents, such as anthrax, and liquid agents, such as nerve or blister gas. They are taught how to inject themselves with atropine, a nerve agent antidote.

No one smiles.

"We take it very seriously," said Spc. Joe Pidgeon, 23, of Flint, Mich. "We can't predict the future, so this is something we have to know, regardless of the state of the world today."

E-mail dmclemore@dallasnews.com

U.S. MILITARY PROTECTION AGAINST CHEMICAL AND BIOLOGICAL ATTACK

In 1997, the U.S. military moved to replace the bulky chemical protective suit in its inventory with a more effective and lightweight version.

The new suit is made of chemical-resistant synthetic fibers and is designed to be durable and reduce the heat stress associated with protective gear. The Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology (JSLIST) is the primary protective gear in the Mission Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP), a system of adding or removing protective gear depending on the threat level. The outer shell of both pieces is a 50/50 nylon/cotton poplin ripstop with a durable water repellent finish. The inner liner layer consists of a nonwoven front laminated to activated carbon spheres and bonded to a tricot knit back.

Garments come in four-color woodland camouflage or three-color desert camouflage patterns.

THE NEW SUIT

THE OLD SUIT

  • Lighter and less bulky than previous chemical protective garments
  • Durable for 45 days
  • Can be laundered up to six times and provides 24 hours of protection against liquid and vapor chemical challenges.
  • Protective mask/hood
    The newer version of the gas mask, the M40, has a larger filter than its predecessor, and has lenses designed to prevent fogging.
  • Upper overgarment
    Waist-length coat has an integral hood, a slide fastener front concealed by a flap with hook and loop closure, enclosed extendable elasticized drawcord hem with jacket retention cord, full-length sleeves with hoop and loop wrist closure adjustment tabs, and an outside bellows pocket with flap on the left sleeve.
  • Gloves
    Made of protective butyl rubber
  • Lower overgarment
    Bellows-type pockets, high-waist, adjustable suspenders, and adjustable waistband
  • Boots
    Multipurpose rain/snow overboot (MULO) to be worn over standard combat boots.
  • Some personnel in the military will still have the older version of MOPP gear. The hood and mask are not as integrated as they are in the JSLIST, and the foot protection is a flat piece of rubber that is wrapped around the foot and secured with laces.
    SOURCES: GlobalSecurity.org; Dallas Morning News research


    Copyright 2003, Dallas Morning News