about Epidemiology & the department

Epidemiology academic information

Epidemiology faculty

Epidemilogy resources

sites of interest to Epidemiology professionals

Last Updated

04 Nov 2002

Source: Wall Street Journal, October 2, 2002.

How Vulnerable Are Troops If Iraq Taps Poison Agents?


CAMP DOHA, Kuwait -- In the Persian Gulf War, Iraqi troops loaded Scud missiles and artillery shells with chemical and biological agents, but never fired them at American forces. This time, things may be different.

Here at a desert base 50 miles from the Iraqi border, U.S. Army Maj. James Blankenhorn, an expert in chemical and biological weapons, worries about what that threat means for his troops. His primary concern isn't Iraq's arsenal of Scud missiles, which is badly depleted, or its rockets and artillery shells, which don't have the range to be much of a threat beyond Iraq's borders.

Maj. Blankenhorn thinks Baghdad's best chance to wreak havoc would be to use a less-conventional technique: deploy a small group of special-operations forces via truck, boat or crop-duster. They would spray chemical or biological agents five or 10 miles upwind from this base, which figures to be a key staging ground for any American move into Iraq.

Wind and temperature conditions would have to be just right, or the cloud might blow out to sea or evaporate. Still, if the base is crowded -- as it probably will be in the weeks leading up to a war -- a few hundred soldiers could be contaminated before sensors sounded and they scrambled into their protective gear. If Iraq used a long-lasting chemical, such as VX nerve agent, Camp Doha, with its hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles and humvees and thousands of troops, could be shut down for weeks of decontamination.

'Portal Shields'

The possibility that Iraq will use biological or chemical weapons is one of the most difficult issues facing the White House and Pentagon as they contemplate a new effort to oust Saddam Hussein. In recent weeks, the Pentagon has quietly stepped up preparations to defend against such an attack. Five new biological-weapons detection systems, dubbed "Portal Shields," have been sent to military bases in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, all likely launching pads for a U.S. attack on Iraq. A sixth is on its way here.

In the next few weeks, the Pentagon will also ship 35,000 gallons of an experimental foam that can be used to decontaminate both soldiers and sensitive electronic equipment exposed to chemical weapons. The U.S. Central Command, which will oversee any military action, has told manufacturers it could need as much as one million gallons, according to a defense official.

The Pentagon has also extended the tours of its chemical and biological reserve units -- called up after Sept. 11, 2001 -- for another year of active duty. And psychological-operations officers are developing a campaign of leaflets and broadcasts to warn Iraqi officers that they will be tried for war crimes if they follow orders and launch a biological- or chemical-weapons attack.

Safer at the Front?

Paradoxically, military planners say U.S. forces closest to the front lines may be much less vulnerable than military or civilian targets farther away. Thanks to better sensors and extensive training, most soldiers at the front could don protective suits before being contaminated in a chemical-weapons attack -- although reacting to a biological-weapons attack would be harder. A large-scale, clandestine attack on a base like Camp Doha could be far more deadly and a logistical nightmare that disrupts support for thousands more troops in the field.

The most frightening scenario, and the one defense officials concede they are least prepared for, is if the Iraqi leader launches a chemical or biological attack on civilian populations either in a neighboring Arab state -- chiefly Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain -- that is hosting U.S. forces or against Israel. The goal would be to weaken the resolve of Arab neighbors by intimidating them or by drawing Israel into the fight. With the exception of Israel, which has purchased the best gas masks and sensors for its citizens, none of the states in the region is currently prepared for such an attack, defense officials say.

There are also some notable gaps in the Pentagon's planning and potential problems with equipment. Civilians working at ports that will be used to bring equipment into the Gulf region haven't all received proper protective gear and training for a chemical- or biological-weapons attack. Defense officials say they are working on the problem. Meanwhile, about 250,000 defective protective suits, produced in the late 1990s, cannot be accounted for. Some probably remain in the Pentagon's 4.5-million-suit inventory, according to a report by the General Accounting Office presented at a congressional hearing Tuesday. The report also warned that many soldiers haven't received adequate training in using the hot, bulky suits.

Mr. Hussein already has proved his willingness to use such weapons. During the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, Baghdad launched chemical attacks mainly with rockets and artillery shells filled with mustard gas. The attacks wounded more than 40,000 unprotected Iranian soldiers and killed 2,000 to 3,000 troops. The Iraqi dictator appeared ready to do even more in the Gulf War. According to reports from United Nations weapons inspectors, in the weeks straddling late 1990 and early 1991, Mr. Hussein ordered his military to fill 75 Scud warheads, hundreds of aerial bombs, and thousands of rockets and artillery shells with sarin nerve agent, mustard gas, anthrax spores, botulinum toxin and the cancer-causing agent Aflatoxin.

No one is sure why he never used these weapons, but many analysts assume that he was deterred by the first Bush administration's threats of "overwhelming retaliation." With the current Bush administration's declared goal to overthrow or even kill Mr. Hussein, such threats may not deter the Iraqi dictator this time around.

It's difficult to estimate the size of Iraq's current arsenal. But its appetite for such weapons has been considerable. U.N. weapons inspectors destroyed 2,850 tons of mustard gas -- enough to contaminate hundreds of miles of territory -- and about 5.5 tons of sarin, cyclosarin and VX nerve agent, which could kill troops over a six-square-mile swath. The inspectors also destroyed about 2,210 gallons of anthrax and nearly 5,000 gallons of botulinum toxin. It isn't clear how much the inspectors didn't find. And Iraq has now had four years without inspections, during which time it has almost certainly restarted production at both biological- and chemical-weapons plants.

While the volume of toxins sounds terrifying, the means of delivering the weapons will determine a lot about their effectiveness. To start, Mr. Hussein is thought to have at most only a few dozen Scuds -- the most frightening weapon of the Gulf War and the one with the longest-reach. Scuds, artillery shells and rockets can't disperse deadly chemicals or bacteria over a wide area, and the blast from their explosive warheads destroys much of what the weapon carries. Less than 3% of anthrax and less than 0.05% of botulinum toxin can survive a blast, according to U.S. Army research. Less than 70% of VX nerve agent and less than 50% of mustard gas typically survives the explosion.

Pentagon officials also say that even for troops exposed, there are ways to counter the effects. Nearly half a million soldiers have already been vaccinated against anthrax. An attack with VX can be countered by an injection of atropine -- standard issue for troops in the field -- although the side effects, mainly dehydration and fatigue, could sideline a soldier for at least 24 hours.

Despite a 10-year push to develop new sensors, there are still some deadly chemical and biological agents that can't be detected. Military officials believe that Iraq has tried to produce a powder version of VX nerve agent, known as "Dusty VX," that is extremely hard to detect and decontaminate.

Perhaps most worrisome is the psychological impact of such an attack on the morale of troops and host countries. "As soon as a biological or chemical attack occurs, everyone feels exposed, everyone feels symptoms. That's its power," says Camp Doha's Maj. Blankenhorn.

U.S. military analysts say they can imagine several scenarios in which such weapons would be used:

Front-line troops: Some analysts believe that Mr. Hussein would only order an attack in extremis, as U.S. troops advanced on Baghdad or his hometown of Tikrit.

To halt advancing troops, chemical weapons, which would incapacitate troops in minutes, are more likely to be used than biological agents that take days before they sicken the enemy. Such an attack carries big risks for the attacker. "When you use artillery shells you have to worry that if the wind conditions aren't right it will blow back on your own troops," says Bill Patrick, who researched chemical weapons for the U.S. military for decades.

And while a chemical or biological attack could kill dozens of troops, defense officials play down the threat of large casualties on the battlefield. The likelihood of a direct attack on ground troops also may depend on how many ground forces the U.S. decides to send into Iraq.

The Iraqis' biggest problem, defense officials say, would be delivering such weapons over a large area. Since each of Mr. Hussein's artillery shells and rockets can't carry a lot of agent, the Iraqi leader would have to fire hundreds of artillery and rocket rounds spread out over the entire battlefield. During the Gulf War, U.S. pilots easily destroyed Iraqi artillery and rocket launchers whenever they massed in the desert. Mr. Hussein also has been developing unmanned aerial drones, which carry large tanks of agent and could spray a fine mist over troops. But the drones are slow-moving and would be easy targets for U.S. fighter jets.

Another factor that probably would limit the damage from such an attack are U.S. chemical-weapons sensors, which have been developed since the Gulf War and would give troops ample time to don protective gear. Today's chemical sensors can identify both mustard gas and nerve agents in less than a second. The Army's M-93 Fox chemical reconnaissance vehicle, fielded in the early 1990s, uses an infrared beam to detect a chemical cloud as far away as three miles, allowing troops to maneuver around suspicious clouds and to put on protective gear before they are contaminated.

The real weakness would be with biological weapons. The Army's biological sensors can detect eight to 10 biological agents in about 15 to 45 minutes. That's far better than what the U.S. brought to the fight during the Gulf War, but it still doesn't give soldiers enough time to don protective gear. The sensors, however, should give doctors ample time to treat troops infected with agents such as botulinum toxin, Q fever or tularemia, before serious symptoms take hold. Most soldiers have been vaccinated against anthrax.

That said, an attack would still slow a U.S. advance, as soldiers near the infected area donned heavy jackets, gloves and pants lined with charcoal filters to screen out chemical agents. They would also have to put on masks, which limit peripheral vision. If the attack took place in spring or summer, when temperatures regularly soar above 100 degrees, it would be very hard for soldiers to advance on Baghdad without losing significant numbers of men to heat exhaustion.

Attacks on airfields or ports: If Mr. Hussein's goal is to kill U.S. soldiers and slow down an invasion, he might strike in the early days of a campaign at regional ports or airfields when those facilities are filled to capacity with U.S. forces gathering for the fight.

For years military planners have speculated that Mr. Hussein's best means for delivering his chemical and biological weapons to U.S. ports and airfields was with small teams of terrorists. In 1997 a Pentagon team of 18 generals and admirals projected different ways such an attack could take place, according to a Pentagon report.

In one scenario, small teams of Iraqi soldiers unleashed mustard gas from an old bread truck outfitted with agricultural sprayers. The truck was mistakenly let on base by troops who thought it was delivering food. In another scenario, a helicopter took off from a barge floating about 15 miles from the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia and sprayed cholera into the air, infecting thousands of U.S. Marines preparing to board ships. The Marines didn't fall ill until they were at sea.

Finally, the generals envisioned speedboats, loaded with chemical and biological weapons, ramming into docks near key U.S. ports in Bahrain and Kuwait -- a scenario eerily reminiscent of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.

Although Mr. Hussein's Scud arsenal is depleted and less of a threat than a terrorist attack, he could use the missiles to strike U.S. ports and airfields. Key U.S. bases in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar are all within range of Mr. Hussein's Scuds, which can travel distances of about 405 miles and carry as much as 55 gallons of agent -- about 10 times more than an artillery shell. But Mr. Hussein's Scuds aren't very accurate and, like artillery shells and rockets, which rely on explosive charges to disperse chemical or biological substances into the air, they can't spread their poisons over a great distance.

Civilian populations: With few Scuds left in its arsenal, Iraq could decide its best use would be against an Arab state hosting U.S. troops. An even more likely target would be Israel with the hope of drawing it into the fight, and turning the Arab world even more against the Americans.

During the Gulf War, Iraq fired 39 Scuds in and around Tel Aviv. Although the Scuds contained no chemical agent, they produced widespread panic. At U.S. insistence, the Israelis didn't respond. But Israeli officials have made clear that won't be the case this time around, especially if the Scuds are carrying chemical or biological weapons.

In recent years, to protect its major cities, Israel has purchased the same chemical and biological sensors that the U.S. military relies on. But it isn't clear how well the sensors, which were designed for battlefields and bases, will work in big cities where cars and tall buildings often create unpredictable wind patterns.

Although all Israeli citizens are required by law to get fitted for gas masks, the vast majority don't practice with the masks as much as U.S. soldiers do. If a Scud loaded with chemical weapons were to land in a busy marketplace, the casualties could soar into the hundreds.

A terrorist attack with chemical or biological weapons on a major Israeli city could produce even larger casualties. If the terrorists were using deadly sarin nerve gas, which vaporizes quickly, they would have to strike on a hazy day to ensure the chemicals don't dissipate into the atmosphere. In the case of a VX or mustard-gas attack, the terrorists would need to rely on wind to spread the droplets. If successful, thousands could die.

If Mr. Hussein were to strike one of his Arab neighbors, where there are few sensors and scant protective gear, casualties could be far higher than Israel.

Another major wild card involves the exact kinds of agents Mr. Hussein possesses. Iraq was one of the last countries in the world to have a smallpox outbreak, in the early 1970s. If Iraqi scientists saved some smallpox, Mr. Hussein could unleash on a city human agents infected with the disease but not yet showing symptoms. Such attacks would be impossible to detect until people began to fall ill, and the death toll would be high. A recent Pentagon-funded study, dubbed "Dark Winter," estimated that terrorists infected with smallpox might be able to spread the disease to three million people in a matter of two months.