Are Our Troops Ready for Biological and Chemical Attacks?

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As war with Iraq becomes imminent, U.S. militaryreadiness takes center stage. Concerns aboutreadiness focus not only on our ability to successfullyattack Iraq but on our ability to defend U.S.forces against an enemy regime that, if its existenceis threatened, could have every incentive to useweapons of mass destruction. In any war with Iraq,military experts worry most about attacks withchemical and biological weapons. They have reasonto worry, given the U.S. military's lack of preparednessfor such attacks.

In the Gulf War, military preparedness forchemical and biological attacks was so inadequatethat teams of specialists had to be sent tothe Middle East to provide "crash" trainingcourses to deployed U.S. forces. According to onecongressional report, it took six months to bringthem up to speed.

Unfortunately, those same gaps in readinessremain. They are rooted in a lack of emphasis onsuch defenses by senior officers. Althoughnuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) warfarespecialists are reasonably well trained and cognizantof the needs for training individuals andunits, senior commanders present a major blockto implementing realistic and technically meaningfulNBC training for the troops. NBC fieldtraining is unrealistic because it does not involvethe simulation of a worst-case surprise attackand is sometimes optional. Although approximately40 hours of NBC defense training areneeded per year, the military services require onlyfour hours of training per year for new recruitsand two hours of refresher training annuallythereafter. Moreover, the people overseeing thetraining do not have the right educational background--only 30 percent of officers in the Army'sChemical Corps have degrees in the physical sciences.Although many senior officers view militaryNBC training as effective, that is not theview of the troops who will be on the front lines.This dismal state of affairs should be a wake-upcall to officials of the Bush administration asthey plan for a second war with Iraq.

Eric R. Taylor

Eric R. Taylor is an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette; a researcher and author in biochemistry, terrorism, and nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare; and a former captain with the U.S. Army Chemical Corps.