TCS Daily


Devils in the Delivery

By Joe Katzman - March 21, 2003 12:00 AM

As war in Iraq begins, many people see its chemical and biological weapons (CBW) hanging over the battlefield like a specter of death. Use of these weapons is virtually a "no-lose" proposition for Saddam, and it's also true that U.S. defensive systems are genuinely vulnerable to a determined chemical or biological attack. Nevertheless, delivering effective CBW attacks is harder than it looks.

Saddam's No-Lose Strategy

Let's start with an explanation of the "no-lose" proposition. In 1991, there were sound strategic reasons for Iraq to abstain from using chemical or biological weapons. The limited nature of U.N. and Congressional resolutions regarding Kuwait made the Iraqi regime's survival likely, and Saddam had some belief in his army's ability to win or force a stalemate. To use chemical weapons in this scenario would have been actively dangerous, shifting the allied war aims toward destruction of Saddam's regime and possibly inviting nuclear retaliation. That was certainly the implication of American warnings delivered to Tariq Aziz.

Fast forward to 2003. The aims of the current war are clear: the destruction of Saddam's regime, an event that Saddam himself is extremely unlikely to survive. The Iraqi dictator is also well aware that the U.S. intends to rebuild Iraq following the war, which gives their forces a considerable interest in minimizing rather than maximizing damage to civilian areas and infrastructure. In addition, U.S. armed forces have largely lost their ability to deliver chemical weapons. The only realistic American WMD response is nuclear, but given stated U.S. war aims, it's reasonable to conclude that this simply will not happen.

The only thing that might restrain Saddam would be concern for his army, or concern for his populace. Obviously, neither quality exists. He has gassed Kurdish villages in situations where conventional force could have succeeded just as easily, and gassed enemy Iranian armies when he felt that his regime was threatened. Even today, he commits clear war crimes by using his populace as human shields.

The conclusion is inescapable: if Saddam can use these weapons this time, he will.

Are U.S. Forces Prepared?

A 1996 GAO report found that U.S. forces were not prepared to defend themselves against Iraqi use of chemical or biological weapons in 1991, and that those forces could have suffered significant casualties had Iraqi forces employed CB weapons. The same report also declares that "many problems of the type encountered during the Gulf War remain uncorrected, and U.S. forces continue to experience serious training-related weaknesses in their chemical and biological proficiency. [ ]

There are 3 key requirements for an effective CBW defense: equipment, detection and training. All remain in question.

The TV program "60 Minutes" recently ran a feature about defective equipment and suits for U.S. troops. But even if CBW protection suits work, the Army's M149 and M1112 "Water Buffalo" supply vehicles may be vulnerable to contamination themselves, or to contamination during the refilling process. There's little point in protecting soldiers' bodies and then giving them contaminated drinking water, but it's a very real possibility.

The problem of early detection recently led the U.S. military to inaugurate "Operation Kuwaiti Field Chicken." The idea was that live chickens would travel with the troops, servings as the equivalents of the age-old "canary in the coal mine." But the chickens died of more prosaic causes before they could be of any help. The Marines have since resorted to pigeons, but the lack of effective early warning systems is a difficult and long-standing issue.

Training for a CBW attack is critical, without which no mix of equipment will help. Unfortunately, it's also the weakest link. Accounts from experts and from soldiers themselves are chilling in their descriptions of troops inadequately trained, unable to answer basic questions and unlikely to protect themselves properly in the event of a real attack. Take this 2002 GAO report:

"Marine Corps commanders did not fully integrate chemical and biological defense into unit exercises, as required by Marine Corps policies, because operating in protective equipment is difficult and time consuming and this (1) decreases the number of combat essential tasks that can be performed during an exercise and (2) limits offensive combat operations." [ ]

Suits that may fail. Vulnerable water supplies. Lack of early detection. A consistent pattern of inadequate training. While vaccines and treatments are more widely available than they were in 1991, potentially dangerous weaknesses still exist in the U.S. armed forces' CBW defensive capabilities.

Offensive Challenges: Chemical Attack

Saddam's chemical arsenal includes a variety of agents, from cyanide and mustard gas to nerve gasses of various types. Apparently, troops south of Baghdad have already been armed.

Faced with a tempting target and a no-lose proposition, what's to stop Saddam? In a word, delivery.

Chemical agents aren't really gasses in the same way that, say, Nitrogen is a gas. Rather, they're vapors and/or small airborne particles that work only in the area they're applied. Simply leaving the area often ends the threat, though this is sometimes difficult in battlefield situations. As Sgt. First Class "Red" Thomas (ret.) notes:

"the agent must be delivered in sufficient quantity to kill/injure...They've got to get this stuff on you, or, get you to inhale it for it to work. They also have to get the concentration of chemicals high enough to kill or wound you. Too little and it's nothing, too much and it's wasted."

Put all that together and throw in variables like wind currents, temperature, sandstorms, etc., and it's clear an effective chemical attack is not just a "point and shoot" affair.

The very nature of the delivery systems contributes to the difficulty. Explosions inevitably vaporize some of the cargo. Many chemical systems, especially those fired from rocket launchers, aircraft, or missiles thus use a series of smaller "bomblets" rather than one big bomb. Artillery and rocket launchers are the most popular delivery methods, with rocket launchers' ability to deploy "bomblets" making them a weapon of choice. All of Saddam's Russian artillery and rocket launchers are chemical-capable, so it's not surprising that most of Saddam's battlefield attacks during the Iran-Iraq war used this method. Airborne delivery is ideal via advanced spray tanks mounted on aircraft, but of course the aircraft must survive long enough to deliver its cargo. Missiles can also be used, as long as their guidance is advanced enough and they can be used in sufficient numbers to deliver meaningful results. Even land mines are a possibility, as shown by the Russian KHF class.

All of these methods are most effective under two conditions. One is fixed-position, stalemated warfare - similar to World War I. The second condition involves enemies in built-up or fortified areas who cannot leave for one reason or another. These conditions characterized the situation against Iran's "human wave" assaults, and against Kurdish civilians. They simply do not apply to a modern army.

Against modern opponents, Soviet military doctrine for chemical weapon use has always been the world's most advanced and comprehensive. Artillery and rocket launchers using non-persistent gasses would clear a path on the immediate front, ensuring fast dispersion before Soviet troops rolled in behind. Aircraft and extensive missile attacks would conduct deep strikes on supply depots and command centers using persistent agents like VX. Mines could be deployed to blunt counterattacks, allowing Operational Maneuver Groups to proceed intact along the main axis of advance. Operations in a chemical environment were assumed, which meant extensive training, capable protection equipment, and a sizeable Chemical Corps to perform decontamination and render other services. In this kind of environment, a U.S. force would likely find itself under severe threat.

That doctrine is simply not useful to Iraq's army. Pushed back from the northern and southern "no-fly zones" and tracked by AWACS planes from the moment of takeoff, Iraqi planes or drones are unlikely to survive long enough to be effective. Iraqi missiles have poor guidance, and few if any can reach American command or supply centers. That's assuming, of course, that they survive the opening attacks by Special Forces who have been hunting SCUD B launch sites for the past few months. Artillery and shorter-range rockets and missiles are under the control of local commanders, many of whom must now be considered unreliable. Few will survive long enough to fire on fast-moving allied troops, and American tracking computers in the last Gulf War frequently had return shells or rockets in the air before the Iraqi attack landed. One shot is all they'll get.

Moreover, allied forces are highly mobile. Even a successful chemical attack may hit a "target" that is no longer there.

Offensive Challenges: Biological Weapons

In many ways, biological weapons - like anthrax, smallpox and other diseases - are more fearsome than chemical weapons. The weapon is the germ, and unlike chemical weapons they can set up manufacturing and distribution facilities in the very bodies of infected enemies. The Black Plague, which killed almost one-third of Europe's population, is believed to have started during the siege of Caffa in 1346, in which plague-ridden bodies were catapulted into the city as a primitive form of biological warfare.

This very fearsomeness and tendency to bite their users also makes states extremely hesitant to use such weapons.

The popularity of anthrax in military programs is directly related to its lack of contagiousness beyond the radius of dispersed anthrax spores. The challenges with anthrax are more subtle, and deal with turning it into a useful weapon. Milling the spores to micron-size requires some sophistication. Understanding dispersion patterns requires both advanced equipment and extensive testing. The most advanced efforts create coatings that neutralize the effect of electrical charge attraction, thus ensuring the particles don't "clump together" and fall to earth too soon. The anthrax delivered to Tom Daschle's office had such coatings, and it's something few countries have accomplished.

One such country is Iraq, which is also believed to have smallpox-related programs. It's worth noting that weapons inspectors had thought their biological program destroyed until Saddam's son-in-law Hussein Kamal defected in 1995 and revealed its true strength.

The challenges of using biological weapons in war are similar in many ways to those of chemical weapons. Sprayers attached to Iraqi aircraft will be shot down long before they encounter coalition troops, and bioweapons are even more likely to be destroyed in the explosions if delivered via artillery shells, rockets, or mines. This limits Saddam's options somewhat.

His most militarily effective option would have been to attack coalition troops while they were gathering, using highly contagious pathogens disseminated secretly and engineered to spread quickly. Just such a scenario haunted Gen. Schwartzkopf in 1991, when vaccines and other treatments were far less available. In 2003, however, this strategy was politically unacceptable to Saddam. It would have guaranteed the immediate and violent end of his game with the U.N - a game he believed he could win with French support.

With coalition troops on the move now, that option is now largely off the table.

Saddam's Likely Options

Looked at in these terms, Saddam doesn't appear to have many options. Like a "before" actor in a Viagra commercial, the desire may be present, but delivery is a problem. Add to this his concerns about the loyalty of local commanders, and the fact that many of his communication systems are not likely to survive the initial "shock and awe" bombing and Special Forces raids.

A wily adversary like Saddam is not out of tricks, however. All of his military options revolve around (a) slowing down coalition forces in their advance, and (b) causing higher than expected casualties on the battlefield. For these purposes, a combination of chemical mines and pre-prepared chemical zones around key river crossings and other bottlenecks could be effective for his purposes. Simple ground-based aerosol generators used to disseminate pesticides would be sufficient, and could be manned by small, intensely loyal units.

Of course, the American army is not the Iranian army. Fixed positions are something to route around. Used properly, however, it may be possible to make urban warfare more difficult, or to delay ground units long enough to preserve the 'iron rings' around Baghdad for a little longer.

What one must also consider, however, is that Saddam is not out of political options. Widespread use of lethal chemicals in urban zones like Basra, for instance, would produce extremely high civilian casualties. France, Germany and many people in the anti-liberation crowd might blame the U.S. and Britain, even as the attacks made occupation of the city difficult and created a humanitarian nightmare that would divert substantial allied resources. The political consequences to Tony Blair could be severe, and coalition unity could be sorely tested. Ominously, Saddam has positioned two army corps in the southern region and has put Lt. Gen. Ali Hasan al Majid in charge. Nicknamed "Chemical Ali" for his use of chemical weapons to kill thousands of Kurds in 1988, Gen. al Majid's appointment may signal Iraqi forces' readiness to use them again.

Smallpox or similar contagious diseases would be even more potent killers in this situation, though the danger to all Iraqi troops in the area means that its deployment and use would have to remain secret even from the army.

A more reliable biological option may be anthrax spores, whose persistence is measured in years. A regime that firmly believed in its imminent destruction and followed a Hitlerian Gotterdammerung policy could severely cripple Iraq's economy for a generation by sowing anthrax in and around the oil fields and wells.

An Effective U.S. Response

U.S. responses can be grouped into 4 broad categories: pre-emptive attack, psychological operations (psyops), intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB), and mobility. If employed successfully, Saddam's ability to use his weapons drops substantially.

Let's begin with pre-emptive attack. As Special Forces and CIA Special Operations Groups (SOG) sweep in to seize oil wells in the north and south, Saddam's opportunity to perform anthrax sabotage declines drastically. Likewise, extensive American, British, Australian and even Israeli Special Forces have been hunting SCUD sites in western Iraq for several months now. Since most of the missiles destroyed in 1991 fell to Special Forces units, this is promising. Other missions and CIA operatives, meanwhile, have been working to pinpoint storage sites and CBW deployments for lightning raids in the early days of conflicts.

Major Donald Sensing (ret.) discusses psyops and IPB in some depth, and there's no point in repeating his points. Briefly, while use of CBW may be a no-lose move for Saddam, this is not true for his underlings. Psyops are designed to make people at all levels of the command structure think twice about using these weapons, using tactics thus far that have ranged from dropped leaflets to automated cell phone calls and emails addressed to Iraqi officials. A failure at any point in the command chain means a failure to use these weapons. One must also assume that Special Forces and CIA operatives have also been getting information in to potentially cooperative Iraqis. Meanwhile, intelligence preparations via agents, drones, special forces, satellite, and even weapons inspectors seeks to pinpoint the location of CBW storage sites and especially chemical units in the field. These activities will be especially important in preventing "chemical terrorism" scenarios of the type I described earlier.

On the battlefield, however, the Americans' best defense will be a good offense. The faster they're moving, and the more confusion they can create with special forces and CIA-led uprisings around the country, the harder it will be for even willing Iraqi commanders to target chemical or biological weapons with any certainty.

Despite all of the failings described in this article, therefore, our soldiers' best option for safety is the same motto we've heard for 18 months now, the same cry uttered by hundreds of thousands of Americans as they head into battle in the days ahead: Let's Roll!

Joe Katzman leads the international team at Winds of Change.NET, a daily weblog whose motto is "Liberty. Discovery. Humanity. Victory."

1. General Accounting Office, "Chemical and Biological Defense: Emphasis Remains Insufficient to Resolve Continuing Problems" (GAO/NSIAD-96-103), March 1996

2. General Accounting Office, "Chemical and Biological Defense: Observations on DoD's Risk Assessment of Defense Capabilities," (GAO-03-137T), p. 4, October 1, 2002.
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