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U.S. has sophisticated mobile labs for detecting chemical weapons

WASHINGTON—It can swim or run on dry land, is built to deflect bullets and comes dressed in camouflage garb. With its machine-gun on top, the Fox looks like a junior version of any other armored vehicle.

Underneath the hard shell lies $1 million in high-tech equipment worthy of a university chemical laboratory.

The speedy little Fox—at 20 tons, a mere third the size of a tank—is the most sophisticated tool in the U.S. inventory for the detection of chemical weapons on the battlefield.

When drums of suspicious chemicals were found Monday by American soldiers at a warehouse in Albu Muhawish, Iraq, two Fox vehicles, each with a three-man crew sealed inside, were sent in to make tests. Each reported positive readings for nerve and blister agents, although officials were uncertain if the material was weapons-grade.

Foxes also were dispatched over the weekend when more than a dozen soldiers from the Army's 101st Airborne Division experienced vomiting, dizziness and skin blotches after contact with a suspected weapons agent. Tests for sarin were inconclusive.

After nearly three weeks of war and a number of chemical weapons scares, the coalition has no clear-cut case of finding chemical weapons.

Army Capt. Carlos Gonzalez, who trains the Fox crews at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., said the Army and the Marines may have 10 or more of the vehicles at the front lines in and around Baghdad.

Foxes carry much of the same detection equipment as other vehicles. What makes them especially valuable is the presence of a mass spectrometer, a costly piece of lab equipment that enables separation of a suspect substance into its chemical components.

Analyses can be done on the spot and reported to field commanders immediately.

Spectrum analysis enables precise identification in most, but not all, cases. The problem in battlefield identifications in recent days has been the fact that pesticides may act in similar ways to certain nerve agents and confuse telling them apart.

With their crews working in pressurized, air-conditioned compartments, Foxes can also go in close when a suspected hazard is found.

They can drop markers on the battlefield warning troops to stay clear.

The Foxes are part of a complex system for the monitoring and detection of chemical, biological and radiological weapons.

Across the military services, more than 15,000 officers and enlisted personnel have been certified as NBC (nuclear-biological-chemical) specialists. Their job is only partly to train soldiers in the field to shield themselves with their masks and protective coveralls. It is also to decontaminate those who may be exposed to hazards.

But no decontamination is necessary if soldiers are warned of hazards in advance and can avoid them.

To that end, military units have been issued equipment that ranges from a beta-radiation monitor the size of a Palm handheld computer (the AN/UDR-13 Radiac Set), to a sensor that looks like a charcoal grill (the M21 Remote-Sensing Chemical Agent Alarm) and can pick up airborne chemicals three miles from their source, to a germ-finding kit (the M31 Biological Integrated Detection System) that rolls along like a U-Haul trailer on the back of a Humvee.

Miguel Morales, a spokesman for the Army's Edgewood Chem-Bio Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., said that the equipment is "more sensitive" and in wider use than during the first Gulf War.

The Fox itself dates back to the Gulf War in 1991, when Germany donated about 60 of the vehicles to the United States for protecting its troops. An updated version of the Fox went into production by the General Dynamics Corp., a major U.S. defense contractor, in 1998.

Peter Keating, vice president of General Dynamics Land Systems, said the U.S. inventory includes 123 Foxes, 87 of which have been rebuilt with the latest equipment.

Often they are used as reconnaissance vehicles, going out ahead of troops to make sure the way is clear. They can go 65 mph on the highway or 6 mph on the water.

Gonzalez said that U.S. troops have an edge over Iraqi soldiers not only in the quality of their weapons but also in the quality of technical equipment up and down the line, including monitoring devices.

"This is an enormous advantage," he said.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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