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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Technology aids war on terror

Following the events of 9/11 and the subsequent wave of anthrax letters, issues relating to chemical and biological warfare agents have invited unprecedented attention from the Administration, Congress, media, and the public. But the original wakeup call, as far as the defense establishment is concerned, came more than a decade earlier. Operation Desert Storm for the first time exposed America to an adversary that not only had a chemical/biological (CB) capability but was quite willing to unleash it as well. The limited response abilities of the US, ranging from detection, individual/collective protection, decontamination, and medical support, were serious. What would’ve happened had Saddam decided to give the war a CB flavor, is a spine-chilling guess.

So a few years after the war, Congress in 1994 established the Chemical and Biological Defense Program through the National Defense Authorization Act. The seriousness of the CBDP is evident from the nearly $ 1 billion funding it has received from the Department of Defense (DOD) for 2003. That future threat scenarios have a heavy CB ingredient is no surprise either.

Addressing a packed audience during a symposium on chemical and biological terrorism at the 224th annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston recently, Anne Johnson-Winegar, deputy assistant to the secretary, Department of Defense (DOD), explained that the Pentagon’s focus is shifting away from traditional wartime battlefield situations to defending the nation’s vulnerable urban areas. “We have to think beyond scud missiles,” she said.

Chemical and biological warfare agents, especially those in the mid-spectrum, have drawn special attention from the Pentagon. Positioned between agents that are `clearly chemical’ and `clearly biological’, the mid-spectrum includes emerging chemical irritants, bioregulators (these can disrupt sleep, induce pain, play havoc with blood pressure, mood etc) and various toxins.

In the post-9/11 scenario, the scope of the CBDP is three-fold: contamination avoidance, individual/collective safety and medical support. Compared to systems in use today, contamination avoidance systems of tomorrow will be small, lightweight, digital, automatic, and mobile. The final goal is to someday have ultra-lightweight CB warfare agent sensors that can be embedded on a soldier’s fatigues.

Even as the hunt for the elusive `anthrax postman’ continues, decontamination efforts have assumed a great deal of importance. Though current decontaminants are effective, they have some serious drawbacks. For instance, most in use today are highly corrosive (they can strip paint off vehicles and damage sensitive electronics), environmentally hazardous (the freon base damages the ozone layer), and can only be used to clean a small area. All this makes them unsuitable in cleaning a house or an aircraft carrier for that matter. Experts are currently working to produce `green’ decontaminants, which are safe for use on humans and sensitive electronic equipment.

To maximize the effectiveness of available decontaminants there has to be a detailed understanding of how contamination spreads. The DOD is using latest computer modeling and simulation techniques to come up with the best answers. Previously most models comprised conventional battlefield scenarios but now urban scenarios are increasingly being incorporated. This information also helps various response teams make the best decisions at an incident site.

Unconventional problems demand unconventional thinking. A pointer to this is the establishment of the Combating terrorism Technology Task Force, the purpose of which is to provide the DOD with a coordinated technology plan for fighting terror. The task force will address potential threats from chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high explosives (CBRNE). Additionally, it will improve situational awareness and options for possible DOD intervention.

But given the seriousness of the issues at stake, it is imperative that these plans are tested in real-life situations so that potential chinks can be ironed out. One such effort is the Joint Service Installation Pilot Project (JSIPP). The JSIPP actually equips nine DOD installations with CBRNE capability. The goal is to enhance emergency response as well as to come up with recommendations for improvements. The DOD has also established an interagency research program that will focus on biological warfare threat assessment and microbial forensics.

Efforts to identify the latest technology and apply it in the war against terrorism has led to the establishment of the Countering Biological Terrorism Research Program, which will work with various governments departments, industry, and academia. This interaction has already led to some extremely useful standoff detection technologies. Oklahoma-based Nomadics Inc. has developed highly accurate explosive sensors. Fido, an electronic nose, can locate landmines with a very high degree of accuracy and a low false alarm rate.

Massachusetts-based Raytheon is focusing on the entire spectrum of homeland security vis-à-vis detection, protection and response. It may be recalled that minutes after the WTC attacks, all communication was disrupted and there was no way various response teams could coordinate with each other. To avoid such communication nightmares in future, Raytheon has developed a state-of-the-art First Responder Command and Communication Vehicle. The platform solves communication problems at any disaster site and supports satellite, radio, cell phone, and wireless LAN. A computer controls the network and the entire communications system, including a radio link gateway, which allows for interoperability.

The attacks have brought new challenges to the world’s lone superpower and more challenges are evolving. The array of programs is impressive but the DOD has to find a balance between competing priorities within the available funds. There is a need for enhancing CB defense technologies, even while passing on spin-off technologies to civilians.

According to Johnson-Winegar, “ we’re going to have to learn how to work with first responders if a chemical or biological attack occurs. And we have to have an integrated system in combating chemical and biological terrorism though there is no one single answer on how to do it. But most importantly, we need to accelerate defense research programs so that we’re ready for the day we hope never comes”.