The Pentagon Almost Gave Up on Gas Warfare
Advisers complained about the government's chem-bio nonchalance
Once upon a time, the U.S. military actively prepared for chemical and biological warfare on a grand scale. But in the 1980s, the Pentagon almost gave up. One advisory committee complained about a general lack of concern in both Washington and among the general public.
In 1983, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Advisory Committee published a report on the military’s ability to gather intelligence and respond to chemical and biological threats. While acknowledging the intelligence community as a whole had limited resources, the members of the Chemical/Biological Warfare Panel chided defense officials for ignoring their commitments and potential threats.
The military released the report as part of a larger response to a private individual’s Freedom of Information Act request. The Website GovernmentAttic.org published all of the documents.
Though heavily redacted, the uncensored portions of the study betray remarkable candor:
The nation’s list of demands on the Intelligence Community usually exceeds available resources. Priorities, then, tend to service squeaky wheels. [Redacted], for example, enjoys a high priority in national security consideration, [redacted.] The national repugnance for chemical matters is enough that [Chemical Weapons/Biological Weapons] isn’t squeaky; indeed, there is often a reluctance to even hear about it. The nation’s attitude on CW/BW can be influenced by credible threat descriptions and related assessments of impact.
While the Soviets maintained large stockpiles of chemical and biological agents, Washington seemed unconcerned about their effect on the battlefield during a shooting war, according to the DIA committee. At the time, American troops had not come under a concerted chemical attack since World War I.
A better understanding of the full spectrum of the chemical and biological threat could reshape the national concern toward this kind of warfare. The services need an understanding of the environment in which they may have to .operate and fight, and our own development community needs a better data base for development of defensive measures such as antidotes and protective gear.
The analysts could already point to the continued danger of poison gases and weaponized diseases and toxins. Two years earlier, then Secretary of State Alexander Haig had accused the Kremlin of supplying T-2 mycotoxins to the Communist regimes in Vietnam and Laos for use fighting insurgent groups.
In what became commonly known as the “Yellow Rain,” Haig said that Southeast Asian refugees had reported planes and helicopters spraying them with a noxious yellow liquid in the late 1970s. Similar reports had emerged from Moscow’s war in Afghanistan.
The Soviets accused the Americans of fabricating the entire story and instead claimed that Western-backed mujaheddin in Afghanistan had deployed deadly gasses against Soviet forces. One 1982 story from the Christian Science Monitor shows just how unclear the whole situation was at the time:
On the one hand, the Soviets accuse the anti-government guerrillas of using chemical weapons supplied by the United States and Britain. No evidence has been offered to support the claim.
On the other hand, the West (especially Washington) vigorously contends that Moscow and its Afghan client have frequently employed such lethal agents in their efforts to crush the guerrilla resistance.
Now, another Soviet soldier captured by Afghan guerrillas has said that occupying Soviet troops have used lethal chemical agents. According to his account, tape-recorded by guerrillas and supplied to reporters, two types of chemicals caused a dense yellow cloud and were about 30-percent lethal. A third agent was 100-percent lethal.
While the U.S. government has never retracted the allegations, independent inquiries have been unable to prove the “yellow rain” claims. But it was exactly the sort of thing that would worry the DIA, especially given the overall state of affairs among Washington’s spy agencies:
The current level of intelligence resources is not adequate. The overall [Department of Defense] funding for chemical [research and development] and procurement matters has increased by [redacted] and is planned to increase [redacted]. The panel was also told that the number of chemical officer billets in the Army has increased from 1,200 in 1979 to 8,000 in 1983 and will reach 24,000 eventually. This dramatic increase in the level of Army operational interest requires a corresponding increase in the understanding of Soviet chemical and biological strategy, doctrine and tactics. …
We saw very little going on within the Intelligence Community to support arms control objectives, even though that is the first objective in the Defense Guidance and would be expected to be a major intelligence driver. A strong intelligence base, which we currently lack, is an essential step toward achieving these objectives.
DIA censors removed all of the panel’s recommendations. Whatever the truth behind “yellow rain” and related incidents, the danger proved to be very real.
Between 2003 and 2011, Iraqi insurgents attacked American troops with improvised chlorine bombs on at least a dozen occasions, according to The New York Times. American troops were exposed to nerve and mustard gas from old Iraqi stockpiles during the fighting.
However, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps did eventually respond by creating or expanding specialized units to handle WMD-related accidents, terrorist attacks and threats on the battlefield. Today’s the Army’s 20th Support Command and the Corps’ Chemical Biological Incident Response Force regularly train with units from all the services, as well as federal and state law enforcement agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Potential enemies like North Korea still have large caches of deadly gasses. And in spite international inspectors having carted off Syria’s declared chemical arsenal, reports are still emerging suggesting that both the regime in Damascus and Islamic State terrorists are using the horrific weapons. The Sunni extremists have also reportedly used mustard gas against the Kurds in neighboring Iraq.
Combined with budget cuts and competing priorities impacting the Pentagon’s budget, the individual services are now worried about the future. Without appropriate resources, American troops might once again have trouble protecting themselves against chemical and biological weapons.