Mobile labs sniffing for chem-bio weapons

Friday, April 11, 2003

Enlisted in the search for chemical weapons in Iraq beyond the 15,000 U.S. troops certified as bio-chem specialists are disarmament teams from Bulgaria and the Czech Republic and some former U.N. weapons inspectors.

Many of the soldiers are armed with five-pound chemical agent sensors, and the inspectors have ground-penetrating radar.

But the most valuable piece of the forensic toolbox is a rolling, armored laboratory. Called Foxes, the labs are the most sophisticated weapons detection technology ever deployed in combat. The U.S.-led forces have about a dozen in the battle zone.

In the last few days, tests done in Foxes have suggested that soldiers may indeed have found chemical weapons in barrels at an agricultural site near Baghdad and in metal drums discovered in a compound near the Iraqi city of Hindiyah.

If confirmed, these would be the first weapons of mass destruction turned up in Iraq, validating one of the Bush administration's reasons for invasion. But top U.S. officials have cautioned that the results from the battlefield are far from conclusive.

That's because the Foxes are prone to false alarms, mainly because nerve agents are chemically very similar to pesticides, said Jonathan Tucker, a chemical arms expert at the federally funded United States Institute of Peace.

False by design

The false alarms are mostly by design -- the primary job of the 19-ton labs is to immediately warn U.S. troops of chemical attacks during battle. A similar biological attack detection capability was just added to most of the Foxes.

"It's not a chemical lab to do real detailed analysis," said Peter Keating, a spokesman with Fox contractor General Dynamics Land Systems. "As such it's set to take the most conservative approach. We'd rather be safe than sorry."

For more detailed analysis, the chemical samples were sent stateside -- most likely to the Army's Soldier and Biological Chemical Command in Aberdeen, Md., an assertion officials there would neither confirm nor deny.

Besides an advanced mass spectrometer, the Aberdeen lab has a database containing all known chemical and biological agents, classified and unclassified.

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said Thursday that no update was available on the analysis of the chemical samples obtained by U.S. units in Iraq.

Military officials said the Foxes now deployed in Iraq are more accurate than ever, thanks to improvements in the mass spectrometers they have on board.

"It's a quantum leap forward," said Mickey Morales, a spokesman at the Aberdeen base.

Crews of three working in each airtight and air-conditioned Fox compare chemicals found in the field against an onboard computer library of most known chemicals to produce a match.

The "mass specs" on the Foxes don't compare in size and accuracy to the giant mass spectrometers maintained at Aberdeen. But their handlers say the Fox labs do a good job of chemical analysis under tough wartime conditions.

The Foxes are also highly agile, making 65 mph on the highway and 6 mph in the water. The United States got about 120 from Germany for the first Gulf War in 1991.

Since then, General Dynamics Land Systems has upgraded 87 of them at a cost of about $2 million each.

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