U.S. forces at high risk from lack of chemical suits

By Kathy Helms-Hughes


   A shortage of protective suits needed to ensure the safety of members of the U.S. military in the event chemical or biological weapons are used against them has left U.S. forces at high risk, according to the General Accounting Office.
   In a report released Tuesday, GAO said the Department of Defense cannot provide the required ensembles for 682,331 service members scheduled for wartime deployment. The shortages are expected to worsen through 2007 as the effectiveness of older suits expires.
   According to GAO, as of Oct. 1, 2000, the Defense Department reported a shortage of about 1.7 million protective suits with another 3.3 million -- 75 percent of the current inventory -- set to expire by 2006.
   The Defense Department also plans to replace suits at a slower than expiration rate to avoid a large amount of suits going bad in any one year.
   GAO said information contained in DOD's Chemical and Biological Defense Program Annual Report to Congress contains erroneous inventory data and underestimates equipment requirements.
   To accurately determine the risk of wartime shortages, the Defense Department needs to know the numbers of protective suits, masks, breathing filters, gloves, boots and hoods it has on hand. GAO said the department inaccurately counted the number of individual items and combined inventories from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
   A total of 1,573,866 active and reserve service members currently need protection. Only 891,535 ensembles are available, leaving 682,331 service members unprotected. The Defense Department provides each deploying member with up to four ensembles, either at the time of their deployment or when needed, GAO said. The ensembles consist of four protective suits, four to eight pairs of gloves and boots, four to eight hoods, up to four breathing filters, and one mask.
   Each branch of the military reported shortages of one component of the ensemble. The Army had critical shortages of hoods; the Air Force, shortages of gloves; the Navy, shortages of suits, and the Marine Corps, shortages of boots.
   According to GAO, the Army has the largest number of servicemen who are not protected, followed by the Navy, Marines, and Air Force, putting them all at high risk.
   A breakdown shows that of the Army's 725,000 members requiring protection, 257,426 are unprotected. The Navy requires 354,182 ensembles but falls short by 193,514. The Marine Corps requires 213,294 ensembles; it is 118,480 short. The Air Force requires 281,390 ensembles; it also falls short, at 112,911.
   Because the Defense Department uses at least nine different systems for managing inventory, it cannot accurately determine the expiration rate of most older suits used by the Air Force and Army. The suits can be used in a contaminated environment for up to 14 years from the date of manufacture; after that, testing has shown, they become ineffective.
   GAO says that it is critical to know the date of manufacture so that the expiration date can be determined, however, the Defense Logistics Agency, which purchased the suits, was unable to locate most of the procurement records. Also, many inventory systems used to locate expired suits in specific depots do not record equipment expiration dates, the manufacturers' contract or lot numbers.
   The Army has assumed an annual 20 percent expiration rate through Fiscal Year 2005 and expects that all of its suits will expire by then. In June 2001, the Navy estimated that of the 178,000 suits it had on hand, only about 61,000 were serviceable and the rest had passed their expiration date.
   The GAO review showed the most severe shortage among 19 Military Sealift Command ships which help sustain deployed U.S. forces. Additional problems were found in 48 ships in the Atlantic and Pacific fleets. The ships reported that because they were missing one or more components, they could not provide a complete ensemble for a single crewmember.
   Complicating the issue was the admission in September 1999 that one manufacturer had sold 778,924 defective suits to the government. These were distributed to the Defense Department's war reserve and other inventories.
   In May 2000, the Defense Department directed units and depots to locate the defective suits and use them for training only. At the conclusion of GAO's review, about 250,000 still had not been found and DOD did not know whether they had been used, were in supply, or were sent for disposal.
   The Defense Logistics Agency used up to 19 reservists over a 34-day period to physically inspect all pallets and boxes containing about 1.3 million protective suits at its depot in Albany, Ga. Approximately 347,000 defective suits were found.
   During the GAO review, several questionable inventory practices were identified, including miscalculating suit requirements, failing to count parts of the suit inventory, and counting suits which had not yet been delivered as part of the inventory.
   In the 2001 draft report to Congress, the services reported they had 1,229,935 Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology suits on hand on Sept. 30, 2000. That figure actually included 782,232 suits that had not yet been delivered.
   Because the Defense Department's risk assessment process is flawed and unreliable, GAO said, it inaccurately assessed the risk to service members' lives.
   But U.S. forces are not the only ones who stand to lose in a chemical attack.
   "The civilians are really going to pay if they do it," a local serviceman said, on condition of anonymity.
   "I don't know of any agencies out there in the civilian world that are actually equipped to handle chemical warfare," he said. "Most of your fire departments have chemical suits; but how long would they last? The military chemical suits are not 100 percent guaranteed.
   "There's no way the civilian population can possibly protect themselves against a chemical warfare. There's no way they would know what was coming to them," he said.
   Military personnel are equipped with decontamination kits and chemical paper which they strap on and which changes color when they are in a chemical environment. Some also are equipped with M8 alarms which activate in the presence of chemicals.
   "We set it out there and if it goes off, then we put on our chemical masks," he said. "If you're hit with it, especially a nerve agent, you'll know it. You'll start getting huge blisters."
   He said he would not recommend purchasing gas masks such as those advertised on the Internet.
   "Those are not really what they're made out to be. Basically, those are just like putting water on a rag and breathing through it," he said.
   According to recent news accounts, gas masks were distributed on the House side of Congress following an attack on the U.S.S. Cole last October. Some Senate offices reported receiving bags of masks following the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.