9 seconds. That’s all the time you have. After that, you’re dead.
That is the line being drilled into American soldiers in Kuwait as they practise gearing up for the fearful possibility of a biochemical attack from Iraqi forces. Almost daily, the troops go through the so-called ‘nine-second test’.
THE moment their instructor shouts ‘gas, gas, gas’, the soldiers have to don their gas masks – chin in first and straps on tight – in just one second.
Within the next eight, they have to strap on the rest of their gear, comprising heavy rubber gloves, baggy protective pants, hooded jackets and big sloppy boots.
In this war game, the enemies are unseen: VX nerve gas, blister agents, ricin, anthrax, botulism and smallpox.
Nuclear, biological and chemical training has been incorporated into virtually every aspect of training at United States bases in Kuwait.
In simulated chemical warfare attacks, for instance, US troops practise getting their vehicles and equipment sluiced down at decontamination centres in the event of an attack, which is described here as ‘getting slimed’.
That threat is very real.
During the 1990-91 Gulf War, the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein came close to using such weapons against the US-led coalition, according to former Central Intelligence Agency analyst and White House national security aide Kenneth Pollack. In his book, The Threatening Storm: The Case For Invading Iraq, he disclosed that Mr Saddam gave orders that any attack on Baghdad should be met with chemical and biological artillery strikes.
But American troops stopped short of storming Baghdad then.
Washington now believes that Mr Saddam is arming his missiles with chemicals that he is ready to fire against Israeli and US troops if Iraq comes under attack.
Commenting on troop preparations, Pentagon spokesman David Lapan told The Straits Times: ‘Our soldiers have extensive training and are prepared to deal with any challenge.’
They are required to carry or have within reach masks and suits for NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) protection, and they frequently practise donning and clearing the masks on order.
All the exercises build upon the training the forces receive at various points in their careers, starting in recruit training.
But some believe that more could be done.
The congressional report recently criticised the military for not giving chemical and biological warfare protection a higher priority.
It noted that the Pentagon had acquired 1.5 million lighter, more durable protective suits since the Gulf War, but still had three million of the older ones.
The military’s sensor technology had also improved since the last Gulf War.
In exercises, special detection vehicles identified airborne poisonous chemicals within seconds of their release, and other gear could spot poison gas plumes in the distance.
Biological attacks, however, were still hard to identify.
In the face of such concerns, more than 500,000 soldiers have received anthrax jabs.
The US Special Forces have also been tasked to locate and disarm biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.
Given the difficulty of tracking down all of the weapons, American war strategy is aimed at disrupting the chain of command carrying out the orders to use them.
Observers said these might go some way to reducing the size and effectiveness of the weapons, but it will not eliminate the threat.
The key will lie in the durability of the American gas mask – and the ability to put it on in nine seconds.