Terrorism and the Continuing Threat of Chemical Weapons

By Paul Evancoe
Today’s media are ripe with reports about the Syrian military’s loading of the precursor chemicals for SARIN, a deadly nerve gas, into aerial bombs that could be dropped onto the Syrian people as a means to quell the current attempt to overthrow the Bashar regime. Should Syrian president Bashar al-Assad actually authorize the use of chemical weapons he will cross the red line set by the international community and suffer the immediate consequences of their wrath. But why are chemical weapons no longer politically correct? What has changed since they were first introduced to the battlefield?

The World War I use of mustard and phosgene gasses marked the first widespread use of chemical weapons in trench warfare. Armies were not mechanized and were slow moving. Soldiers mainly walked to the front. Horses provided the primary means to move artillery and logistic support. Chemical weapons were as effective against animals as against humans. Protective equipment, decontamination procedures and training were, initially, all but non-existent. As a result, thousands of troops and animals died in agony, and most of those seriously “gassed” were deprived of a completely normal life from that point on. The terror of chemical weapons was firmly established in the history of warfare. Warfare was very different then, or was it?

Historically regarded as a very unusual war, World War I was a war in which many out-of-date tactical concepts were finally proven to be operationally inadequate. It marked the use of massed infantry attacks against trenches defended with modern machine guns, aimed rifle fire, and effective massed artillery support. Chemical warfare, combat aviation, and tanks were also introduced into this military melting pot, each demonstrating the limitations of infancy, while at the same time, employed with devastating effectiveness.

From this distance, we can agree that it would be a blessing not to pass that way again but we nearly did during both Gulf Wars and we teeter-totter dangerously close today with Iran and the threat of radical Islamists acquiring chemical weapons. Sadly, chemical weapons remain effective against properly trained and equipped forces in modern warfare, but why?

The use of chemical agents in the modern warfare has four significant tactical effects, in addition to the strategic effect of forcing the opponent to prepare for their being used. First, chemical agents cause casualties. Second, since most agents contaminate areas and equipment, it causes the opponent to avoid using them until elaborate, time consuming and occasionally damaging decontamination is completed. Third, chemical agents compel the opponent to fight, treat casualties, move around the battlefield and decontaminate in the most uncomfortable protective clothing imaginable. Clothing that frequently makes no accommodation for normal body functions. Clothing that reduces individual task efficiency to extremely low levels.

Finally, there is the undeniable terror factor. Properly trained soldiers know that even a small drop of nerve agent on their skin can result in rapid death. Over and above all of this, the opponent is forced to deal with a severe dilution of resources problem. When he is in a chemical defensive posture, he won’t be very efficient as a force on the battlefield. The effect of a properly executed chemical attack upon an un-equipped and untrained force would be overwhelming, but the effect of a properly executed chemical attack upon even the most highly prepared force can be expected to be quite significant, even if no casualties are suffered.

To be sure – there are a number of difficulties associated with the development, production, deployment and ultimate delivery of chemical agents. However, these difficulties can be overcome by any nation or terrorist group with adequate determination and cunning. Perhaps more importantly, an elaborate industrial base or State-sponsored investment is not required to produce effective quantities of many chemical agents. However, some modest industrial chemical capability would be necessary to produce tactically significant quantities of the more complex agents.

Prior to Desert Storm, Iraq reportedly produced SARIN, TABUN, Lewisite, and Mustard agents. Monthly manufacturing capability was reported to be 60 tons of Mustard and 4 tons each of SARIN and TABUN. There is a still unconfirmed but reasonable likelihood that the nerve agent SARIN may have been used by Iraq against coalition forces during the Gulf War. Many veterans of that war were stricken with an unidentifiable illness believed by some to be related to exposure to chemical agents.

The truth presumably lies in classified Department of Defense records. However, on-the-ground investigation may someday reveal contaminated equipment that has been burned in place or abandoned in the remote expanses of the Saudi or Iraqi desert. If chemical weapons were used by Iraq, it was seemingly not on the scale of the use in World War I, and of little consequence to the extremely mobile coalition forces that were highly trained and antidote-protected.

With the exception of nations like Iran and North Korea, chemical weapons development is generally believed to have been halted. The most disconcerting issue however, is the huge war reserve stockpiles that remain in the countries that formed the former Soviet Union (FSU). In 1988 the Soviets released to the press a list of chemical munitions in their inventory. Although this list was of little surprise to the West, it did provide analysts confirmation of some long standing assumptions. Curiously, the Soviets also released information on a mobile chemical weapon destruction unit. The capability description of this unit included its ability to neutralize munitions loaded with viscous SOMAN in addition to the others. Presumably, the Soviets also had viscous SOMAN munitions which they had neglected to put on their list.

Although the threat of chemical weapons cannot be discounted, intelligence analysts are generally alert to chemical weapon signatures. In most cases existing war reserve stocks are being, or have been, destroyed. But even with the execution of binding treaties and multi-lateral agreements requiring the destruction of chemical weapon stockpiles, many analysts doubt the accuracy of the inventory and disposition records of the chemical weapons once possessed by the FSU. Reportedly, the Russians recognize their own stockpile inventory discrepancies over many years and remain concerned with several of the independent states that once composed the Soviet Empire – especially those that have radical-leaning Islamist domination.

Delivery of Chemical Agents and their Characteristics
Battlefield delivery of chemical agents is usually affected by means of aerial bombs, overhead missile or aircraft sprays, and through artillery-fired exploding chemical shells. Chemical agents are usually dispersed on area targets as gasses, aerosols (extremely fine mist droplets), or as sprays. Many chemical agent gasses and aerosols are not only lethal, or dehabilitating when inhaled, but will, in most instances, provide the same results if absorbed through the skin following contact. Even minor contact with some chemical agents causes blistering and tissue damage.

The physical characteristics of some agents provides for the contamination of an area or equipment for a considerable period. These agents are referred to as “persistent” as opposed to “non-persistent” agents that quickly lose potency and have no lasting qualities. The classic persistent agent is Mustard Gas. Mustard is a high density liquid, and can be produced to have a viscosity very similar to that of motor oil. It has a painfully pungent “mustard” aroma. The toxic Mustard gas is released as the persistent mustard liquid slowly evaporates. Like the gas, liquid mustard is also extremely toxic upon skin contact. The well known tissue blistering effect of mustard results from contact with either the liquid or the gas.

Historically, Mustard has been the nearly unique highly persistent chemical. However, some agents, previously known for their extreme toxicity and lack of persistence can now be manufactured in a persistent form that resembles diesel fuel. Many of these exotic agents are so wildly toxic that contact with quantities as small as a pin head-size droplet will cause almost instantaneous death.

Grouped According to their Medical Effect
Chemical agents are normally grouped according to their medical effect. The following seven categories (gathered entirely from open sources) are normally used: Blister Agents (Vesicants); Nerve Agents; Blood Agents; Choking Agents; Vomiting Agents; Tearing Agents and Incapacitating Agents. It is generally considered that there are 28 unclassified chemical agents in the first 6 categories. The laws of chemistry are international, and it should be assumed that any nation (or nearly anyone) can manufacture most of the agents discussed below, especially since the U.S. Army has freely published their chemical composition in open source publications.

Since incapacitating agents are used in many countries for prison riot control, the last category is the subject of a great deal of commercial activity and there is probably no accurate count of agents at any given time.

Blister Agents or Vesicants. Blister agents bear the name because they cause painful blisters where they contact tissue (in either liquid or gaseous form). Blister agents can be lethal when inhaled. They are also very chemically toxic. Mustard and Lewisite are in this category as are the various combinations of Mustard, Lewisite and other agents. There are 10 members of this category. There are 4 mustards,(HD),(HN-1),(HN-2),(HN-3); a distant relative of Phosgene, (CX); Lewisite (L); a Mustard-Lewisite mixture (HL), and 3 distant relatives of Arsine, (PD), (ED),and (MD).

Mustard has always been highly persistent, but originally Lewisite was not because it had a watery viscosity that allowed it to evaporate readily. However, Lewisite can now be manufactured in a viscous and persistent form. The FSU is reported to have loaded 122mm and 152mm chemical artillery shells with viscous Lewisite. Lewisite can also be expected to cause severe systemic poisoning.

Nerve Agents. Nerve agents attack the nervous system and consist of TABUN, VX, Viscous VX, SARIN, and Viscous SOMAN. Although these agents have radically different sounding names they share a common attack strategy and really only vary in lethality and persistence. Most, if not all, nerve agents are chemicals classified as “organophosphates.” The chemical components from which nerve agents are formulated are also commonly used source chemicals for many fertilizers and insect sprays. This global dual use availability greatly complicates international non-proliferation and treaty verification efforts.

Development of nerve agents for use in warfare is generally attributed to the Germans who produced this new family of chemical weapon for possible use during World War II. The first member of the class was TABUN, a gas believed to be manufactured today by North Korea and possibly, Iran. The Germans identified their TABUN chemical shells with a painted green ring. As a legacy of that era, nerve agents are still occasionally referred to as “green ring” gasses. TABUN, SARIN, SOMAN and VX are odorless and colorless, except that TABUN can also range in color to brown.

Nerve agents generally work by inhibiting or radically altering the body’s production of cholinesterase and are referred to as “cholinesterase inhibitors.” Cholinesterase is a chemical vital to the function of the synaptic junctions in the nervous system. According to historical reports in the scientific press, a pinhead-sized drop of TABUN held in the palm of the hand would cause a very unpleasant death within 2 minutes. All nerve agents are considered to be quick-acting.

Modern chemistry has provided not only a variety of nerve agents, but also a means to make viscous persistent agents. VX, for example, can now be made with a viscosity closely resembling diesel fuel. In this viscous form VX is reported to be persistently toxic for approximately one week, environmental conditions permitting.

Blood Agents. Blood Agents attack the chemistry of the blood by destroying its oxygenating ability, clotting characteristics or other life supporting characteristics. This causes severe and rapid internal organ damage. Two of these agents, Hydrogen Cyanide (AC), and Cyanogen Chloride (CK) are quick acting agents, while Arsine (SA) is a delayed action casualty agent.

Choking Agents. Choking Agents cause exceptionally severe choking, and are lethal if breathed in high concentrations. Phosgene (CG), a classic example of a highly toxic choking agent, was used extensively early in World War I. Although easily produced with common household ingredients, choking agents are not generally considered battlefield effective because of the concentrations required and their lack of persistence. However, the effectiveness and lethality of choking agents should not be discounted when used in a closed environment. Diphosgene (DP) is the second of the two-agent class. Both choking agents vary from quick-acting to delayed action, depending upon the location and conditions.


Vomiting Agents. Vomiting agents normally cause severe cold-like symptoms, along with severe headache and nausea, and acute (and what seems like endless) vomiting. The three agents in this category are two distant relatives of Arsine (DA and DC), and Adamsite (DM). All three are considered to be very rapid acting, with DM acting the fastest.

Tear Agents. Popularly known as “Tear Gas,” and appearing on the evening news as smoking canisters thrown or fired into rioting crowds, these agents should not be taken lightly. Tear agents get their name from their obvious effect, acute eye and respiratory tract irritation. Tear agents cause breathing difficulty as well and can cause choking. They are exceptionally painful except in the very smallest doses, and can cause medical problems following protracted exposure.

Tear agents can be purchased on the open market for self protection. Mace has been used with varying degrees of success for many years by Letter Carriers to discourage dog attacks. However, against drugged or determined human attackers, Mace has had limited success. Cayenne, or “pepper spray,” is a tearing agent that is now available in various concentrated spray forms. Cayenne, occurring naturally in red hot peppers, has been found to be highly effective against both animals and humans. While it has no discernable lasting or collateral effect, once in the eyes, it is virtually impossible to see for several hours.

There are six members of the military tear agent category. Four are closely related chemicals, CN, CNB, CNC, and CNS. CNS acts as a vomiting and choking agent as well as a tearing agent. The fifth member of this category is CA. CS is the final member of the group. All tearing agents are considered to be instantaneous in their action.

It is difficult to sell the idea that CS is a tearing agent and not a vomiting agent to anyone familiar with its effects. It is currently used as a training agent, and most soldiers having experienced it are not interested in doing so again. CS saw extensive use by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War to clear enemy tunnels. When inhaled in more than modest amounts, CS causes acute and continuous vomiting for hours, in addition to having a remarkable tearing effect.

Although non-persistent and not normally considered lethal, CS can cause death in persons with significant physical limitations. It is for this reason that U.S. civil authorities are now prohibited from using CS agents in riot control and hostage rescue operations.

Incapacitating Agents. These agents characteristically have severe but normally temporary effects on humans. They work by interfering with some human process to the extent that those exposed cannot execute normal duties. BZ is an example of such an agent. BZ causes fast heartbeat, dizziness, vomiting, dry mouth, blurred vision, stupor, and increasing random activity.

EA 4923, an incapacitating agent used for riot control in at least one foreign prison system. Its effects intensify nerve sensations to such an extent that the contact of the prisoner’s clothing with his skin causes intolerable pain. At the same time, the subject’s eyes become so sensitive to normal light levels that this pain, too, is intolerable. The effect of this agent is reported to last an hour, at the most.

It is believed that some of these agents can have permanent effects on those exposed, especially if the period of exposure is protracted or where high concentrations are present.

Decontamination
The same decontamination chemical solutions and procedures are generally used for both chemical and biological agents. The most effective decontamination chemical solutions available neutralize chemical and bacteriological agents either through oxidation or by hydrolysis and are therefore extremely corrosive to most metal surfaces and damaging to human tissue.

Most decontamination procedures use one of three principal chemicals. These compounds are: Sodium Carbonate (Na2CO3), Decontamination Solution 2 (referred to as “DS2”) and Supertropical Bleach (or “STB”). The choice of decontaminating chemical is normally based upon the item being treated.

Sodium carbonate, the mildest of the decontaminant family, is usually mixed in a 10 percent solution with water. Although it may react mildly with some other chemicals it is non-flammable and generally non-toxic to humans. Because of its mild neutralizing effect, it is the least effective of the decontamination family and is usually not used as a first choice.

DS2 is a sophisticated formula composed of 70 percent diethylenetriamine, 28 percent methylcellosolve, and 2 percent sodium hydroxide. DS2 is not a benign compound. This formula makes DS2 easily flammable with a low flash point of 168 degrees Fahrenheit. DS2 is highly effective against most agents and has broad application. Depending on the agent to be neutralized, DS2 can be used full strength or as a 30% solution with water.

STB is formulated from calcium oxide (CaO) and Calcium Hypochlorite (CaOCl). Compared to commercially available bleach which contains 3-5 percent active chlorine, STB contains as much as 10-30 percent making it a strong oxidizer that is effective on most agents. Like any bleach it is dangerous to eyes, skin, the respiratory system, and clothing.

STB is applied either as a slurry in water or as a powder. As a slurry, STB is non-flammable. However, in the powder form STB can ignite in contact with some chemical agents and will produce an exothermic reaction with ethylene glycol-based substances such as antifreeze. In contact with some agents it will also produce toxic vapors that can be lethal if concentrated in a closed environment.

Virtually all decontamination chemicals are corrosive to steel, aluminum and most other materials (even some plastics) to varying degrees. Unfortunately, the most effective decontaminants are the most corrosive. For example, Sodium Carbonate in low concentrations (10 percent) is mildly corrosive to ferrite alloys and titanium and also attacks aluminum. DS2 in 30 percent solution with water is extremely corrosive to aluminum, dissolves polyurethane rapidly and dissolves epoxy slowly. STB in slurry with water is severely corrosive to most all metals but especially to aluminum. STB is so effective a chemical decontaminant that the following corrosion characteristics must be kept in mind: Low corrosion rate for Al 5052, Al 6061 and titanium alloys; Moderate corrosion rate for stainless and Inconel; High corrosion rate for Al 1100, 2024, 3003, and most other metals.

The Army issues these highly reactive chemical decontaminants because they work. Collateral damage to equipment is to be avoided, if possible, but is accepted as the lesser of two evils. It must be assumed that if anything more benign were truly effective, such as high volume wash down with soap and fresh water or salt water, that it would be used instead.

In anticipation of the use of chemical warfare agents and decontamination chemicals, the U.S. Army has specified that its field equipment, including helicopters, be painted with a chemically resistive coating, called CARC. This coating has a very dense surface, and therefore does not readily absorb chemical agents. In addition, CARC is very resistive to the decontamination chemicals DS2 and STB, and is designed to survive the decontamination process, while most other paint and coating systems would peel off in sheets.

Chemical Agents and Terrorism
The effective use of chemical agents by terrorists is a growing concern among many analysts who believe that it is only a matter of time. The media reports the significant attention now being given to the problems of nuclear proliferation; it is only logical that chemical weapons, as well as biological weapons, should receive the same level of national concern. Although inter-agency and multi-national cooperation in these areas is highly desirable, the actual process of cooperation moves painfully slow.

Current techniques of detection and decontamination both need to be addressed. Given today’s limited resources, decisions need to be made as to where the U.S. government should focus its resources (e.g., intelligence gathering focused on potential proliferants, threat assessment, emergency response capability and the response assets required, countermeasures, federal emergency management procedures, etc.).

Most previous cooperative efforts have historically been DoD led and focused on the battlefield. The remainder, to include those funded by DHS, have been largely disjointed or short-ranged. That approach is not acceptable and must not be allowed to continue to dominate effective cooperation in the areas of planning, and research and development with regard to chemical weapons identification, detection, and countermeasures for the U.S. homeland.

World War I demonstrated what happened to the soldiers of nations unprepared for chemical warfare. Can anyone contemplate this happening to American soccer moms in a terrorist attack using chemical weapons in a shopping mall? The potential that it may unarguably exists.

Paul Evancoe is a novelist and free lance writer. His action novels “Own the Night,” “Violent Peace” and Poison Promise,” deal with terrorism and weapons of mass destruction and are available at AmazonBooks.com

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4 Responses to “Terrorism and the Continuing Threat of Chemical Weapons”


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military dot image R. Denning    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Great read. A mini-seminar on ever current battlefield consideration.


military dot image Mark C. Bishop    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Well done, informative with full history, varieties, and tactical applications.


military dot image LARRY FOWLER    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Thanks Paul!


military dot image Jack Whitney    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Excellent Overview! A good well-ordered quick “school” on what can be a complex topic. Well Done!


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