C. Analysis of Related Issues

In the process of investigating 11th Marines alerts and incidents, investigators studied other relevant factors: 1) the unit’s chemical detection capability in a polluted environment; 2) medical evidence, and 3) any possible special characteristics of the 11th Marines that could affect NBC response.

1. Chemical Detection Capability

One or more chemical detection devices initiated many of the alerts recorded by the 11th Marines. If interferents caused these devices to give false positive indications, they were responsible for false alarms and unnecessary masking. On the other hand, if these devices were used in ways for which they were not designed, they may have been trusted to warn of chemical agent when their designs made them too insensitive to detect low concentrations—thereby putting Marines at risk. A brief review of the key Marine chemical detection equipment follows. Descriptions of this equipment may be found in the Glossary at TAB A.

a. Fox NBC Reconnaissance Vehicle

The Fox NBC reconnaissance vehicle with onboard mass spectrometer got high marks from many Marines.[189] The design features of the Fox system made it particularly effective for detecting and identifying persistent agent residues at close range on the ground, on vehicles, etc. During the Gulf War, Marines used the system primarily to "sniff" the air for potentially low concentrations of agents and thereby verify or refute positive detections by other devices. In this "air-hi" mode, the Fox was 500 times less sensitive than the M8 alarm and at least 10 times less sensitive than other devices such as the M256 kit and the CAM. Table 3 shows the relative sensitivities for various detection devices and agents.

A knowledgeable source has indicated that the Fox system might not have always alerted in the "air-hi" mode during the Gulf War until agent concentrations were well above the threshold where one would expect prompt symptoms.[190] Nevertheless, Marines appreciated the Fox for its relatively low false alarm rate in a petroleum-polluted environment and used it to "confirm" that other types of detections were false alarms. These confirmations allowed units to unmask—perhaps prematurely. It is at least probable that those trusting the "no threat" indications by the Fox did not fully understand the equipment’s limitations and lack of sensitivity in the ambient air sampling mode.

Table 3. Vapor Chemical Agent Detector Characteristics[191]

Item Agents Sensitivity Response Time
M8A1 Alarm G, V Nerve 0.1-0.2 mg/m3 <=2 min
M256A1 Kit G
0.005 mg/m3
0.02 mg/m3
2 mg/m3
9 mg/m3
3 mg/m3
8 mg/m3
9 mg/m3
15 min
15 min
15 min
15 min
15 min
25 min
CAM GA, GB, VX, HD, HN <= 0.1 mg/m3 <=1 min
Fox - MM-1
"Air-Hi" Mode
62 mg/m3
46 mg/m3
115 mg/m3
<=45 sec


b. M256 Chemical Agent Detection Kit

In the presence of some petroleum and combustion products, the M256 kit could generate false positives, particularly for blister agents.[194] As noted in the incident summaries, the 11th Marines used M256 kits extensively to test for chemical warfare agents. Commanding officers and operations personnel frequently bemoaned the false alarm rate from interfering chemicals.[195] However, the majority of the trained NBC personnel expressed overall confidence in this "wet chemistry" kit, if used properly.[196] An 11th Marines Battery (the A Battery, 1/11) reportedly ceased using the M256 after a Fox crew told them that only the Fox was reliable in the oil smoke.[197] As noted above, this was not true for the Fox in the air sampling mode. Consequently, that unit and any others that followed similar advice, might have missed any instances when there were low levels of chemical warfare agents present.

According to the regiment’s NBC officer, as the ground campaign approached, some of the 11th Marines’ M256 kits approached or exceeded their shelf life expiration dates. He could not recall what portion of their inventory was affected but had the impression that it was "low." He noted that for each lot number involved, he requested and received an extension of the shelf life. He was not as concerned about shelf life as he was about having sufficient kits available going into the ground campaign. He believed that even expired kits were better than nothing, and he would have taken additional expired kits if he could have gotten them.[198]

A US Army technical report notes that an M256 kit with inactive, dead, or too little enzyme due to excessive age produces a false positive for nerve agent. The kit relies on viable enzymes to provide a negative or "no nerve agent" indication by turning a paper patch from white to blue. In the presence of chemical agent (or because of age), the enzymes become inactive and the color change does not occur, thus giving a positive reading.[199] Kits that exceeded their original expiration dates may have been responsible for some positive M256 nerve agent test in the Gulf War. (False positives, however, are generally better than the reverse—false negatives. Except in critical battle situations, false positives err on the side of safety, while false negatives open the way for possible exposure to chemical warfare agents

c. Chemical Agent Monitor (CAM)

The 11th Marines also extensively used the Chemical Agent Monitor (CAM) in their operational area. Most witnesses commented positively about it, although some noted it could give false alarms in a "polluted" environment (gave a fairly high concentration reading for nerve agent when sniffing a Cup-o-Noodles ).[200] Marines frequently used this device to monitor ambient air. The CAM, however, was designed as a point source detector for contamination at close range on equipment and personnel.[201] Despite this, there is no evidence that inappropriate use of this device contributed to potential exposure. From available information, it appears the CAM complemented other continuous and periodic monitoring. The use of the CAM in the Gulf War did not sideline other detection devices and did not cause Marines to ignore other types of detections.

d. XM21 Remote Sensing Chemical Agent Alarm (RSCAAL)

The XM21 was an experimental device capable of detecting chemical warfare agents by passively sampling infrared spectra of clouds up to several kilometers away.

Prior to the ground campaign into Kuwait, the 11th Marines sent the XM21 along on two artillery raids. During one of these, the device repeatedly alarmed. In the middle of the night, it was too dark to tell what the detector might have sensed. The XM21 operator for this raid did not recall what type of agent the device detected.[202]

During the ground war, the 1st Marine Division’s XM21 was deployed with the S Battery, 5/11. S Battery stopped using the device before the end of the ground campaign because the XM21 detections were not confirmed by short-range detectors like the CAM and M256 kits.[203] Reportedly, chemical interferents or a low power supply could cause the device to false alarm.[204] Although the Marine training on the device was marginal,[205] there is no known evidence that the XM21 was used inappropriately or contributed to a false sense of security. It did, however, initiate two of the 11th Marines’ recorded alerts that were subsequently considered false alarms.

An expert at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command involved in testing and fielding Marine Corps NBC equipment was asked to comment on how the XM21 was viewed at the time of the Gulf War. He indicated he was the one responsible for fielding the RSCAAL for the war and had a very favorable view of the equipment. He noted that the US Army and Marine Corps jointly tested the equipment in a laboratory environment before the war and confirmed that it could detect chemical warfare agents. They also tested the equipment using some interferents and determined that the XM21 could discriminate these test interferents from real chemical agents. The expert was unaware and surprised that the prototype device deployed with the 1st Marine Division was sidelined before the end of the ground campaign because of alleged false alarms. The feedback he received on the device after Desert Storm was "very positive."[206] (The two XM21s with the 2nd Marine Division received better marks than the 1st Marine Division’s XM21.)

e. M8 Automatic Chemical Agent Alarm System

As noted in Table 2 above, the M8 alarm is highly sensitive to chemical agent vapor. It is also sensitive to a wide variety of interferents including smoke, engine exhaust, burning fuel, and even aftershave.[207] Before the ground campaign began, M8s generated false alarms at a rate that caused many Marine units (for which the M8 was not a normal equipment item) to leave them behind or turned off for the attack into Kuwait.[208] The M8, therefore, contributed little to the Marines’ chemical warning capability—particularly the capability to detect nerve agent in the air. (The 11th Marines, however, reported no symptoms of nerve agent exposure.)

f. Understanding of Detection Equipment Limitations

As the CO of the 11th Marines pointed out in an interview, when the ground campaign began, they did not understand the limitations of the issued chemical agent detectors. In particular, they did not know that the oil well fires could at times produce false positives on all of the detectors. Therefore, until proven otherwise, they were inclined to treat all positive readings as valid.[209] As previously noted, the Fox chemical reconnaissance vehicles, CAMs, and XM21 RSCAALs were introduced very late in the ground war preparations. Marine operators had only a limited opportunity to receive training and become familiar with these systems.

g. Assessment

The sensitivity to battlefield interferents (particularly pollution from burning oil wells) by the 11th Marines’ various detection devices probably resulted in a significant number of false alarms and unnecessary transitions to MOPP Level 4. Operators were unfamiliar with some of the limitations and responses to interferents in a highly polluted environment. Detections by more sensitive equipment, considered false alarms, led to increasing reliance on equipment like the Fox and CAM—which were not optimized to detect relatively low airborne agent concentrations. Because the Fox, the CAM, and the XM21 were fielded late, Marines using these devices did not get sufficient training to fully grasp the respective capabilities and limitations.

2. What Did Medical Records Show?

The only first-hand medical document discovered was a memorandum dated March 11, 1991, from the 11th Marines regimental surgeon to the regimental commanding officer. It summarized the organization and implementation of medical treatment for the command—and included this statement; "No serious injuries or mortalities were received and no medical evacuations called" [during Operation Desert Storm].[210] If the 11th Marines operated in the presence of substantial chemical warfare agent, at least a few serious casualties would have shown up in these medical records.

In a recent interview, the regimental surgeon indicated that he and a small team were located with the logistics base. This is where any chemical casualties requiring decontamination were to be taken as the medical teams with the forward battalions could not stop and treat these casualties. The surgeon was not aware of any chemical casualties or any one in the 11th Marines claiming to have been exposed to chemical warfare agents. He believed he would have been notified if any of the forward teams (a doctor and about 12 corpsmen) had treated chemical casualties.[211]

Investigators also interviewed the chief Navy corpsman and one other medical corpsmen assigned to the 11th Marines. They recalled a few instances where Marines reported shortness of breath, dizziness, or eye irritation. These Marines were observed and chemical exposure was ruled out.[212]

Investigators requested that the office of the current 11th Marines regimental surgeon review any existing records from the Gulf War period for reports of chemical casualties. That office replied by telephone that they no longer retain these records.

3. Was Something Unusual About the 11th Marines?

If expert opinion is correct and Iraq neither deployed forward nor employed chemical warfare agents during the Gulf War, why did the 11th Marines initiate and record as many alerts as it did? Were there other explanations for the numerous alerts, even if chemical warfare agent was not present? A summary of the evidence follows.

a. Artillery Pattern of Maneuver

A number of witnesses pointed out that the manner in which artillery units operated and maneuvered is different from infantry units in ways that probably affected NBC alerts and reactions. Basically, artillery elements "leapfrogged" each other during movement to provide continuous fire support cover. Consequently, they were in a fixed position for longer periods than infantry units and had the opportunity to observe more.[213]

The CO of the 11th Marines noted that having to remain stationary meant that their batteries could not "walk away from the stuff if there was a chemical attack." In addition, he believed that, in temporary fixed positions, artillery units could upgrade protective posture more easily and could afford to mask more than infantry units in response to alarms. Therefore, they were inclined to upgrade the MOPP level rather than take a chance.[214]

b. Communications and Situation Awareness

The 11th Marines’ CO was not surprised that the unit recorded a lot of incidents. He noted that the regiment monitored all of the division radio networks. Whenever anybody said "gas, gas, gas," they responded. He recalled that senior commanders liked to come to the artillery regiment because there they could find out what the whole division was doing rather than just one unit.[215] Other Marines agreed. It was the nature of artillery units. They had communications nets and liaison people over a wide area. They would pick up on a suspected NBC attack and report it on the artillery nets. Alerts "tended to spread like wildfire across unit boundaries and throughout artillery formations."[216] Some of the recipients of these alerts may not have been close enough to the source for masking to be rational, even if the distant threat had been real.

Several witnesses believed that those troops passing chemical alerts did not demonstrate proper discipline. This did not reflect just on the 11th Marines, but presumably on other units as well. An NBC officer noted that, while he had instructed his artillery battalion on proper NBC reporting procedures, the multitude of reports sometimes involved people panicking and reporting "gas, gas, gas." He thought that if the units had properly followed the reporting procedures, they could have avoided many instances of troops remaining in MOPP Level 4 for long periods.[217] One CO recalled that if anybody suspected CW, they got on the net and the alert spread like an "uncontrollable fire."[218] Another officer said their battalion NBC NCO became livid about the alerts, believing the detections were false. On one occasion, he went outside without his mask during an alert to underscore his point.[219] Noting that alerts often did not contain information on the initiating unit or location, another witness offered the opinion that proper procedure was not used in at least one instance he remembered.[220]An NBC NCO outside the 11th Marines thought that the regiment was most undisciplined in using the radios. Because of their Fire Support Coordination Center, their messages went all over the place. They reported other units’ alarms, as well as their own. He recalled that, at one point, an element of the regiment thought they were under gas attack, when in fact they were reacting to outgoing fire. The witness stated that there was so little discipline that he often could not tell who had originated an NBC-1 report.[221] In the words of a fire direction controlman with the 11th Marines, alerts were "kind of like a chain reaction, word spread, people ran around."[222]

The NBC officer of the 11th Marines noted that alerts were to be sent up the chain of command, down, and laterally. He believed there was no practical alternative to radioing alerts. The problem was that one unit would initiate an alert and it would circle the network. Consequently, it often appeared there had been more than one incident when there had not been. He recognized there were spurious alerts causing units to go to MOPP Level 4, but could not figure an alternative solution. He noted that most of those initiating alerts did not file a formal NBC-1 report even though they theoretically should have. (The format contains entries for time, location, unit, nature of the threat, etc. See discussion of the NBC reporting system in the Glossary at TAB A.) He attributed this partly to the press of battle and fatigue.[223] Another observer noted that the 11th Marines had five battalions for the ground campaign but only one NBC officer at the regiment. Members of the 11th Marines assumed that, as artillery, the enemy would try to take them out first. They took the NBC threat seriously. This witness thought the 11th Marines NBC officer did a "hell of a job."[224]

c. Training and Indoctrination

Investigators analyzed whether the 11th Marines trained or indoctrinated personnel differently than other units in the 1st Marine Division. Such differences might help to explain the number of alerts. In pursuing this line of questioning, there was no intention of making value judgments about what was correct--only what might have been "different."

Several witnesses suggested that elements of the 11th Marines might have been more cautious about chemical threats than other units. An NBC officer with the 1st Marine Division pointed to the influence of the 11th Marines NBC officer. He described this Marine as careful and inclined to play it safe by reporting possible chemical weapons.[225]

The 11th Marines personnel received the following training during Operation Desert Shield: testing and reporting of chemical incidents, handling of casualties, unmasking procedures, and decontamination of equipment.[226]

As the CO of the 11th Marines pointed out, the 11th Marines had only three subordinate battalions for most of Operation Desert Shield. Shortly before the beginning of the ground campaign, the 3/12 from Okinawa arrived and was integrated. He recalled that A Battery, 1/11, and two reserve batteries (the H and I Batteries, 14th Marines) also joined the regiment. To optimize experience level across the regiment, the CO reassigned some batteries between battalions. He noted that the late arriving units did not have the full benefit of in-theater training. This could have affected the way they reacted to alert situations.[227]

One battalion in particular, the 1/11, reported a significant number of NBC alerts after the beginning of the ground campaign. One NBC officer indicated that the 1/11 was quite diligent in their NBC procedures and was "quick to go to MOPP-4."[228] The 1/11 CO noted that the A Battery of his battalion had a very active NBC monitoring team. Their people were very "up on what they were doing." However, he did not have a sense at the time that the 1/11 was getting more readings than anybody else. "So, I didn’t have a sense, gee whiz, we were at the epicenter of all these incidents. It seemed to me that there were other units reporting things that we were responding to."[229] Asked if he thought the NBC teams in the 1/11 were more aggressive than others, an NBC officer with the 1/11 said he did not know, but basically thought everybody was aggressive.[230]

Without an extensive cross-unit survey, it is difficult to judge objectively whether the 11th Marines NBC training differed from other units. Nevertheless, investigators asked some witnesses to reflect on this issue. One NBC NCO with the 1/12 noted that for five months they did nothing but train in NBC. He said, "We did so much training, preparing to fight in an NBC environment that, yeah, maybe we were a little anxious."[231] The CO of the 3/12 suggested that, as a result of their training, the Marines may have been "over prepared" for an NBC environment. He said that any lance corporal who smelled something or saw unusual smoke could get on the radio and cause the Marines to go to MOPP Level 4.[232] The NBC officer of the 11th Marines attributed the number of his unit’s alerts to "thorough training" and emphasized that he personally instructed every battery on NBC procedures. He put the number of alerts in a positive context.[233]

d. Assessment

It appears clear from the available evidence that there were systemic factors contributing to the level of 11th Marines alerts. In some cases, these factors appeared to affect certain subordinate elements of the regiment more than others.

The distinctive maneuver pattern of artillery units probably provided them with more opportunity to observe their surroundings, run chemical detection equipment, and report suspicious activity. They alternately leapfrogged ahead, with some batteries always in place and ready to fire to protect division forces. Therefore, they remained stationary more than infantry units, which moved more steadily. Sitting in fixed positions and not being able to immediately move away from suspected chemical fires meant that artillery batteries were more motivated to respond to chemical alerts and could do so more easily than infantry units.

From these observations emerges a consensus that the extensive artillery coordination networks contributed to the spread of alerts far and wide--even to some units that were too far away to be at risk and units not down wind. This communications capability—combined with questionable discipline in providing key information about potential threats-- probably sowed some confusion and generated over reaction.

During Operation Desert Shield, 13 firing batteries of the 11th Marines (out of the eventual 16) trained extensively in NBC defense. Three of the regiment’s batteries arrived shortly before the ground campaign. The reduced in-theater NBC training may have contributed on the margin to incident levels.

Based on collected data, it appears that the NBC officer of the 11th Marines was comparatively conservative in approach and that this approach was probably passed on to the subordinate units during training. (The 11th Marines NBC officer noted that he trained every battery). Between safety and the negative impact of going to MOPP Level 4, safety was generally favored within the 11th Marines—partly perhaps because of its pattern of deployment. Some battalions—particularly the 5/11 and the 3/12—seemed less safety-minded than others and instituted restraining procedures (like requiring a CO decision before masking in response to outside alerts). The perception of spurious alerts can have its own impact on safety. One battalion NBC NCO referred to a "yelling wolf type syndrome."[234]

Investigators recognize that their observations have the advantage of hindsight. The 11th Marines and other elements of the 1st Marine Division penetrated the part of Kuwait where the enemy probably most expected an attack. Iraq had chemical weapons and had used them in the past. Artillery units probably would have been priority targets. During part of the fighting, Marine units operated with restricted visibility from oil well fires and had to feel their way forward against an enemy they might not be able to see. There was incoming fire. Stress was a natural reaction. As the CO of the 11th Marines noted, "It was not an academic exercise."[235] It was, however, a successful one.

As a final observation, investigators conclude that their extensive research on 11th Marines NBC incidents produced no clear evidence to refute the belief of United Nations inspectors and others that Iraq chose not to move chemical warfare munitions into Kuwait before or during the war.

This narrative concludes that the elements of the 11th Marines used the NBC indications and information they received to try to protect their forces from CWA exposure while focusing on their critical mission of supporting infantry units. They tried to do the right thing. With benefit of hindsight, lessons learned can be extracted from their experience that hopefully will help prepare Marine forces for future operations in the face of NBC threats.

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