A Deadly Flaw in NBC Defenses

Soldiers for the Truth

The flaw is this: Although current NBC protective clothing (“MOPP Gear”) is designed to protect the troops’ skin and respiratory systems from chemical and biological weapons, the troops water supply is not protected in an NBC environment.  In spite of the fact that the MOPP gear might work properly, troops could end up drinking the very contaminants for which the MOPP gear is designed to protect them. Well  if you need softer water or good quality water for drink then you should have good water softener.

Front-line troops consume most of their water from their canteens. These canteens are fitted with special tops that allow them to drink without removing their MOPP headgear. When the canteens are empty, they refill them at “Water Buffaloes,” which are essentially large water tanks that are filled in the rear area and towed to the troops at the front.

The problem is that as water is drained out of the water buffalo, air from the outside the buffalo displaces the water that is being withdrawn. On a battlefield where there has been a release of chemical or biological weapons, that air will contain elements of the contaminant. By the simplest laws of physics, some portion of the contaminants will dissolve into the drinking water. Only the very first soldiers who draw water will draw clean water – the next ones will end up drinking contaminated water.

In November 2002, I sent an email that set forth this problem, along with three potential solutions, to various military units that are concerned with NBC preparations. At the time I did not know whether the U.S. military had already addressed this problem.

Then, on Jan. 22, 2003, I received an email from Robert (he only identified himself by his first name), who was responding on behalf of the Pentagon’s Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, Medical Readiness and Military Deployments, Dr. William Winkenwerder.

“We appreciate your insightful comments. Your e-mail has stirred considerable discussions. While the overall assessment is that any risk from filling canteens from a water buffalo in an NBC environment is secondary to risks of having to operate within the NBC environment, the absolute risk cannot be fully evaluated because the water buffalo models M149 and M1112 have not been evaluated. Preliminary calculations could not rule out the possibility of a hazard if a prolonged NBC environment is maintained around the water buffalo.”

“Therefore, the U.S. Army’s Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine concurred with your recommendation to install an NBC air filter on the air inlet for the M149/M1112.”

Robert went on to note that two new water delivery systems being tested by the Pentagon – the HIPPO and CAMEL – will include design features that will prevent contamination as water is delivered to individual troops.

This email made it clear to me that the military had not been aware of the problem prior to my email. For 40 or 50 years, it had “slipped through the cracks.” I immediately sent another email asking whether the new filters were in place yet and providing a stop-gap solution that can be implemented immediately in case the filters are not yet in place.

Even if the new filters are already in place, there is yet another problem: In order to fill a canteen from a water buffalo, you have to take the top off of the canteen. In a contaminated environment, this would provide a short period of time during which contaminants could foul the water. This may be a lesser problem than contaminated air sitting above drinking water inside the buff, but it is still a concern.

There must be a sense of urgency here.

American troops could be at war in an NBC environment in a matter of weeks. If the new filters are not already in place, our troops cannot wait for the slow wheels of military bureaucracy and procurement to slowly grind away – the cost in human lives lost could be enormous.

There are two potential solutions that can be put in place immediately, but the commanders must be made aware of the problem and the solutions.

Solution No. 1: Instead of filling up water buffaloes at the rear and towing them to the front, fill up extra canteens (with NBC tops) at the rear and truck them to the front. This solution requires only awareness of the problem, a lot of extra canteens, and a slight change in doctrine.

The bottom line is that canteens have to be filled somewhere, water has to be transported from the rear to the front, and empty containers have to be sent back from the front to the rear. The only change in doctrine is that the canteens are filled at the rear instead of at the front, canteens instead of water buffs are trucked to the front, and empty canteens instead of empty water buffs are trucked to the rear.

Solution No. 2: Produce a massive supply of bottled water just like the bottles that we see in every convenience store, except modify the tops so that they fit the MOPP headgear. This solution has one obvious advantage: The United States has a tremendous bottled-water industry. It might be possible to quickly design NBC tops and temporarily convert existing production capacity to military use.

I remain sick with worry that the solution of putting air filters on existing Water Buffalo trailers will not be ready in time to protect the thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen now pouring into the Persian Gulf region who could be in combat in a couple of weeks. Immediate solutions are possible – the only things standing in the way of them are inertia and lack of awareness about the problem. I pray to God that someone who can and will take action on this matter will become aware and deal with it.

Footnote: SFTT.org submitted Bacon’s allegations to the U.S. Army and received the following response from a U.S. Army Materiel Command spokeswoman:

* None of the Army’s M149 or M1112 Water Buffaloes have been retrofitted with a filtering system to prevent contamination, and there are no plans at present to do so. “The answer is none,” said spokeswoman Jan Finegan, when asked how many of the existing Water Buffaloes were going to receive filtering systems.

* While both the new HIPPO and CAMEL systems have been designed with filtering systems to protect the water from being contaminated, both systems are in early production and none have been fielded by U.S. military forces deploying to the Persian Gulf region.

Bart Bacon served as a Marine lieutenant during the 1980’s and was promoted to Captain, USMCR, after completion of his active duty. He is currently president of a financial services corporation in Tampa, Fla. He can be reached at waterbuf@dolphincap.com.

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