Did the U.S. use
nerve gas during OPERATION TAILWIND in 1970?
Mustard: An Ambiguous Term
Vaccinations Against Anthrax for U.S. Forces
Did the U.S.
use nerve gas during OPERATION TAILWIND in 1970?
Harvey J. McGeorge
June 24, 1998
During a June 7th CNN NewsStand report and a subsequent
article in TIME magazine it was asserted that on or about 13 and 14 September
1970, U.S. Air Force aircraft dropped munitions containing the nerve agent
Sarin (GB) on or around a village in Laos. These munitions were reportedly
employed in support of OPERATION TAILWIND and were intended to prepare the
village for attack and subsequently cover the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Our position is that the incident did not occur as reported.
Further, it is our belief that nerve agents were not used as described but that
the use of the riot control agent CS was likely. Our contribution to the review
of this incident will be a description of the agents and munitions potentially
involved and an analysis of the reported incident from their perspective.
President Nixon prohibited the use of nerve agents by U.S.
forces. In a statement on 25 November 1969 President Nixon said "
United States reaffirms its oft-repeated renunciation of the first use of
lethal chemical weapons." Sarin is a nerve agent intended for tactical use as a
lethal agent in field concentrations. The use of Sarin, if it occurred, would
appear to be a violation of the policy set forth by the President. President
Nixon could have authorized the use of lethal chemical agents if he had found
that such chemicals had been used against U.S. forces. No such presidential
finding has been reported.
The reports specifically mention the CBU-15 munition. The
acronym CBU refers to Cluster Bomb Unit. CBUs consist of a SUU (Suspension and
Release Unit) which contains multiple BLUs (Bomb Live Unit). Numerous SUUs were
developed and fielded along with over 100 different BLUs. In a number of cases
a specific BLU could be used with more than one SUU. Each combination of SUU
and BLU had a specific CBU model number. The CBU-15 was a U.S. Air Force
dispenser munition intended for use with either high (jet) or low (propeller)
performance aircraft. The CBU-15 consisted of the SUU-13 underwing dispenser
and 40 Sarin filled BLU-19 submunitions.
The SUU-13 dispenser is approximately 100 inches long, 15
inches wide and 14 inches high. It is generally rectangular in shape and had
rounded nose and tail fairings. The SUU-13 has 40 downward firing ejection
tubes in its central section. Each ejection tube has an inside diameter of
approximately 4.7 inches and is about 11 inches long. The SUU-13 was used to
dispense several different submunitions and was therefore a component of
several different CBUs.
The BLU-19 submunition is a steel cylinder 4.6 inches in
diameter and approximately 9.4 inches in height. It contained approximately 4
pounds of Sarin and a high explosive burster along its central axis. The BLU-19
was used only with the SUU-13 dispenser and is associated only with the CBU-15
In the CBU-15 configuration, a single BLU-19 is loaded in
each of the SUU-13 ejection tubes. When initiated by the pilot, the BLU-19s are
ejected downward at a preset time interval. The BLU-19s will impact the ground
in a long line with the length of the impact line dictated by the time interval
between ejection's and the speed of the aircraft. Prior to initiating the
ejection sequence, the pilot would be expected to position his aircraft such
that the line of submunition impacts would occur upwind of the intended target
and perpendicular to the wind direction. Prevailing winds would then,
hopefully, cause the cloud of agent to drift across the target.
The use of CBU-15 munitions as reported is highly unlikely
for several reasons including the following.
- Use of the CBU-15 would have violated the presidential
- BLU-19 submunitions, a component of the CBU-15, were not
available in South Vietnam.
- The report stated that the U.S. forces were equipped with
the M-17 mask. The mask, alone, is insufficient protection from the effects of
Sarin. In addition to the respiratory and ocular routes of exposure, Sarin is
also effective, though less so, via skin absorption. Members of the U.S. force
were reported to have rolled down their uniform sleeves to protect them for the
effects of the chemical agent on their skin. Rolling down the sleeves of the
typical uniform of that period would not have provided significant protection
- The probable effects of Sarin on unprotected exposed
personnel are inconsistent with the effects described in the report. Though
reportedly exposed to aerosolized agent and lacking protective equipment
appropriate for Sarin, no one in the U.S. force is reported to have developed
symptoms typically associated with moderate to severe Sarin intoxication. Some
of the symptoms of mild exposure to Sarin via inhalation are similar to the
symptoms of exposure to CS. Additionally, miosis is typical following
inhalation of minimal quantities Sarin vapor but would not be expected
following the inhalation of CS. Miosis was not a reported symptom.
If U.S. Air Force aircraft dropped a chemical munition it
was probably the CBU-30. The CBU-30 consisted of the SUU-13 dispenser and 40 CS
filled CDU-12 subclusters. CS is a riot control agent that is not typically
lethal in field concentrations.
The CDU-12 subcluster is dimensionally similar to the
BLU-19. The CDU-12 contains 32 BLU-39 CS filled submunitions. Following
ejection from the SUU-13, the CDU-12 first ignites the BLU-39 submunitions then
ruptures in air, releasing the BLU-39 submunitions.
The BLU-39 submunition is approximately the size of a D-cell
flash light battery and contains a CS/pyrotechnic mix. Following ignition of
the CS/pyrotechnic mix and release from the CDU-12 subcluster, the BLU-39s
impact the ground and "skitter" due to the escaping stream of hot CS and
pyrotechnic gases. The skittering action further scatters the BLU-39
submunitions across the target area.
The use of CBU-30 munitions is probable for several reasons
including the following.
- Use of the CBU-30 would not have violated the
- The CDU-12s filled with BLU-39 submunitions were
available and in use in South Vietnam.
- The M-17 mask, alone, is sufficient protection from the
respiratory and ocular effects of CS. Rolling down the sleeves of the uniform
shirt would provide some protection from the skin irritation caused by exposure
to CS. Personnel who had either lost their mask or who had a defective or
poorly fitted mask would be incapacitated to some extent but they would not be
expected to succumb to the effects of CS intoxication.
- The probable effects of CS on unprotected exposed
personnel are consistent with the effects described in the report.
Department of the Army Field Manual FM 3-2, TACTICAL
EMPLOYMENT OF RIOT CONTROL AGENT CS, dated 8 April 1970 includes, on page 3-4,
a table entitled "figure 3-1. CS munitions for principal tactical application."
Under the heading "Air Delivered," seven munitions are listed including the
CBU-15. Of these, four are identified as suitable to either "Rout enemy from
fortified positions" or to "Suppress enemy fire." Only two, the CBU-19 and the
CBU-30 are U.S. Air Force munitions. The CBU-19 is described, on page 4-8, as
obsolete and no longer in production" and "
" The only CBU containing CS likely to be available and appropriate
for the mission described in the report was the CBU-30.
Based on the foregoing analysis we conclude that U.S. forces
supporting OPERATION TAILWIND did not use lethal nerve agents.
Public Safety Group
May 28, 1998
In 1822 Despretz reacted ethylene with sulfur chloride to
yield bis(2-chloroethyl) sulfide more commonly known as sulfur mustard or
mustard gas. Over the next 100 years at least six other reactions for the
production of mustard were devised. Each yielded sulfur mustard but differed in
the immediate precursors, the purity of the mustard produced and the specific
byproducts. These initial production routes include the following.
- Ethylene reacted with sulfur chloride - Despretz,
- Chlorine reacted with ethyl sulfide - Richie, 1854
- Thiodiglycol reacted with phosphorus trichloride - Meyer,
- Thiodiglycol reacted with hydrochloric acid - Clarke,
- Ethylene (dry) reacted with sulfur dichloride - Gibson
and Pope, 1920
- Thiodiglycol in chloroform reacted with thionyl chloride
in chloroform - Steinkopt, 1920
- Sulfur dichloride(75) and sulfur monochloride(25) reacted
with ethylene - Meyers and Stephen, 1920
Various procedures for improving the purity of sulfur
mustard were devised including the following.
- Vacuum distillation - HD United States
- DESA process - South Africa
During the period 1918 to 1945 over 200,000 tons of
"mustard" was produced by at least 10 countries including the following.
Since WWII at least another six countries are known to have
produced mustard in one form or another.
A cursory review of this production reveals that, in
addition to sulfur mustard, at least six other primary compounds were produced.
These primary compounds included the following.
- Bis(2-cholorethyl)sulfide - basic sulfur mustard
- 1,2-bis(2-chloroethylthio)ethene - sesqui mustard
- Bis(2-chloroethylthioethyl)ether - oxygen mustard
- Sulfur mustard with a methyl group- Ziakov mustard
- Bis(2-chloroethyl)ethylamine - nitrogen mustard 1
- Methyl-bis-(2-chloroethyl)amine - nitrogen mustard 2
- Tris(2-chloroethyl)amine - nitrogen mustard 3
In addition to being used singly as munitions fillings some
of these compounds were mixed with sulfur mustard to lower its freezing point.
Examples include the following.
- Sulfur mustard mixed with sesqui mustard - HQ United
- Sulfur mustard mixed with oxygen mustard - HT United
Sulfur mustard was also mixed with other chemical agents or
compounds to either reduce its freezing point or to achieve some other desired
effect. Examples include the following.
- Sulfur mustard with lewisite - HL United States, RK-7
- Zaikov mustard with dichloroethane - USSR
- Sulfur mustard with thickeners - HVV United States
- Zaikov mustard with thickeners - VIR-16 USSR
Yet further combinations were created when stabilizers were
added to retard decomposition in storage. At least some of these combinations
were apparently identified by a unique code painted on the munition. The
following stabilizers are known to have been used with mustards.
- Carbon tetrachloride - France and Germany
- Chlorobenzene - France and Germany
- Chloropicrin - United States
- Nitrobenzene - Germany
- Aeridine - K USSR
- Beta-naphthoquinoline - N USSR
In summary there are dozens of unique compounds and mixtures
loaded in munitions or other containers that are all loosely referred to as
"mustard gas." This broad generalization leads to confusion and mistakes on the
part of investigators and analysts.
Vaccinations Against Anthrax for
In November of 1997, Secretary of Defense Cohen announced a
six year, $130 million plan to vaccinate all 2.5 million U.S regular and
reserve forces against Anthrax. In early March, at the request of General
Anthony Zinni, the Pentagon announced plans to accelerate the time table for
initiation of the actual vaccinations. Troops in the Persian Gulf will, this
week, begin receiving the first of six vaccinations over an 18 month span.
The sole U.S. Producer of Anthrax vaccine is Michigan
Biological Products Institute (MBPI), which is operated by the Michigan
Department of Public Health. The vaccine has been licensed in the U.S. since
1971. The usually authoritative ASA Newsletter reports in its 12 February 1998
issue that MBPI is up for sale and had been scheduled to close in February. BG
John Doesburg reportedly said that the Pentagon cannot operate the facility (27
buildings and 153 workers).
The effectiveness of the vaccine against the pulmonary form
of Anthrax has been questioned. Data from the highly regarded U.S. Army Medical
Research Institute of Infectious Disease (USAMRIID) at Ft. Detrick states that,
"two doses of vaccine protects against 200-500 LD50's in monkeys." This means
that two doses of the vaccine, given two weeks apart, provided a high degree of
protection (animals didn't get sick) when the test animals were exposed to
inhalation doses of Anthrax spores 200-500 times the amount typically needed to
initiate a lethal infection in 50% of the exposed monkeys. The estimated LD50
for unvaccinated humans is 8-10,000 spores. Assuming that the degree of
protection afforded humans was similar to that found in monkeys, the dose
needed to cause an infection in 50% of the vaccinated personnel raises to
between 1.6 and 5 million spores. This may seem like a large number but it is
achievable, particularly in circumstances where there is no warning and
especially in a confined space such as a building.
The effectiveness of the vaccine against the various strains
(varieties) of Bacillus Anthracis (the bacteria which causes Anthrax) is
another cause for concern. Recent studies have shown that multiple strains of
B. Anthracis were present following the 1979 incident in the Russian city of
Sverdlosvsk. This suggests, but does not prove, that the former Soviet Union
was, at least, experimenting with a mixed strain Anthrax agent. Further, it is
unknown if this mixed strain technology, if it actually exists, has been
transferred to either Iraq or one of the other states with an active BW
program. The effectiveness of the current vaccine against a mixed strain agent
is presumed to be high but needs to be validated. A potentially more effective
Anthrax vaccine is under development at USAMRIID.
The following points are important to remember when
considering vaccines and biological warfare or terrorism.
- Vaccines are an important part of the defense against
biological warfare agents.
- Vaccines alone will not reliably protect you from the
deliberate use of a biological warfare agent.
- Vaccines are best used as a pre-treatment in conjunction
with respiratory protection and, when necessary, post exposure treatment with
antibiotics or other therapy.
||Graham, Bradley. All-Force Inoculation Timetable Moved
Up. The Washington Post, 4 March 1998.
||Price, Barbara. And on Anthrax Vaccines. Bioscope '98.
The ASA Newsletter, Issue Number 64, 12 February 1998.
||Price, Richard ed. U.S. Vaccine Lab for Sale. On the
Street, The ASA Newsletter, Issue Number 61, 23 August 1997.
||Medical Management of Biological Casualties Handbook,
Second Edition. USAMRIID, Ft. Detrick, Frederick, Maryland. August 1996.
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