The Army has been forced to defend against charges that the gas mask carried by Army and Marine ground troops -- critical gear needed to counter a possible chemical attack by Iraq -- is inadequate.
Questions about the M17 mask were raised recently on a network television newscast. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., also has written a letter to Defense Secretary Richard Cheney in which she raised concerns about the safety of the mask.
The M17 was designed at Harford County's Aberdeen Proving Ground in the 1950s and has been upgraded several times since, the Army said. Scientists at the proving ground's Chemical Research, Development and Engineering Center have developed a newer mask, called the M40, but only about 400 of those models have been fielded in the Persian Gulf region. That is about 1 percent of the total number of masks circulated among the American troops.
Army officials said the first major stock of M40 masks is to be delivered to the service within several months. If the war is still going on then, the officials said, more M40 masks could be fielded.
While the Defense Department continues to "assure the Congress that the equipment is adequate, men and women on the front lines say otherwise, and we should address their concerns," Mikulski wrote in her Feb. 7 letter to Cheney. "Now that the fighting has begun, there is no time to lose," she wrote.
She also asked whether something can be done to speed the delivery of more M40 masks to the war zone.
The criticisms of the M17 have centered on two issues: the
restrictiveness of the eyepieces, which make it hard to aim a rifle, and the placement of activated carbon filters. The M17's filters can take as long as five minutes to change, but Army officials say doctrine calls for troops to leave contaminated areas before changing filters.
Mikulski also said smaller women cannot get a proper fit with the M17, which is made of natural rubber. Officials at the proving ground's chemical center say the M40 masks now in the gulf region were sent to accommodate people with smaller features. The M40, the product of more than $17 million worth of research and development, is made of a more flexible silicone-based rubber.
The M40 also has larger eyepieces. And, instead of the M17's two carbon filters in pouches at the cheeks, the M40 has a single-filter canister that can be attached quickly on either side of the mask.
The filters on both the M17 and the M40 must be changed in an uncontaminated environment or a soldier will risk being poisoned, said Jeff Lindblad, a spokesman for the chemical center, where U.S. chemical warfare research began in 1917.
Some Navy and Air Force personnel use different masks that offer the features of the M40, but Army officials say those masks are not tough enough for infantrymen. Pilots and tank crewmen use other designs that can accommodate night-vision equipment and forced-air breathing units.
While there have been criticisms of the M17, some chemical warfare experts side with the Army in saying that the mask should do the job if Iraqi forces attack with artillery shells and rockets filled with mustard or nerve agents, as they did in the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s. Some experts maintain that even if Iraq were to use chemical weapons, soldiers would not be exposed for too long because the chemicals dissipate quickly in a desert environment.
"It's not as if this is a dysfunctional piece of equipment and that soldiers are going to die," said Brad Roberts, a chemical warfare specialist at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Any safety improvements on the M40 will offer only marginally better protection, he maintained.
Roberts acknowledged that the U.S. research effort on gas masks should have proceeded at a faster pace. But, he said, the chemical threat has not changed since the M17 was designed.