Updated paper provides insights into Fox vehicle capabilities, limits

WASHINGTON, March 27, 2001 (GulfLINK) - At the time of the Gulf War, the Fox Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Reconnaissance Vehicle was the most sophisticated, technically complex chemical detection equipment used in the Gulf War. However, not enough was understood about its limitations and capabilities. In the years since the Gulf War, investigators from the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, Medical Readiness and Military Deployments have gained a better understanding on the Fox vehicle and its capabilities and limitations.

The updated version of the "Fox NBC Reconnaissance Information Paper" released today by the Department of Defense updates some of the material presented in the original paper published in 1997. The updated version contains more in-depth technical information obtained from Fox vehicle experts and learned from other investigations involving Fox vehicles that better explains its use during the Gulf War.

U.S. soldiers first experienced chemical warfare agents during World War I. In the 1950s, the U.S. military started to develop chemical warfare agent detection and the warning systems, fielding the first U.S. automatic chemical alarm - the M8 - in the 1970s. It was not until the late 1980s that the U.S. Army tested a mobile German Fuchs NBC Reconnaissance System, which offered better detection capability than existing equipment.

"The Fox, at the time of the Gulf War, was our best defense when it came to detecting the possible presence of liquid chemical warfare agents and protecting the lives of soldiers and Marines on the battlefield," said Dale A. Vesser, the acting special assistant. "And with a few improvements, it remains one of our best defenses."

The Fox vehicle is a six-wheeled, light armored NBC Reconnaissance Vehicle with on-board NBC detection capabilities. The heart of the Fox system is the MM-1 Mobile Mass Spectrometer. It analyzes air or ground samples for the presence of possible chemical warfare agents by drawing air through the air/surface sampler positioned on the outside of the vehicle to the MM-1 detection unit, which then analyzes the substance and displays the results on a video screen. The MM-1 monitored for the possible presence of chemical warfare agents including sarin, soman, mustard, lewisite and cyclosarin to name a few. However, contaminants - such as oil well fire smoke - hindered the Fox vehicle's detection capabilities.

The M43A1 Chemical Agent Detector, the M256 Series Chemical Agent Detector Kit, the AN/VDR2 radiation detector and the ASG1 radiation detector were also standard equipment in the Fox. While the Fox did not provide any biological detection capability, it did protect the crew from biological hazards, and allowed the crew to mark areas of potential hazard and safely take samples for laboratories to analyze for biological hazards.

In 1990, with the start of the Gulf War, the U.S. government accepted 60 Fuchs NBC Reconnaissance Vehicles from the government of Germany.

"The Army recognized that there was a critical need for better chemical warfare agent detection capability to protect our servicemembers," said Bill Voelkner, an investigator with the special assistant's office and an author of the information paper. "In 1989, the Army tested a German Fuchs NBC Reconnaissance System that proved to be far superior to anything else that had been developed."

The Germans modified the vehicle by adding English language labels and software, an M43A1 Chemical Agent Detector, air conditioning and U.S. radios. The Americanized version became known as the Fox NBC Reconnaissance Vehicle, or "the Fox" for short.

During the Gulf War, the Fox was new to U.S. and doctrine had not been developed. U.S. Fox crews trained quickly at both the U.S. Army Chemical School at Fort McClellan, Ala., and the German NBC and Self Protection School in Sonthofen, Germany. Because there was so little time available, training in mass spectrometry techniques was limited.

"We didn't have the luxury of providing the crews with in-depth training. The equipment and crews were needed on the battlefield," said Voelkner. "However, DoD has since developed doctrine on use and training for Fox crews. Now, Fox operators go through more than 38 hours of MM-1 training and take an exam, certifying their ability to operate the Fox MM-1."

U.S. soldiers and Marines used the Fox as a mobile vapor detector to search for possible chemical warfare agents during the Gulf War. Although the Fox can detect chemical warfare agent vapors in the air, it was designed to detect liquid chemical warfare agents on the ground. The MM-1 can operate in two modes, but U.S. operators were trained only in one - the Air Monitor mode, which is used for continuous sampling and monitoring.

A quick response time is paramount to the safety of troops involved in military operations, says Voelkner. In order to provide the response time necessary for military operations, the MM-1 continuously monitors against a target list of up to 22 selected chemical warfare agents most likely to be present, based on intelligence reports and the suspected chemical warfare threat. The 10 chemicals usually on the target list in the Gulf War were: tabun, sarin, soman, mustard, lewisite, VX, phosgene, hydrocyanic acid, cyclosarin, and fats, oils and wax.

During the initial search, the MM-1 looks for only the four most characteristic, significant ions for each chemical on the target list and attempts to match the mass and relative intensity of these ions against the sample. If an initial match is made with these four ions at an appropriate intensity level, the MM-1 sounds an alarm. However, this first alarm is for warning and does not confirm the presence of a chemical agent since there are many chemicals that have similar ion characteristics to those in the target list. Consequently, the MM-1 can indicate falsely the presence of dangerous chemical warfare agents.

A false positive is an initial alert for a dangerous chemical warfare agent that is not present. To more accurately determine what chemical is present, the MM-1 operator must run a spectrum analysis using the entire MM-1 library, not just the those in the initial target list. The characteristics of each chemical in the MM-1 library are compared to the suspected sample. If a match is found, the operator can be more confident of the identity of the chemical in the sample. If a match is not found, the MM-1 displays "unknown."

"We confirmed that a variety of contaminants can cause false positives in the MM-1, including diesel fuel, vehicle exhaust and oil well fire smoke," said Voelkner.

Following the Gulf War, commanders and the MM-1 operators offered both praise and criticism of the Fox vehicle. One report stated, "The Fox Reconnaissance vehicle proved valuable to commanders by rapidly confirming that agents were not present." Others had complaints.

"The Fox is capable of on-the-move detection at low speeds and requires a few minutes to obtain a good spectral read out on an agent. However, during rapid movement through the breach, the Fox was less reliable. Inability to stop in the breach and conduct analysis, to go back and collect samples for confirmation, left a great deal of doubt in the minds of many about whether agents were really present when they were detected by the Fox in the breach," said one Fox crewmember.

The Fox remains, however, the Defense Department's best chemical detection system. It is a useful tool for warning, detecting and marking liquid chemical warfare agent presence. The Army is continually improving the MM-1 to better separate the chemicals sampled to more precisely identify chemical warfare agents in the presence of more common battlefield contaminants. Planned improvements in doctrine, training and equipment for the Fox will further improve its capabilities for potential conflicts. Together with these improvements and a better understanding of the role in Desert Storm, the Fox vehicle should continue to enhance U.S. force protection.

"As the Army continues to make improvements in doctrine and training, the Fox vehicle continues to be the one of our most effective pieces of equipment for protecting the lives of our troops from possible chemical warfare agents," said Vesser. "Many of the improvements planned by the Army will only enhance our chemical warfare agent detection capabilities."

Information papers are reports of what the Defense Department knows today about military, procedures and equipment used during the Gulf War. This release is intended to provide a better understanding of the capabilities and limitations of the Fox vehicle. Although not an investigative report, the report will be updated if additional information becomes available. Gulf War veterans who have records, photographs, recollections or find errors in the details of the report are asked to contact the office at (800) 497-6261 or write to special-assistant@gwillness.osd.mil.