Thursday, February 10, 2005

Vulnerability Testing?

Defense Tech has an interesting article on the failings of bio-sensors that are intended to detect biological and chemical weapons:

[D]espite the hundreds of millions of dollars dumped into the sensors, the gadgets are, for all intents and purposes, useless.

A quick example: for years, the military has been trying to put together bio-detectors that use laser radar, or LIDAR, to pick up toxic clouds. But the dust and organisms that naturally float around in the air often blind the sensors, absorbing the light before it gets to the cloud. And even when LIDAR sensors can see through the grime, they don't have the ability to figure out what that cloud actually is. Just like radar can only figure out the broad outlines of a plane, LIDAR only sees that there's a cloud of something biological in the air. But what exactly that something is -- the sensors can't tell. Pollen, anthrax, and diesel exhaust all look about the same, according to Al Lang, a LIDAR researcher at Sandia National Laboratories.
That's unfortunate, if true, though it's not really surprising. But here's what I'd like to know: Will BushCo resume urban biowarfare tests using live but "harmless" bacteria (or other simulant agents)? When LIDAR tests are conducted, are they conducted in an artificial atmosphere mimicking the average city's air? Do testers simulate the effects of buildings and automobiles and convection from subway grates? Under what variety of conditions were these results obtained?

It's really not an unreasonable question. BushCo has presided over a renaissance of BW experimentation, and "vulnerability testing" in cities was a hallmark of earlier BW programs. We know that open-air tests using simulants have been conducted in proving grounds since 9/11.

I'm inevitably reminded of what Saul Hormats, former chief scientist at the Edgewood Arsenal, said in 1985, as quoted in Clouds of Secrecy, Dr. Leonard Coles' book on vulnerability testing in populated areas:
"Our whole attitude in matters of this kind was different then...but today I would say this sort of thing would be reprehensible...I'm speaking of me today. You have a lot of people in the Pentagon who just don't give a damn, and that bothers me."
Hormat thought a new round of simulant testing over populated areas was likely to happen during the Reagan era. I have no idea if it did, but it's pretty hard to see how else one could get reliable data on the behavior of an aerosol cloud as it interacts with the unique vortices and eddies and thermal gradients of a big city.

There's no real point to this post, mind's all just idle, late-night speculation. Defense Tech makes the far more serious point that a practical early-warning system requires excellent public-health infrastructure. The fact that ours is an utter goddamn shambles is far more disturbing to me than the fact that a gaggle of fancy bio-sensors don't work properly.

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