The Fox Alert

The Initial Alert

Less than an hour later, at 1908 hours on the 25th, the Fox vehicle[42] (Figure 8) attached to Task Force Ripper and operating north of Al Jaber air base alerted to a blister agent. At the time of the alert, wind conditions were 10-15 mph or higher, with gusts reaching 30-40 mph. GySgt Grass, the Fox Commander, and the driver were on the roof of the vehicle in MOPP-2. The MM-1 (mass spectrometer) operator and the "wheel-man" or alternate MM-1 operator were inside the vehicle. The Fox, still under the control of Task Force Ripper was deployed with 3rd Tanks in a stationary position approximately 1 kilometer northwest of the air base, awaiting the possible Iraqi counterattack.[43]

Figure 8. A Fox NBC Reconnaissance Vehicle in Desert Storm Camouflage.

Smoke from the oil well fires obscured everything, limiting visibility to a few feet. Some reports state that the flashes of weapons fire could be observed through the smoke. The Fox driver recalls an artillery round landing upwind approximately four kilometers away. Five to six minutes passed and then the blister alert sounded.[44] GySgt Grass states that there was fighting but no shelling in the area.[45]

Fox Capabilities

The primary chemical agent detector on the Fox vehicle is the MM-1 mass spectrometer. The MM-1 detects chemical agents by analyzing the ionic activity of a sample collected through a retractable probe. The probe can collect samples by "sniffing" the surrounding air (the "Air/Hi" method) or by taking them from a silicone wheel which is lifted from the ground to the probe (the "Surface/Lo" method). At the time of the alert at Al Jaber, the Fox was employing the least sensitive "Air-Hi" method. For example, this Fox method is more than 100 times less sensitive than an M256 kit in detecting nerve agent (Table 1). In the "Air-Hi" method, the MM-1 is performing a "quick-look" analysis of air samples, looking for ions that resemble chemical agents.

Item Agents - Type Sensitivity Response Time
M8A1 Alarm G, V - Nerve 0.1-0.2 mg/m3 <=2 min
M256A1 Kit G - Nerve

V - Nerve

H - Blister

L - Blister

CX - Blister

CK - Blood

AC - Blood

0.005 mg/m3

0.02 mg/m3

2 mg/m3

9 mg/m3

3 mg/m3

8 mg/m3

9 mg/m3

15 min

15 min

15 min

15 min

15 min

15 min

25 min



<= 0.1 mg/m3 <=1 min
MM-1[46] GB[47] - Nerve

CK - Blood

CG - Choking

62 mg/m3

46 mg/m3

115 mg/m3

<=45 sec

Table 1. Vapor Chemical Agent Detector Characteristics[48]

If the MM-1 alerts to a possible chemical agent, there is an audible alarm. A full spectrum analysis must then be performed to confirm or deny the presence of chemical agents. The preferred method for performing a full spectrum is the "Surface-Lo" method: The MM-1 probe is extended to the ground (usually to a suspected liquid chemical agent) and the operating temperature of the MM-1 is lowered. Only by performing a full spectrum can an alert be confirmed or denied solely by the Fox vehicle. A "tape," which provides details of the MM-1’s findings, can be printed as a permanent record of the initial alert and the full spectrum.

During the Gulf War, the Fox vehicle was manned by a crew of four—the Fox vehicle commander, a driver, an MM-1 operator and a wheel operator. The wheel operator uses levers inside the vehicle to lift the silicone wheels from the ground to the probe for sampling. The driver and commander sit in the front of the vehicle, while the MM-1 and wheel operators sit in the rear. The two areas are connected by a narrow crawl-through.[49]

According to the Fox "wheel man", he and the MM-1 operator were inside the Fox, sampling the air in the "Air-Hi" method, when they saw the MM-1 screen flash an alert for an airborne chemical warfare agent. They called to the driver and GySgt Grass outside on the roof of the vehicle to get inside and close the hatches so the protective overpressure system could be engaged. The Fox crew noted no characteristic chemical agents odors and reported no symptoms or illness.[50]

Accordingly, the MM-1 operator started the full spectrum analysis. Either during (or immediately after) the full-spectrum procedure, the alarm ceased and the MM-1 returned to "normal" readings. There is a difference in opinion of the crew as GySgt Grass and the wheel man report that a spectrum confirmed chemical warfare agent presence. The driver states that as the MM-1 operator changed methods, the alert ceased, precluding a spectrum being performed.[51]

Reporting the Alert

While the MM-1 operator performed his analysis, GySgt Grass reported the blister alert to Task Force Ripper’s NBC Officer. The 3rd Tanks NBC Officer was also notified. GySgt Grass remains certain that he reported a Mustard gas detection.[52] None of the other Fox crew members interviewed remember for certain what type of chemical agent was detected.[53] The Task Force Ripper NBC Officer thought it was a Lewisite detection and states that a mistake in the reporting was probably his, since GySgt Grass was an actual witness.[54]

When the Task Force Ripper NBC Officer was notified of the alert, he immediately attempted to determine the wind speed and direction to alert units downwind of the Fox. For some reason, he was unable to ascertain any wind speed or direction so as a precaution he placed the entire Task Force at MOPP-4 and ordered each battalion to begin local testing with M256 detector kits.[55]

Without stating that a possible gas attack had occurred, the Task Force Ripper NBC Officer directed the Task Force Ripper Operations Officer (S3) to announce over the radio that that all units go to MOPP-4. He did not want to cause panic, but he wanted to make sure that protective measures were taken. Regardless of his concern, the message left many listeners with the impression that an actual gas attack occurred at 1910 hours.[56]

Each unit within Task Force Ripper reported the details of the blister alert differently. (The log reports of these units can be found in Tab E.) Oddly, although the Fox was deployed with 3rd Tanks, this battalion does not have a log entry that notes this alert at all.[57] Many of the alerts designate Lewisite, not Mustard; this may derive from the discrepancy between Grass’s and the Task Force Ripper NBC Officer’s reports.

Attempts at Confirmation

Most of the unit logs report "all clear" within 10-12 minutes of the initial report. This is difficult to understand since an M256 Test Kit takes 15 minutes to test for nerve and blister agents and up to 25 minutes to test for blood agents.[58] (Iraq had no blood agents.) Both Task Force Ripper’s and 3rd Tanks’ NBC Officers are sure that individual units performed M256 tests after the Fox alert to completion. Neither of these men can explain how the "all clear" could have been sounded 10-12 minutes after MOPP-4 had been ordered. They are sure, however, that the tests were fully performed, that all proved negative, and that selective unmasking was performed before the unit returned to MOPP-2. At Task Force Ripper Headquarters, the NBC Officer ordered two M256 tests to be performed 10 minutes apart. When both tested negative for chemical warfare agents and selective unmasking produced no symptoms, he ordered a return to MOPP-2. [59] At the earliest, this would have been at 1935 hours. The 3rd Tanks logs show unmasking beginning at 1959 hours, presumably after this alert.[60]

While all the units of Task Force Ripper were testing with M256 kits, the Fox crew attempted to locate the source of the original alert. Under normal circumstances, the Fox would have searched the surrounding area, attempting to find additional evidence of any chemical agent contamination (NBC units are trained to locate and isolate a contaminated area, then detour troops and traffic around it until decontamination or normal dissipation renders the area safe for normal operations.) Mustard and Lewisite are both persistent agents—usually existing in a liquid form—so the Fox crew hoped this search would identify the source. A number of circumstances limited this search. The smoke from the burning oil fields made identification of friendly and enemy vehicles very difficult. The Fox looks like a Soviet-made, Iraqi Army BTR-60 Armored Personnel Carrier and there were concerns that Marines might mistake it for an enemy vehicle. To avoid this possibility, the Task Force Ripper Fox vehicle was given a security escort during most of the ground war. At this point in the ground combat action at Al Jaber, the security detail left the Fox to engage in a firefight. Consequently, the Fox was limited in the area it could safely search and the source of the alert was not found.[61]

Mustard, the agent alerted on in the Fox alert, is classified as a persistent agent and would therefore probably leave a detectable residue for some time after an attack. Table 2 displays some of the characteristics of chemical warfare agents. Mustard (HD and HN) and Lewisite (L) are both blister agents that are used in liquid form and have similar characteristics.[62] A drop of the liquid on exposed skin will cause large blisters to form. Inhalation of tiny droplets will cause scarring on the lungs. Blister agents on the battlefield would normally be found in pools of liquid agent, noticeable for days to weeks after an attack. Additionally, blister agents can cause casualties for several days after an attack.

Table 2. Chemical Warfare Agent Symptoms and Characteristics.[63]

Analysis of the Fox Tape

The Task Force Ripper Fox printed either an initial alert tape or a full spectrum tape.[64] It is possible to print a tape of an initial alert, before a full spectrum analysis is performed. Only a full spectrum analysis will confirm an initial alert. It is unclear if a full spectrum analysis was performed and which type of tape was printed.

A difference of opinion exists about the handling of the tape. GySgt Grass recalls talking via radio to the 1st MarDiv NBC Officer about this alert. After the conversation, Grass kept the tape until the night of February 28, when he gave this tape and several others to the 1st MarDiv NBC Officer.[65] The Task Force Ripper and 1st MarDiv NBC Officers both recall that the tape was forwarded by GySgt Grass to the Ripper NBC Officer who personally showed the tape to the 1st MarDiv NBC Officer during a meeting sometime around 0830 hours on February 26.[66]

Several hours earlier, at around 0400 hours, the 1st MarDiv NBC Officer viewed a tape from another Fox. Although originally believed to be a chemical alert the alert on this tape was subsequently determined to be a "false positive" caused by the burning Al Burqan oil field.[67] With this false positive in mind, the 1st MarDiv NBC Officer examined the Al Jaber tape. There was no other evidence to substantiate the alert, so the 1st MarDiv NBC Officer concluded that the Al Jaber alert was also caused by oil smoke.[68]

At the time of the Gulf War, the Marine Corps had not established procedures for analysis and archiving of Fox tapes. Unfortunately, the whereabouts of the Al Jaber Fox tape is unknown. The 1st MarDiv NBC Officer either destroyed the tape on February 26th or filed it with records that were subsequently destroyed. He considered the case closed and saw no need to keep this tape.[69]

GySgt Grass and the Task Force Ripper NBC Officer don’t agree with the 1st MarDiv NBC Officer’s oil smoke assessment. Grass has stated that the oil fires were constantly being detected at a low level. He had assigned the label "Unknown 1" to oil fires for detection by the spectrometer, and he clearly remembers this alert being different than the normal screen image of oil fire ion activity. He also states that this alert was not like the readings of exhaust smoke that produce alerts of "Fat, Oil, Wax."[70] The Task Force Ripper NBC Officer agreed with GySgt Grass’s assessment due to Grass’s expertise with the Fox vehicle.[71]

Other Relevant Log Entries

The 3rd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment (3/11) Command Chronology reports that at 2030 hours on the 25th, the 1st MarDiv reported that the blister agent was a false alarm. According the Task Force Ripper NBC Officer, it was the unit above, the I MEF (the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters), not the division, that made this pronouncement. The Task Force Ripper and the 1st MarDiv NBC Officers wondered how higher headquarters personnel could make a determination from the rear area. It did not matter though, for by 2030 hours the Task Force Ripper NBC Officer had already decided that if there had been a valid detection, it was no longer detectable and there was therefore no need to stay in MOPP-4.[72]

One additional record of possible chemical warfare agents came from the 1st Battalion of the 12th Marine Regiment (1/12), assigned to the 11th Marine Regiment. An entry in the 1/12 command chronology recorded that on February 26th at 0220 hours, the Task Force Ripper Fox vehicle reported lewisite vapor.[73] However, the Task Force Ripper NBC Officer states that there was only one Task Force Ripper Fox alert during the ground war and that was at 1908 hours on February 25th.[74] This is consistent with all the testimony of GySgt Grass who never reported any detection of lewisite and only alerted to Mustard near Al Jaber. This incident will be covered in the case on the 11th Marines.

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