Over the last 100 years the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center has been at the forefront of protecting our Warfighters and our Nation from the potentially devastating effects of chemical or biological attack. Since its inception, ECBC made tremendous leaps in technology, from detectors the size of a small refrigerator to small plastic kits that identify potentially deadly agents, and from gas masks needing bulky external filters to integrated clothing items that enhance a Soldier’s capability. Our continuing mission is to support our nation through the innovative research and development which has made ECBC the nation’s principal research and development resource for non-medical chemical and biological defense.
As the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) concludes its 100th anniversary, the Center looks to the future and its evolving role in protecting the United States and its allies from chemical and biological threats.
University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) President Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, Ph.D., spoke to Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) employees Oct. 11 during the last event of the Center’s 100th Anniversary Speaker Series.
The introduction of modern chemical weapons on the battlefield occurred during the First World War. In 1915 Germany fired more than 150 tons of lethal chlorine gas against two French divisions at the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium. The attack killed over 5,000 allied soldiers and wounded 10,000. During this period the United States recognized the need to prepare its soldiers for entering a chemical battlefield. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation under the Urgency Efficiency Act of 1917 that designated Gunpowder Neck in Harford County, Maryland, as the site for the first chemical shell filling plant in the United States.
In 1918, the War Department centralized chemical warfare functions. This lead to the establishment of the Chemical Warfare Service with full responsibility for all facilities and functions relating to toxic chemicals. This responsibility included Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland.
In 1920, after the First World War, all chemical warfare functions were centralized at the Edgewood Arsenal. In addition, Edgewood received the Chemical School, the chemical testing mission, and the gas mask production plant. The original chemical warfare agent production work was placed on standby as leftover stocks of chemicals from World War I were deemed sufficient for the Army's stockpile. Only laboratory amounts of agent production were allowed for research and development.
Most chemical warfare experts during the 1930’s expected the next world war to again include the use of chemical weapons. The start of World War II in Europe in 1939 led President Roosevelt to declare a limited national emergency that resulted in a major increase in the rate of American rearmament. Edgewood Arsenal began a major construction program, increased production of both defensive equipment and retaliatory weapons, and expanded the Chemical School program to prepare for another possible chemical war.
The Second World War began with reports of chemical warfare in Eastern Asia, eerily reminiscent of World War I, and the U.S. Army once again turned to ECBC to protect our soldiers. The primary facility for both chemical defense and retaliatory capabilities remained Edgewood Arsenal. In 1942, there was a major reorganization at Edgewood Arsenal. The overall organization was designated the Chemical Warfare Center at Edgewood Arsenal. Administratively underneath this headquarters, but also under the direct command of the Chemical Warfare Service Headquarters in Washington, D.C., was the Technical Command, formerly the Technical Division, and a separate Medical Research Division. The Technical Command was the primary chemical research and development organization for the CWS and was responsible for not only chemical items, but also flame, incendiary, and smoke.
By 1941, ECBC’s scientists and engineers had developed chemical agent warfare defense systems for the U.S. Army. During this time, ECBC played a major role in deploying various protection technologies, including the M1 Collective Protector filter, the M1 Field Laboratory which provided a frontline chemical analysis capability, and the M4 Vapor Detection kit. These and countless other contributions ensured that the United States Army entered World War II fully prepared for the horrors of a chemical war. Fortunately, U.S. soldiers and most nations would not face chemical warfare agents on the battlefield during the war.
In the years following World War II, the Soviet Union emerged as a rival superpower to the United States, and began looking outward to retain its strength. The 45-year adversarial relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union became known as the Cold War.
During the end of World War II, the Soviet Union captured German chemical production facilities ensuring that chemical weapons would continue to be a possible threat across the globe. In turn, ECBC continued to protect our nation and our Soldiers through research, design, and development of new and better chemical warfare defenses. In this period, we produced the M8 Portable Automatic Chemical Agent Alarm, the first mass-produced battlefield detector to protect U.S. Soldiers from chemical nerve agent attacks. Further innovation led to the development and fielding of the M17 protective mask, the first mask to integrate the filter canister into the mask profile.
The Cold War also revitalized efforts to defend against the growing threat presented by the Soviet Union’s biological warfare research program. ECBC scientists began in earnest the research and development needed to counter the biological threat. In the 1980’s our Biological Detection and Warning System was one of the first systems in the world to answer this need.
The Cold War era also contained some major events that helped to deescalate the threat of biological weapons across the globe. In November 1969, President Richard Nixon surprised the world by ordering the United States to unilaterally discontinue its biological weapons program. This move helped to usher in the Biological Weapons Convention which went into effect in 1975.
Throughout the 90’s into the modern day, the United States has seen many changes to the types of global conflicts it has been involved in. Since 2001, terrorism has been on the forefront of our nation's concerns. In the wake of the coordinated terrorist attacks on September 11, ECBC has assisted in the defense against terrorism on our own shores. Shortly after September 11, deadly anthrax spores were sent through the U.S. Mail to dozens of government office buildings and several news media offices. Five people were killed and 17 others were infected. To address this bioterrorism threat, ECBC built a new laboratory to conduct scientific analysis and biological screening of potential threats.
As the War on Terror at home and abroad continues, the United States is also eliminating its own chemical weapons stockpile as to meet the requirements of the 1993 Chemical Warfare Convention Treaty signed by the U.S. and 191 other nations. ECBC has assisted in the U.S. Army’s program to destroy the nation’s stockpile of chemical warfare agents from 2003 to the present.
In 2014 ECBC made chemical weapons demilitarization history by developing and fielding a means of destroying Syria’s 600-metric-ton declared stockpile of chemical warfare material while at sea. ECBC scientists and engineers miniaturized an existing neutralization technology which allowed an ECBC team of field operators to destroy the Syrian chemical warfare material in international waters completely and safely in just 42 days.
As ECBC looks to its next 100 years, we plan to build upon our legacy, using our uniquely qualified workforce and world-class physical infrastructure to create the next generation of chemical and biological weapons protection.