With the end of World War II, the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center’s (ECBC) mission broadened from simply providing a credible deterrence against any other nation’s first use of chemical or biological weapons against the United States. In the world of the Cold War, ECBC stepped up to the job of helping to check Soviet aggression plus handling a wide variety of chemical and biological missions at home and abroad as different needs arose.
In 1946, as the U.S. Army was rapidly demobilizing and downsizing, Edgewood, then called the Army Chemical Center (ACC), continued with its research and development mission. One element under the ACC was the Technical Escort Detachment, which was given responsibility for chemical incident responses and environmental remediation of chemical storage sites. These functions live on today as the 20th CBRNE Command (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosives) and ECBC’s Chemical Biological Applications and Risk Reduction (CBARR) Business Unit.
Early on, the Technical Escort Detachment was tasked with receiving and disposing of large amounts of captured German chemical agent arriving at Edgewood by the shipload. Its first job was to unload 8,000 tons of German mustard agent from the S.S. Francis L. Lee. It was moored near Poole’s Island and the Technical Escort Detachment transferred the mustard agent to ton containers where it was subsequently reprocessed to U.S. standards and added to the U.S. stockpile. The unit also performed an environmental cleanup of the ship before it was placed in the U.S. mothball fleet.
Meanwhile, the Army Chemical Center was busy developing a response to a new type of chemical agent the U.S. Army discovered as it overran Germany, nerve agent. The ACC selected Sarin as the nerve agent it would use as a deterrent to other nations that might consider using this new and more deadly type of agent. The ACC worked on developing a manufacturing capacity for Sarin plus developing the best means of detecting, decontaminating, and medically treating nerve agents. This provided the nation with a deterrent to the Soviet Union, which had also seized German nerve agent at the end of the war and was developing its own production capability.
The first major confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was the Berlin Airlift in 1948, and Edgewood had a role to play. The U.S., Britain, and France formed a consolidated occupation zone in West Berlin as arranged under the Yalta Conference of 1945. In 1948, Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, imposed a blockade on this allied island of occupation within East Germany, not letting allied ground transport bring in food and supplies. The Allies responded with a round-the-clock airlift using C-47 transport planes from June 1948 to May 1949. As the weather became freezing that winter and hard snows fell, the traditional method of sweeping airplane wings with large brooms was not enough to keep up. The ACC sent decontamination trucks to spray the wings with isopropyl alcohol.
Next came the Korean War in 1950, and the ACC made several contributions. It maintained a retaliatory chemical capability that prevented any first use, it provided smoke to cover troop movements on the battlefield, and it provided incendiary shells and napalm. The ACC had perfected a formula for the jellied gasoline, and it proved to be a highly effective way to protect camp perimeters from the human wave attacks of the North Koreans and Chinese. Finally, in this period, the ACC developed and fielded riot control grenades for use at prisoner of war camps where riots were common.
As the nation escalated its participation in the war in Vietnam, Edgewood Arsenal, which reverted back to its original name in 1963, continued to support the flow of napalm, incendiary shells, and riot control agents to U.S. forces operating there.
In 1967, the Six Day Arab-Israeli War came dangerously close to being the first major conflict since World War I to involve chemical weapons, according to military analysts at the time. Although chemical weapons were never used, the Israelis felt threatened enough to place panicked orders for gas masks to Western countries, especially the U.S., which obliged. The United Nations quickly brokered a cease fire, but the experience put U.S. war planners on notice that the chemical and biological weapons threat in this extremely volatile region had to be taken seriously.
As the antiwar movement of the late 1960s grew, the U.S. chemical biological program came under increasing scrutiny and criticism by the public and members of Congress. In March 1968, an open-air test of the nerve agent VX at Dugway Proving Ground went wrong and a cloud of chemical agent drifted off the range, killing and injuring more than 6,000 sheep. The incident received widespread news coverage.
On the heels of this mishap came news that the Army had been secretly disposing of obsolete, leaking chemical weapons by transporting them across the country by train and loading them onto surplus ships, which were then scuttled at sea. These incidents combined with the unpopularity of using the defoliant Agent Orange to denude the jungles of Vietnam and the use of tear gas to flush Viet Cong guerrillas out of tunnels and bunkers, made the public skeptical of the Army’s management of its chemical biological program.
Sensitive to these sentiments, on November 25, 1969, President Richard Nixon announced in a speech the end of the U.S. offensive biological weapons program, the end of the U.S.’s production of chemical weapons, and he reaffirmed a no-first-use policy for chemical weapons.
In 1972, sea disposal of chemical weapons was banned and the Army created the Program Manager for Chemical Demilitarization to manage safe and lawful disposal. That same year, the U.S. signed the Convention on the Prohibition of the Deployment, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological and Toxin weapons. All biological weapons stored at Pine Bluff Arsenal, Rocky Mountain Arsenal, and Fort Detrick were destroyed, and Fort Detrick’s Biological Defense Materiel Division was transferred to Edgewood Arsenal.
But once again, an Arab-Israeli war snapped world attention back to the immediacy of the chemical biological threat. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israelis discovered portable chemical-proof shelters plus decontamination equipment for planes and tanks among the Soviet-made equipment they captured. The Israelis also found that most Soviet vehicles had chemical air agent filtration systems built into them. In addition, U.S. intelligence agencies were finding indications that chemical agents were used by the opposing sides in small wars in Laos and Afghanistan. Then in 1979, U.S. intelligence became aware of an anthrax breakout at a Soviet research facility in the Ural Mountains. Soviet officials claimed it was a naturally occurring outbreak but were not believed at the time, and in 1992, Russian president Boris Yeltsin admitted to it.
The discovery of a sophisticated Soviet capability to wage chemical war as seen in the Israeli captured vehicles, plus an active Soviet biological weapons research effort was very sobering to U.S. military planners. The U.S. needed an answer.
Since the 1950s, Edgewood Arsenal had researched a binary chemical weapons alternative by which two nonlethal chemicals could be stored separately, then combined to create a nerve agent weapon just before its use in combat. This solved the problem of storing traditional agent which is extremely corrosive and dangerous to handle. Binary weapons also provided a very convincing deterrent to other nations.
In 1976, Edgewood Arsenal, now merged with Aberdeen Proving Ground, developed the M687 155-millimeter projectile to deliver binary chemical weapons in battle. It consisted of a projectile holding two containers of nonlethal chemicals which then mixed to form nerve agent while in flight. However, that same year Congress included in the Defense Appropriations Authorization Act a prohibition against producing binary chemical weapons unless the President certified to Congress that it was essential to the national interest. An actual binary weapons production program would have to wait another decade.
The 1980s saw regional wars between Iraq and Iran and between Libya and Chad. U.S. intelligence officials suspected that chemical weapons were used in both. These officials were also concerned that the Soviet Union may have used them in its war with Afghanistan. President Ronald Reagan decided that the U.S. needed to bolster the nation’s chemical defense and retaliatory capability.
Edgewood Arsenal, which went through three name changes over the decade, responded by advancing its defensive technology, most notably by developing and fielding the M40 gas mask and the M1 Chemical Agent Monitor.
Congress responded by authorizing production of binary chemical weapons in 1985. Production began using the M687 binary projectile at Pine Bluff Arsenal in 1987. That same year, the Soviet Union agreed to halt chemical weapons production. In 1989, the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed a memorandum of understanding, known as the Wyoming MOU, pledging to maintain a dialogue on their respective chemical biological weapons programs.
In 1990, many of the Soviet Bloc nations’ communist governments collapsed. Relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were warming, and both nations signed a bilateral chemical weapons destruction agreement. The U.S. halted binary chemical weapons production and withdrew its chemical weapons from Germany, and the Secretary of Defense canceled the U.S. chemical retaliatory research and development program. On December 8, 1991, the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus signed the Belavezha Accords, which declared the Soviet Union dissolved and established the Commonwealth of Independent States in its place. The red hammer and sickle flag was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time and replaced by the tri-colored Russian flag.
Thus ended a 46-year period of protracted tension, proxy wars, diplomatic subterfuge, and a balance of terror involving weapons of mass destruction, not the least of which were chemical and biological weapons. Edgewood Arsenal, with its many changes of name, remained constant and steadfast as it did its part to keep the peace.
Over the last 100 years the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center has been at the forefront of protecting our Warfighters and our Nation. In celebration of this we will we looking back throughout our history for interesting and captivating stories to share with the Nation.
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ECBC is a U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command laboratory and is the U.S. Army’s principal research and development center for chemical and biological defense technology, engineering and field operations. ECBC has achieved major technological advances for the warfighter and for our national defense, with a long and distinguished history of providing the Armed Forces with quality systems and outstanding customer service. References to commercial products or entities in this article does not constitute endorsement by the U.S. Army of the products or services offered.