Science and Clarity in the Chemical Fog of War

May 3, 2017

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The recent March for Science in Washington has been most often associated with the types of science championed by the Environmental Protection Agency or the National Science Foundation. Overlooked in this movement is how science contributes to other aspects of policy, specifically in the Department of Defense. When it comes to Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, established science has helped open a small window into otherwise unknowable circumstances.

The Syrian civil war is complex and rife with uncertainty. It is difficult to determine who is fighting with whom as alliances shift and battle lines are redrawn again and again. Amidst this fog, dozens of civilians were found choking in the streets of Syria’s Idlib province with symptoms matching those witnessed after a 2013 chemical attack. Such attacks are illegal under the Chemical Weapons Convention. When attacks like this happen, it is crucial to identify the type of chemical agent used and attribute its source.

Building a chain of custody for the weapon is not possible without science. Over the last several years, satellites have monitored the military buildup at Syrian air bases where chemical weapons were previously stored. Radar and signal processing systems were used on the day of the attack to connect the flight of Syrian aircraft from the Shayrat airbase to the site of the chemical weapon release. In the days that followed, forensic medical tests on the attack site and the victims’ bodies confirmed the use of chemical nerve agents, in turn enabling medical personnel to provide essential aid to the victims. Although gaps in the story remain, these technologies have given focus to a limited number of potential actors and a high probability that these attacks were conducted by the Assad regime.

Our scientific capability is crucial to locating such weapons and properly disposing of them. For example, after the attack in 2013, the United Nations passed a resolution requiring the full destruction of Syrian chemical weapon stockpiles. However, there were formidable political and technical constraints to implementing the resolution: No country was willing to receive the weapons or to construct destruction facilities in their territory. Fortunately, eight months prior to the attack, the U.S. government had the foresight to invest in technologies to solve these challenges: portable destruction equipment with miniaturized chemical reactors in an expeditionary kit. Developing this technology in advance provided a new diplomatic option in which the international community safely destroyed all declared weapons aboard a ship in politically neutral international waters.

Sustained funding for scientific and engineering research is critical as the tools required to track, treat, and destroy chemical weapons cannot be created on a moment’s notice. Without Project Vanguard, an experimental satellite program endorsed by the National Science Foundation and conducted by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in the 1950s, the technology to monitor a modern day chemical war in the Middle East would not exist. Without the hydrolysis process developed by the U.S. Army to break down its own chemical weapons in the 1970s, the United States could not rapidly deploy a portable version to destroy a dictator’s chemical weapons stockpile and delay a military confrontation. And without decades of active research funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Department of the Army, and other agencies, first responders would not have had the vital tools required to diagnose and treat the victims of the nerve agent attack.

The United States must continue to explore basic science in order to develop the new and emerging technologies that will be required for tomorrow’s conflicts. Today, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and NIH continue research into new compounds to improve response time, reduce side effects, and increase the overall efficacy of treatment for nerve agent exposure. Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) is investigating new energy technologies that may enable more powerful, accurate satellites. However, each of these organizations are facing significant budget cuts. The current administration proposed to reduce NIH’s budget by 20 percent and to eliminate ARPA-E entirely. This comes on top of an overall reduction in Federal Research & Development of 39 percent since 1976.

Amid assertions by the Assad government that the recent chemical attack was fabricated by the West, it is apparent that scientific insight is more valuable than ever. Our greatest tools in the fog of war are science and technology and our government’s steadfast commitment to the knowledge they provide. Science allows us to step into uncertain territory, to take risks to understand the unknown, and to gain clarity amidst chaos. Science gives our warfighters and our ambassadors strength of certainty when they need it the most. If we forget the government’s vital role in supporting the U.S. scientific enterprise, the next time the United States reaches into its science and technology toolbox to address an international crisis it may just come up short.


Robert Fares, Ph.D. and Adam Rosenblatt, Ph.D. are Science and Technology Policy (S&TP) Fellows at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Additional AAAS S&TP Fellows contributed to the content of this article. The views expressed are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations.

Image: U.S. Army Photo by C. Todd Lopez

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