ARLINGTON, Va. — The chicken test is, well, for the birds.

The Army won’t be employing the same method U.S. Marines in Kuwait had used to help detect the presence of chemical agents — using chickens, like canaries in coal mines, to warn of poisonous gases.

One reason: Small animals require about 10 times the exposure humans do to be affected, so by the time the already-nervous fowl cry foul, it’s too late, said Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Reeves, program executive officer for the Defense Department’s chemical and biological defense programs. And their feathers act as a protective barrier against some agents that could harm humans.

So instead, the Army is going with measures such as the Joint Service lightweight integrated suit technology overgarment and the hand-held joint chemical agent detector, to name a few.

While a reference to the use of chickens was said tongue-in-cheek, the issue of the preparedness of troops deployed to fight in a possible war against Iraq commanded far more serious discussion during a one-hour Pentagon briefing with reporters.

Iraqi troops are far less prepared and trained than U.S. forces to deal with chemical and biological warfare, yet U.S. officials can’t dismiss the possibility that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might employ them, even if it means the demise of members of his own military forces, said Maj. Gen. John Doesburg, commanding general of the U.S. Army Soldier and Biological and Chemical Command.

“Iraq’s capability is very limited,” Doesburg said. “I don’t want to overstate this, but we have 100 percent better capability to operate in that environment. But we should never mistake the fact that he used them in the past.”

The U.S. military has developed 19 new systems since the Persian Gulf war in 1991, from better protective suits to new detection, collection and reconnaissance devices, Doesburg said. The new technology has been tested — and proven effective — in extreme conditions, including weather conditions from as cold as 50 degrees below zero to more than 150 degrees above.

Between 3,000 and 4,000 soldiers trained in nuclear, biological and chemical warfare, or NBC, have graduated from a variety of sessions taught at the Army Chemical School at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. — boosting the Army’s force of trained NBC specialists in the active, Reserve and Guard force to more than 15,000, said Col. Thomas Spoehr, commander of the 3rd Chemical Brigade.

Those specialists are embedded with troops and are at the ready for all commanders in the field, Spoehr said.

The roughly 225,000 troops now deployed or on their way to the Middle East each have been issued at least two of the new lightweight integrated protective suits, Reeves said. None have the old protective suits, first issued in the mid-1990s, because of results of inspections that revealed some batches contained defective suits.

Reeves said he has worn the new suits in an environment with live agents.

“It works,” he said.

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