Chemical Weapons in the Ukraine: Let’s Talk Probability versus Reality


By Mr. Terrence K. Cloonan, Physical Scientist (Retired), CDC, NIOSH and former U.S. Army Major, CM-RA, USA

DISCLAIMER: All opinions stated are those of the author and should not be construed or interpreted to be endorsements of any business entity, government, or specific technology. March 29, 2022, 1407 hours, TKC.

Smell something “fishy”? How about cut hay, grass, or fresh green corn smells? Perhaps a strong “fruity” smell? Or faint bitter almonds, strong garlic, or basement musty odors not commonly detected? If you do, you may have just stumbled upon a chemical warfare agent (CWA) release.

On an evolving city landscape being shelled and targeted with military precision since February 24, 2022, the smelly odors or “malodorants” can be indicators of special frangible chemical munition detonations. Such detonations or controlled releases rely on explosive bursts or sprays that disseminate airborne gases or liquids of naturally occurring or synthesized organic or inorganic chemical compounds.

Chemicals that are designed to injure or kill opposing military forces without relying on high explosive kinetics. Your innate senses allow you to see, smell, taste, touch, and execute muscle movements. If you have the presence of mind to stop and recognize such smelly odors before they accumulate in a large amount, you will be or may be able to take appropriate protective actions to stop, limit, or prevent yourself from being contaminated or exposed. Relevant key terms related to your sense of smell are odor detection, odor recognition, and odor intolerance thresholds.

An odor detection threshold is defined as the concentration of gas or vapor that can be discriminated from fresh air. In 2022, it is known that each of us has slightly different odor detection, recognition and intolerance thresholds based on our physical fitness levels, our age, our use of “safe” technologies and our given genetics.

Weird odors out of place in a rubble pile of concrete are likely low dose nuisance odors from industrial gas leaks or chemical weapons that may be present in the air just before you inhale a sub-lethal or lethal dose of the toxic gas. From a fire fighter perspective, think of the peachy sweet smell you detect when you walk down the underground stairs of a fire academy live burn basement training site. The peachy smell is likely a mixture of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, cyanide, and arsenic compounds that are out/off-gassing from the soot coated concrete walls of the training basement. Once you smell that stop, hold your breath, and egress. If moving forward, stop and go-on-air with an SCBA.

Chemical weapon odors on the battlefield are expected to be mixed in with other odors. If you witness or survive a chemical weapons attack, one human factor you will/may experience is the smell of strange odors. Odors that are out-of-place with the location you are standing in. For example, if you smell a cut grass odor and it is wintertime, that is likely phosgene. If you smell a faintly fruity odor that could be the CWA known as GA or Tabun. Whereas there is almost no odor from pure GB, Sarin. The bitter almond smell is hydrogen cyanide (AC) and you better don a suitable protective mask quickly when you smell that. Distilled mustard blister agent (HD) is a thick oily pale-yellow liquid that gives off a faint garlic smell. Nitrogen mustard (HN) gives off a fishy, musty smell in low concentrations and a real fruity sweet smell at high concentrations. These odors in an urban battlefield normally indicate that a non-traditional weapon of mass destruction has been released.

Remember, the downwind hazard of a chemical weapons cloud will have “smelly” vapors preceding it. If you have forward deployed remote sensing detectors, the instruments will alarm. And your eyes may see mild chemical agent poisoning symptoms in other humans while your nose is smelling something! If you have a trained presence of mind, you will know it is detecting a low concentration of “agent”.

In a war, all your senses are vital. If you see weapons disseminating strange colored gases or liquid aerosols and/or smell out of place odors you should immediately hold your breath, don a respirator, clear it, and seal it. Then take appropriate defensive actions like announcing an alert command of GAS, GAS, GAS! All this talk about smelling odors and reacting can only mean one thing-you are being trained to recognize a chemical weapons attack and to take actions to save your life.

Is this a reality or just misinformation in Ukrainian cities? Can the “C” in chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear warfare (CBRN/NRBC in French) be around the proverbial corner in the tank friendly farm fields or the sandy beaches of the Ukraine? Are public health biological agent laboratories being overrun and then occupied by Federation forces? It is expected that nuclear weapons forces would be on alert under such circumstances, and they are. However, it is unlikely that Odessa will be targeted with persistent CWA, since it is a vital port.

Now let’s talk the probable use of chemical warfare agents, also known as “chemical weapons”, under wintertime-spring weather conditions. The following topics, numbered 1 to 9, may assist you:

NUMBER ONE: Have any chlorine “barrel bombs” been dropped yet? Industrial chlorine is shipped as a liquified compressed gas (cryogenic) for industrial manufacturing. So, you rarely find it as a pure gas in-transit. When weaponized, it could be in a gas or gas-liquid mixture physical state while being synthesized or compressed and stored in a “55-gallon barrel bomb” which is essentially some sort of pressurized cylinder capable of being manually dropped from helicopters. A liquified compressed gas that suddenly becomes a floating gas cloud subject to ground level and above ground prevailing wind speeds and directions.

Is this a current reality? Yes! Is its use feasible and likely now? Yes and no, in my opinion. More importantly, is such use militarily significant? In 2022, it is not. However, if that is all you got, and it is readily available…… its use can be deadly. Especially if it is released into semi-confined spaces like old school era bomb shelters or current day building basements.

As you know, chlorine gas or molecular chlorine is light greenish yellow, with an acrid pungent irritant smelly odor. Its published NIOSH IDLH value is 10-ppm. Meaning if a 10-ppm cloud of chlorine gas is in the air around you, and you breath it in, you will get an occupational health immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) exposure that could asphyxiate you instantly or get you gasping for clean air, as you run away. If you breath it in deeply, it will react with the moisture in your respiratory tract and likely become hydrochloric acid (HCL) in your lungs. Not a good thing! Your lungs cannot be decontaminated.

Pure molecular chlorine (CL₂) freezes at around -150 deg F. It will likely be a highly volatile true gas on the urban landscape. It also has a boiling point around -29 deg F when it is in a liquified compressed gas state. Lastly, it has a vapor pressure around 6.8 atmospheres, meaning it is “heavier” than ambient air. Remembering World War I history, weaponized chlorine gas was the first toxic gas used in the then modern art of chemical warfare. It was ideal because as a true gas it hugs or “sinks” to the ground and can remain semi-persistent/stagnate at the lowest level of air movement in a dug-out trench. The common term “gas mask” originated in WW I not as something that gave you gas, but as a device that offered some level of respiratory protection from deadly gas munition clouds floating on the battlefield.

The current reality is …… an experienced soldier or even just a lucky, motivated, and brave civilian volunteer using a shoulder fired ground-to-air missile can “take out” a visible helicopter in ideal daytime conditions at a range of up to 3 kilometers. Of course, NATO has learned much from observing the use of chlorine “barrel bombs” in Syria. And now NATO is currently observing the use of thermobaric weapons, tear gas, and hypersonic munitions in the Ukraine.

NUMBER TWO: The use of 140 mm RPU-14 rocket launchers and BM-21 style multiple rocket launcher systems (MLRS) loaded with HD (distilled mustard blister agent) liquid is highly probable. However, you will see pre-use indicators in the forces moving such munitions forward. They will be in protective gear, moving slowly, and may even contaminate themselves in the process. HD would be used to create choke points, deny terrain, blister open skin, and cause the Ukrainians to “button-up” and stay in their equivalent of MOPP-4 for days. And as we know, HD munitions from WWI are still being uncovered as unexploded ordnance (UXO). Will switchblade drones go the same way in 2023?

NUMBER THREE: Aged CWA stocks in the Federation are mostly destroyed, but still exist in a controlled quantity. And are they able to self-synthesize yet? Such aged chemical weapons will have lower toxicity and more agent breakdown byproducts in the GB and VX toxic agent containers and munitions. What does that mean? It means the agent will be dilute and not as potent as originally designed.

NUMBER FOUR: Correctly deployed CWA can deny use of terrain or create mass casualties at railheads, border crossing points, basements, subway underground stations and tunnels while also causing collateral damage to unintended targets.

NUMBER FIVE: CWA mixed with low or high explosives (LE/HE) and signal smoke rounds can also be deployed. This was the preferred method of use by Warsaw Pact nations during the first Cold War. Especially, the mixed munitions use of blood agent rounds, LE/HE rounds, and smoke fired in sorties from 140 mm 16-20-30 tube rocket launchers.

NUMBER SIX: The other part of this rumored potential for CWA use is do the Ukrainians have chemical weapons of their own? Do they have protective gear to at least don and hope to save themselves from the initial contamination strikes? Do they have serviceable protective “gas mask” respirators, detectors, protective suits, field expedient protective tarps, protective gloves, and protective boots? All indicators show that the fire service personnel have their own turn-out gear (plus Edmonton donations) and SCBA. The SCBAs in use are most likely without NIOSH CBRN protections, but nonetheless a CE type SCBA. The clean air sources for refilling those SCBA cylinders will diminish as local responders continue to “fight” fires. What does the civilian population have to protect themselves? Nothing! They have handkerchiefs, used surgical masks, and left over KN-95 type devices along with locally supplied field expedient gauze soaked in citric acid to filter out nuisance industrial ammonia (NH3) vapors. Because they have no protection, they are at a higher risk of being targeted with CWA. When a target analyst pre-plots the CWA attack there is a higher kill prediction percentage when unprotected soldiers are the targets. Civilians should never be targets.

NUMBER SEVEN: CWA use will root out the soldiers hiding in subways, tank traps, buildings, and sniper holes. Molotov cocktail deployment may aid the effectiveness of CWA use on the battlefield. But for any true military chemical weapon to be combat effective, a suitable amount would need to be dispersed from aerial platforms. Ground burst chemical munitions are highly localized. Artillery ground and air burst munitions would have to be barrage massed fires (18 guns) on a line target area to get the necessary concentration of toxic chemical agents necessary to obtain a minimum 25% to 50% kill ratio.

NUMBER EIGHT: Riot control agents/tear gas are chemical agents, just not toxic ones. Their use has occurred in the Ukraine, and it could mean that is the extent of chemical weapons use. The 4th generation/next generation nerve agents (NGA), like the ones used in Salisbury and other assassination missions, may not be available in bulk quantities for use as a tactical or strategic chemical weapon by the Federation. Therefore, this could all be a bluff. “Psyops” to get in your head!

Will there be chemical downwind hazards or nuclear fires in the EU cities of London, Paris, and Frankfurt am Main? Highly unlikely, due to current reserve first strike and/or retaliation in kind options. While the current retreat or repositioning of Federation forces is allowing long-range missile attacks to hit key Ukrainian targets deeper in country and thus preventing fratricide of friendly forces, those same missiles could easily have HE warheads switched to chemical warheads.

On the evening of March 17, 2022, ABC TV News announced to a U.S. national audience that the Federation is suspected of being able to use chemical weapons (no type specified) in Southern Ukraine. And then it was hypothesized by ABC that the Federation would state an attack was initiated by Ukrainian forces in an attempt to validate the initial use of CWA by the Federation (“false flag”), which in turn would allow start or a continuance of chemical weapons employment by the Federation. Is that logic flawed? Consider that once chemical weapons are on the battlefield it is difficult to determine who shot them, when they were shot, and the true degree of weapon effectiveness. Remember, all kinetic or CWA munitions rely on chemical reactions to generate explosive power, yield, and target effects.

NUMBER NINE: Such chemical weapons attacks have the potential to contaminate forward deployed Federation forces, as well as Ukrainian forces. But what indicators are present in the deployed soldiers, in the reinforcements, in the armored tank and self-propelled howitzer columns capable of defending against toxic gas, or in the strategic rocket forces tasked with firing nuclear or chemical weapons? Are deployed tracked and wheeled vehicles, specifically outfitted with CBRN agent detectors, present? Such select CBRN reconnaissance vehicles will be present in the advancing armored columns. If you see these, it is highly likely that chemical munitions are forward deployed and pending authorization for release. Is the Federation PMK-4 protective mask being worn? Are you seeing the heavy turbojet hot air blower VK-1Fs on Ural-375 style trucks historically called TMS-65/65M vehicles, moving in the convoys? Seeing these vehicles pre-positioned, in armored columns, or actively dispensing “cleansing fluids” in real time or in training, are all indicators of chemical weapon presence. Why have such vehicles? Because the Federation must be able to decontaminate itself if it does deploy persistent HD, VX, Soman, NGAs, or novel benchmark agents. Historical non-persistent agents like GB and AC, under winter conditions, will be less effective in open fields or in urban terrain. As it gets warmer, they will be ideal weapons though. Currently, blister agents like H and HD will solidify around 58 deg F, but not nitrogen mustard (HN). It freezes around -29 deg F. Blister agents are weather dependent, persistent, and can create immediate or delayed reactions in humans. As an HD contaminated soldier moves into a warming tent the frozen HD will melt, smell, and contact open skin.

One peace solution is to simply divide the country in half. Lead from the front. Wear your CWA defense “kit”. Be able to anticipate change and stay flexible. Stay hydrated. See and read the chemical weapon threat indicators and adapt to additional forces moving in……… by air or sea, especially at Odessa, via the Straits of Japan, the Suez Canal and/or Gibraltar.

Author: Bio

Mr. Cloonan successfully completed 44 years of work as of 1/4/2020. A sampling of his public duties include being the first NIOSH NPPTL scientist into the New York City 9-11-2001 Red Zone terrorist attack aftermath site, a key member of a federal CBRN team that developed and published post 9-11 NIOSH CBRN respirator performance standards, a lead scientist for the conduct of interagency in-lab live chemical warfare agent standard test procedures on commercially available respirators, and a lead federal liaison to federal, state, and local emergency responders and the US DHS FEMA COBRA TF in the development of written respiratory protection programs responsible for integrating NIOSH-approved respirators offering CBRN protections. His several overseas deployments and stateside duties in airborne infantry, air assault infantry, corps artillery, armored cavalry and chemical units allowed him to succeed as a military tactical planner, operations officer, assistant operations officer, chemical officer, NBC Range OIC, nuclear weapons PRP officer, company commander, executive officer and platoon leader/commander. In addition to the numerous government civilian awards for heroism and technical proficiency received, he was awarded the US Army Joint Service Commendation Medal, three Meritorious Service Medals, four Army Commendation Medals, one Army Achievement Medal, the Army Overseas Ribbon, the Army Service Ribbon, the National Defense Service Medal, the South West Asia Service Medal with two Bronze Stars, and the Saudi Arabia Kuwait Liberation Medal with one Bronze Star.

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