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Now You Know, March 2023

Updated: Jul 28, 2023

NSWC Dahlgren’s Chemical, Biological, and Radiological Defense Role Efforts

By Michael Purello

In approximately 190 B.C., Hannibal of Carthage made history when, while helping the king of Bithynia, he had some earthen vessels filled with poisonous snakes, covered the pots, and set sail. As the Bithynians prepared for battle, they hurled the pots full of poisonous snakes onto the decks of the enemy ships. The resulting confusion, fear, and chaos demonstrated the effects of a chemical or biological (CB) attack. This is perhaps the first recorded instance of a CB attack on a naval ship. Over two thousand years later, the threat is still just as real only much more sophisticated, and it generates the need for a comprehensive Navy Chemical, Biological, and Radiological (CBR) defense program.


Up until the program was transitioned to Indianhead in 2018, NSWCDD had a long history of CBR Defense initiatives. Tracing back to the earliest ordnance-based programs and moving ahead to today’s full spectrum CBR defense support, this article provides a broad brush historical perspective of the CBR work performed at Dahlgren since the mid-1950s. It examines present products, capabilities, and fleet support services and concludes with an exploration of the future on Navy CBR Defense.

Historical Perspective

Beginning in August 1954, NSWCDD, then the Naval Proving Ground, conducted a variety of work in chemical warfare research and development programs. This initial work, which was performed for the Bureau of Ordnance, focused on the simulant filled EX 23 (MK94) bombs and involved fit checks, assembly tests, environmental testing, and ballistic characterization. Having its roots as a naval gunnery range, it is not surprising that Dahlgren would be the recipient of this kind of work.


In the early 1960s, the CBR work performed at Dahlgren expanded from a solely chemical weapon focus to include chemical warfare defense. At this time, the Cold War was in full throttle, and there was a real and increasing concern of chemical warfare (CW) being used against the U.S. Navy. Once again, the Navy turned to Dahlgren to meet their needs for:

  • Information to support commanding officer’s decision-making capability in the event of a chemical warfare (CW) attack

  • A centralization of the resources that were becoming available to help deal with a possible attack

  • An understanding of the complexity of CW situations

During the Vietnam War, the use of biological and chemical warfare (BW/CW) agents against U.S. forces emerged as a significant threat. To help address this threat, Dahlgren (known then as the Naval Weapons Laboratory) constructed a CB devices test chamber, which consisted of a full-scale mock-up of a shipboard magazine. In this chamber, personnel safely performed experiments and tests using toxic materials. Tests with chemical warfare agents, if required, were performed at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. Throughout the 1960s, the work performed at Dahlgren expanded to include toxicology research, CB research, development, test and evaluation, CB detection, and CB decontamination. In 1969, National Security Decision Memorandum 35 ended offensive BW programs; however, defensive programs for both the chemical and biological warfare were still very much needed. Because the Navy deemed the work that Dahlgren performed in this area so critical, it designated Dahlgren as the lead laboratory for BW/CW work in early 1970 and, when the Navy’s Biological Laboratory facility in Oakland, California, was closed, some of its personnel were reassigned to NSWC Dahlgren.

While the U.S. production of CB weapons stopped in 1969, the CBR Defense work continued to grow. In the 1970s and 1980s, Dahlgren continued working in CB safety, logistics, and operations planning, which included logistics and safety of binary chemical weapons and increased research and development work in the area of chemical agent detection and decontamination.

Dahlgren also received new work in the area of personal and collective protection. Dahlgren engineers provided technical support in the development of the M98 collective protection system (CPS) filter for shipboard applications. The collective protection efforts led to the first CPS installation on a U.S. Navy ship with the backfit of CPS into USS Belleau Wood (LHA-3) in 1983.

1960s-1980s Continued

International events would shape future CBR efforts at Dahlgren. In the 1980’s Iran-Iraq War, Iraq used chemical weapons against the Iranian army, beginning with the use of riot control agents and progressing to the use of blister and nerve agents.

As the war came to a close, the Iraqi government used chemical weapons against its own people, killing thousands of Kurd civilians. During this time, it is believed that Iraqi scientists were also researching biological agents and nuclear weapons to add to their arsenal of mass destruction. As these events unfolded, the emphasis on CB defense (CBD) increased.

While the Iraqi government was intentionally using chemical weapons, in 1984, a tragic incident occurred which reminded us that not all CB threats are war or terrorist related. A Union Carbide industrial plant in Bhopal, India, released a toxic cloud of methyl isocynate, which killed over three thousand people and injured tens of thousands more. This incident demonstrated the need for our nation to be prepared for a chemical, biological, or radiological event whether it is the result of a terrorist activity, war, or an accident. Having the capability to protect the fleet from these kinds of scenarios was imperative.

Back home, an event was taking shape that would impact the CBR defense work being performed at Dahlgren. In March of 1986, RADM J. B. Mooney, Jr., Chief of Naval Research (CNR), formalized in a letter to NSWC what would quickly become known to some as the “Panic of ‘86”. That short letter said:

“Budget constraints have required that the Office of Naval Technology (ONT) reduce the scope of several of its programs beginning in FY86 and into the out years….The Chemical and Biological Defense program has not been identified in the POM 88 process as a high priority technology area by the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO)….Hence, ONT intends to reduce the CBR effort starting in FY86 followed by 50% in FY87 with total phase-out by FY91.”

Almost immediately, the CBR defense leadership sought new positions for the branch personnel who would be immediately affected and by July had identified placement for some of the individuals. In August, the Commander of NSWC advised COMNAVSEASYSCOM of his intent to eliminate the Center’s involvement in CBR-D matters over the next several years. Other division personnel continued to look for and find positions across Dahlgren.

Also in August, the Undersecretary for Defense, Research and Engineering who had previously concurred with the Navy decision to reduce the ONT CBR Defense budget expressed his concerns to the Navy at the DON Science and Technology (S&T) Investment Strategy Review. By September, the CNO had officially expressed his concern to SPAWAR “…about the potential loss of the Navy’s capabilities in this area, especially at a time when upgraded individual and collective protection measures are being developed and purchased for the fleet.” The DCNO for Surface Warfare went on to say: “I strongly support the continuance of NAVSURFWPNCEN’s role in CBR defense and request that you act expeditiously to prevent loss of core expertise.”

By December, CNR was having second thoughts and recommended that CNO (OP098) consider additional coordination with OSD. In February 1987, the CNO made it clear that the Navy needed to maintain a capability to support fleet needs, and SPAWAR was directed to develop a plan for a continuing program at NSWC. The division began hiring new personnel to replace the many valuable people who had left and reorganized to fulfill the earlier CNO mandate.


During Operation Desert Shield, it was feared that Iraq would once again use CB weapons, this time against U.S. and coalition forces. The use of CB weapons against ships was of particular concern to the Navy, given the unique challenges associated with the sea environment. The Navy turned to Dahlgren as its leader in CBD to help prepare it to operate in a maritime CB environment.

To determine how effectively the Iraqi army could contaminate our ships with attacks from their shore batteries, Dahlgren developed a computerized Chemical Warfare (CW) naval simulation model. This model, first called PLUME and later VLS Track, simulated the attacks and tracked the vapor, liquids and solids from the munitions based on agent type and meteorological conditions (e.g. temperature, humidity, wind direction, and speed, etc.). The ship’s commanding officer could then use the output to determine where there would be a threat of contamination.

To address the threat of ships being contaminated by CW agents, Dahlgren aggressively fielded CBD equipment and trained deploying personnel. CPS was installed on ships heading to the Persian Gulf to allow Sailors in the protected areas to operate without wearing cumbersome protective clothing and masks. These areas also allowed a place for Sailors to remove their protective clothing to prevent excessive heat stress. Dahlgren provided special protective clothing, detection and monitoring equipment, and CB warfare training to deploying units. In addition, they provided decontamination and casualty handling training to fleet physicians and corpsmen.

To determine the threat to personnel once a ship was exposed to CW agents, Dahlgren conducted extensive research and testing to determine how long agents would remain on shipboard deck surfaces and how effectively the wash down countermeasure system would remove the agents. The compilation of all this information under various environmental conditions led to the publication of the Chemical Hazard Assessment Guide, which was disseminated to the fleet to aid them in conducting risk assessments.

Fortunately, the Iraqis did not use any CB weapons against coalition forces. However, the lessons learned during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm impacted the management of CBD research, development, and acquisition. Based on some of these lessons, Congress passed Public Law 103-160 in 1994, which mandated that the CBD efforts of all the Services be consolidated in a single program managed under the Office of the Secretary of Defense. While Dahlgren had collaborated across the Services prior to this, the implementation of the law formalized the means of collaboration. The Joint Service Material Development Group (JSMG) was established as the organization responsible for developing and acquiring CBD equipment for all the Services. Each Service had representatives in the JSMG. Dahlgren was selected to hold two of the key positions: the Commodity Area Manager (CAM) for Collective Protection and the CAM for Battle Management and Modeling and Simulation (M&S). In addition to holding the CAM positions, Dahlgren represented the Navy on the Joint Service acquisition programs and was selected to lead the ARTEMIS active standoff detection system program. The organization expanded to address the increase in workload, including new work in modeling, threat analysis, and decision aid development.

2000 – 2004

The collateral benefits of collective protection were seen in the October 2000 terrorist attack on USS Cole(DDG-67) in the Port of Aden, Yemen. Seventeen of our Sailors were killed in this attack, and had it not been for the bravery and heroic deeds of the crew, the ship would most likely have sunk. Although not a CB attack, the collective protection system nevertheless performed as designed and continued to provide clean filtered air to the interior of the ship where the Sailors, who were fighting for their ship’s survival, could receive respite from the noxious fumes and resultant hazardous contaminants.

The terrorist attacks in 2001 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the anthrax attacks brought renewed focus on CBR Defense. Dahlgren was once again called on to expeditiously address CBR defense shortfalls in the fleet. Dahlgren managed the procurement of CBR defense items across all commodities, including both medical and non-medical items, to ensure that our Sailors deploying to the Gulf were adequately prepared to defend themselves against a CBR attack. Dahlgren engineers were also called upon to support the newly-formed Pentagon Force Protection Agency and helped design and install CBD systems throughout the Pentagon to ensure continuity of operations in the event of another attack. As part of this work, Dahlgren engineers and scientists were involved in a project that completely upgraded the Pentagon mailroom.

During the same time period, Dahlgren erected a new facility to house the Center’s CBR Defense workforce. The Herbert H. Bateman Chemical Biological Defense Center was dedicated by Navy officials on August 22, 2002. This facility provided the organization with a state-of-the-art research and development facility to continue work on new and novel technologies, methods, and equipment to protect our Sailors.

In 2003 the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical Biological Defense (JPEO-CBD) was established, replacing the JSMG organization. The Navy filled two of the original seven chartered Joint Project Manager (JPM) positions: JPM for Collective Protection (JPM-ColPro) and JPM for Information Systems (JPM-IS). Dahlgren was established as the office for the JPM-ColPro, while JPM-IS established its office at SPAWAR in San Diego, California. Due to the unique characteristics of the naval and maritime environment, Dahlgren provides support to all the JPMs, as well as JPEO-CBD headquarters.

BRAC Recommendations Brought Fluctuations

In 2005, the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission recommended moving Dahlgren’s CB research and development work to Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Edgewood, Maryland (near Aberdeen Proving Ground). This was a challenging time for the CBR Defense division. Because most of the division’s employees were long-time Dahlgren area residents, with children in schools and involvement in the local communities, many of the employees looked for and got opportunities in other areas at Dahlgren (as many had done almost twenty years earlier with the “Panic of 86”). Before long the division had lost about thirty percent of its employees. The good news is that the BRAC decision was overturned and the DoD decided to keep the capability at Dahlgren. This decision was primarily based on two factors. First, it was decided that the Navy was indeed unique and due to the high quality and quantity of support that Dahlgren provided to the fleet, it was the right place to perform this work in support of the warfighter. Secondly, JPEO CBD was intent on having an organization that was truly joint with representation from all Services, and NSWC Dahlgren Division was the recognized lead for Navy CBR Defense.

After BRAC, Dahlgren needed to rebuild to replace the many high-quality individuals who left after the initial BRAC decision was made. The division needed to grow to handle the new work that came from a variety of areas as potential sponsors saw the value of not only the qualified people in the CBR Defense Division but of the technical strength of NSWCDD.

During this time frame, NSWC, Crane, as part of its sunset strategy, decided to focus on only a few major areas and divest itself of other work. One of these divestitures was the In-Service Engineering Agent (ISEA) CB Detection work. NSWCDD is a research, development, test, and evaluation institution and as such, the focus is not usually on the ISEA component. However, there were three reasons why this work eventually came to Dahlgren:

  • First and foremost, the warfighter needed to have the work done.

  • Second, the sponsor, NAVSEA 05P14, saw Dahlgren as the place to send this work. This decision came after conducting a LEAN value stream analysis, several resultant rapid improvement events, and several “Just Do Its.”

  • Third, the decision was in sync with the Asymmetric Defense Systems Department and the CBR Defense Division’s vision of making Dahlgren a Navy Center of Excellence for CBR Defense.

The transition was not without its challenges, but with a supporting command, dedicated personnel, and the outstanding leadership at the branch and programmatic levels, the work for the fleet continued and thrived.

One of the main impacts to the division was the increased focus on providing relevant and timely support to the Sailor at the waterfront. To improve support to the fleet, the CBR Defense division established locations on the waterfront, first in Norfolk, VA, and then in San Diego, CA.

Support Services for the Fleet and Beyond

With a presence in Norfolk and San Diego, the NSWC Dahlgren CBR Defense waterfront support team maintained daily, direct contact with the Fleet on both the East and West Coast. This direct and active connection with the Fleet helped the warfighter and provided a wealth of valuable information for our scientists and engineers in the lab. This knowledge could immediately be put to use as they worked to create, develop, and provide updates and solutions for our men and women in uniform. The Readiness Assist Visit (RAV) component of the waterfront support team ensured that our ships deployed at the highest state of CBRD readiness.

The NSWCDD CBR Defense Division collaborated with and supported other DoD agencies such as the Missile Defense Agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Dahlgren’s national reputation in several areas of CBR defense expanded the division’s support in the National Needs areas through support of other federal government agencies, such as the Coast Guard and the Center for Disease Control. In addition, subject matter expertise was provided to local governments in support of Homeland Defense Initiatives. For example, when the New York City Fire Department (NYFD) wanted to build a new fireboat that was prepared to deal with a CB threatened or contaminated environment, they came to Dahlgren for the CBR defense expertise. NYFD fireboat 343, commissioned in 2010, was fully prepared to deal with the CB threat.

The CBR Defense Division adapted to ongoing changes with the JPEO CBD reorganization in response to new direction coming from the White House. There was more focus on medical initiatives, as evidenced by the new JPM Transformational Medical Technologies and the initiation of the Medical Countermeasures Initiative.

At the time the original version of this article was published in Leading Edge Magazine, Dahlgren was responding to fleet requests for support as Japanese nuclear power plants hit by a powerful tsunami in March of 2011 were leaking radiation.

Dahlgren’s CBR Defense Role Transitioned

Dahlgren continued supporting the Fleet with CBR Defense until 2018, when it was decided in support of program consolidation that the NSWCDD CBRD Division would be transitioned from Dahlgren to Indian Head. Regardless of its location, the Navy’s CBR Defense program works to ensure that our Sailors can fight, win, and survive in a CBR threatened or contaminated environment. Success is measured by the program’s readiness, the confidence that the Sailors have in the detection, modeling and simulation, protection and decontamination systems, and the ability to treat any CBR attack or accident as a nuisance and not as an ordeal.

About the Author

Michael (Mike) Purello works for Applied Technology, Inc. in King George, Virginia, providing technical and operational support to government organizations.

He retired from Federal Government service in 2019 with 33 years of service, during which time he held leadership positions in several areas, including CBR Defense, ship production, repair and overhauls, combat systems development, integration, training and support, AEGIS, battlegroup interoperability, and electromagnetic environmental effects. He possesses an engineering undergraduate and master’s degrees in Business Administration and Systems Engineering. Mr. Purello is also a Board member of the Dahlgren Heritage Foundation.

A version of this article was previously published in April of 2012 in NSWCDD’s Leading Edge magazine. Reprinted with permission.

Bibliography available upon request.

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