Sonthofen, West Germany — IF chemical war broke out in Europe, shifting winds would turn the countryside into a deadly patchwork of poisoned and uncontaminated regions. Whichever side's troops found a path through the chemical-laced landscape would gain a key advantage.
Enter ``the Fox'' - an odd-looking West German vehicle that swims, reads maps, and sniffs out the faintest trace of chemicals on a battlefield.
It's the Porsche of chemical warfare equipment.
The place to see it in action is this tiny village nestled among the foothills of the Bavarian Alps. The military base here is the headquarters of West Germany's elite NBC Defense and Self-Protection School - NBC standing for ``nuclear, biological, and chemical.'' This is where soldiers learn how to survive a chemical war.
``Every chemical is different - it contains information which is like a fingerprint,'' says Reiner Spudich as he dabs liquid from a small brown bottle marked ``9'' onto a cotton ball.
The West German technician holds the wad near the end of a long metal arm jutting from the back of an armored vehicle. The sensor mounted on the tip of the arm is heated to 260 degrees Celsius (500 degrees F.) - hot enough to vaporize chemicals instantly.
A moment passes, then an alarm goes off deep inside the the six-wheeled vehicle.
On a black screen on an inside wall, a series of white lines rises and hovers - a ``mass spectrum'' readout indicating the components in the chemical being analyzed. Just as the lines peak, a soldier pushes a button, locking the white-on-black image on the screen.
``That,'' says Mr. Spudich, ``will tell us what it is - no two chemicals are exactly alike.''
An onboard computer silently scans its memory of ``fingerprints'' for 240 materials, looking for a match. Within seconds, it identifies the mystery chemical as methylsalicylate, a harmless substance used in tobacco and chewing gum.
If the computer can't identify the material, it can store the image for analysis back at a central laboratory.
Chemical warfare has come a long way - technologically speaking. And the ``Sp"urpanzer Fuchs,'' a German name translating as ``fox reconnaissance vehicle,'' is on the cutting edge.
Previously, NATO soldiers were issued hand-held kits to identify agents. But some tests take up to 15 minutes, and the kit is a nuisance to carry.
The Warsaw Pact, meanwhile, has a vehicle a West German officer describes as a ``pickup truck crammed full of chemical sensing equipment.''
The Sp"urpanzer Fuchs represents a leap forward in such capability. Indeed, it's so attractive, the United States wants to buy 500 of them. But so far, the Pentagon has bought only five test vehicles. The West Germans have about 140.
They're not cheap. Each vehicle costs more than $1 million. It not only monitors for chemicals, but also comes equipped with mounted propellers for crossing rivers; radiation sensors; and an onboard navigation system that traces the vehicle's movement on a map next to the driver.
``Knowing where you are on a chemical battlefield is crucial,'' says Col. Klaus Nissan, director of the school's evaluation and testing division.
Once an area is identified as contaminated with chemicals, he says, the vehicle would drop markers to warn friendly troops, while reporting the location to a command center. Mistakes could be deadly.
But moving into the world of high-tech is never easy.
On a recent day at Sonthofen, soldiers had trouble fitting a rubber glove over an opening in the back door of one of the vehicles. The glove should stay mounted over the hole while the vehicle is in operation. On the battlefield, soldiers inside the vehicle can reach through the glove to handle soil samples and equipment outside the door without exposing themselves.
``That's the problem with a high-technology army,'' one officer says. ``It requires constant training.''