Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life

Secret plan to use chemical weapon gun during Northern Ireland Troubles


By Christopher Woodhouse

THE government's top secret chemical and biological warfare lab tried to develop a knock-out gas for use during the Troubles, Sunday Life can reveal.

Trials of the secret stun spray weapon - a sort of chemical Taser - to aid arrests were carried out by boffins in the 1970s at the government's Chemical Defence Establishment (CDE) in Wiltshire.

Previously classified government documents seen by this newspaper state the trials took place at the Porton Down centre in 1973.

The spray was to be used to render a hostile person "partially or completely unconscious" to aid "internal security" (IS) operations.

IS was the term used by the CDE at the time for policing and military deployments in Northern Ireland.

The details of the tests are contained in a report declassified in May 2007 and supplied to Sunday Life by Cold War chemical and biological warfare researcher Mike Kenner.

Titled "Feasibility study of the possible use of volatile anaesthetics as aids to arrest", it details the trials which were carried out at the secret facility in January 1973.

The study was launched after a CDE research and development report the previous year spoke of the "urgent need for devices for IS operations in Northern Ireland".

It forecast that the CDE would increase the number staff in its development section in 1972/73 to meet the demand due to certain factors, including the conflict in Northern Ireland.

The report by "F. McC. Blewett" says the tests were carried out to assess the "feasibility of using a 'squirt' of volatile anaesthetic to attack a hostile person in order to arrest him by rendering him partially or completely unconscious".

A head and shoulders dummy was built, dressed in a "cotton shirt and corduroy jacket", and placed in a wind tunnel in the CDE's Physics Division with the nose facing into the wind.

Diethylamine, a highly flammable liquid which can cause temporary loss of vision, was then sprayed on the dummy from a polystyrene wash bottle instead of the real chemical agent.

In later tests a hand-held riot spray gun made by Philip B Waldron Co was used for "higher doses".

Five tests were carried out, first directly spraying the chemical through the nose, then splashing the face, head and shoulders and samples taken to see how much had been "breathed" through the nose.

The discussion of the results of the test state that "only very low doses would arise from contaminated clothing" and that a "direct attack of the face itself would be essential".

Results showed that the maximum doses "likely to be breathed in brief (2-3 second) gasps was between 100 to 500mg every minute in a cubic metre of air. The study then compared the figures with the dosages of actual anaesthetics needed to knock somebody out.   

It said the best such chemical for the spray would be Halothane as it "offers by far the most desirable combination of properties" including "rapid induction of unconsciousness".

But the report concluded that even with Halothane the dose required to knock a man out was 500,000mg every minute in a cubic metre.

"Thus showing that a use of a liquid squirt to anaesthetise a man is quite infeasible," said the report.

Porton Down, now known as the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, was established in 1916 to develop chemical and biological weapons and methods of defence against them.

Among them is one of the most potent nerve agents ever, VX (Venomous Agent X) which is believed to have been used to kill the half brother of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Malaysia last year.

The facility also conducted secret chemical warfare simulation exercises over towns in southern England in the 1970s to determine how quickly a ship or aircraft could spread a biological weapon.

The document was only declassified following a request from a member of the public.

Belfast Telegraph


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