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Chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons are considered significant threats to military operations. Over the last twenty-five years, the concept and discipline of “force protection” has evolved.

Protecting military personnel from CBRN weapons is nothing new, dating back to 1915. The traditional disciplines in CBRN force protection – individual and collective protection, contamination avoidance, detection, decontamination, and medical countermeasures – have largely been addressed in detail. However, as with the previous two articles on CBRN subjects this year in ESD, there’s relatively little attempt to look at the subject as a cohesive whole.

The Concept

The concept of “protecting the force” from CBRN threats can be analysed along three different axes. The first axis is protecting the individuals that comprise the force, i.e. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and essential support contractors. The traditional CBRN defence technology areas of detection, individual protection (for example masks and suits) and medical countermeasures (e.g. vaccines and treatments) are firmly part of this rubric. Individual protection often comes at a cost to performance, even though the current generation of protective clothing and respirators are far less burdensome to use than their predecessors. Individual protection is well-covered by major CBRN industry stalwarts, such as Avon (UK) and the Scott division of 3M (USA). Protective clothing is produced by many manufacturers around the world, with companies like Blücher (GE), Lion (USA), and Paul Boyé (FR) as particular examples. Medical countermeasures come from many sources, but Meridian Medical Technologies, part of Pfizer (USA), and Emergent Biosolutions (USA) are examples of specialty manufacturers in that space.

Force Protection is a hard concept to conceptualise and even harder to implement. (Photo: Red Scientific)

Individual protection has also been enhanced by a fundamental change in CBRN detection instrumentation. Detection and identification of chemical warfare agents and toxic industrial has always been part of force protection. The last 15 years, however, have seen a fundamental change in this area. Led by the US Army, which is the single largest military CBRN client on the planet and a major proponent for change in this area, the “Joint Chemical Agent Detector” (JCAD) programme resulted in the production of smaller, better, and more affordable chemical detectors that could be easily worn and carried by individual soldiers or mounted on practically any vehicle. Smiths Detection (UK) won this contract with its LCD-series of detectors and became the largest manufacturer of chemical warfare detection. These devices are literally a fraction of the price, volume, and weight of their predecessor and rival devices. Other manufacturers in this space, such as Bruker (DE) and Environics (Finland) provide solid offerings in this space, but have not been able to replicate Smiths’ market share.

The second axis of CBRN force protection is reconstitution of systems and equipment. Military capability to project force around the world and to conduct offensive and defensive operations relies on a bewildering array of systems. Systems can be things like fighter aircraft, tanks, and aircraft carriers. Pretty much by definition, only the “N” in CBRN is any good at destroying systems. However, the rest of the CBRN hazards can contaminate systems. Contaminated systems mean that performance is degraded due to the need for operators to wear protective equipment and that equipment becomes harder to use.
Furthermore, contaminated systems can cause injury or death to personnel near them. In the case of ground vehicles, they can spread contamination, thus increasing the size of a hazardous area.

Contamination Avoidance

Protecting equipment and systems relies on two major disciplines – contamination avoidance and decontamination. Contamination avoidance is the art and science of knowing where contamination might be located, in both time and space domains so that manoeuvre units can avoid the problem entirely by being at a place (or time) that minimises risk. Contamination avoidance relies heavily on detection, warning and reporting networks to spread information, and modelling that can predict hazard areas. Although it is dated, Allied Technical Publication 45, a NATO document, is still the standard in this area and it is used by some non-NATO countries as well. As far as industry is concerned, Bruhn Newtech (Denmark) is one of the leaders in this segment.

CBRN Decontamination

CBRN specialists approach the decontamination site during a CBRN exercise at Keesler Air Force Base. The Force Protection exercise simulated an explosion causing a mass casualty event. (Photo: US Air Force)

The counterpart to contamination avoidance is the discipline of CBRN decontamination. Decontamination is aimed as much towards protecting systems and equipment as it is about protecting individuals. This primary countermeasure, decontamination, is not so much about protection of the contaminated assets as it is about the rapid reconstitution of assets so that they may re-enter the battle quickly. Cristanini (Italy), OWR and Kärcher (Germany) are the industrial providers of great repute in this area.

Protecting individuals and reconstituting equipment are subjects that have been analysed at length over the years, including in my own articles in this publication. But there have been fewer efforts to look at a bigger picture. The third axis along which one can slice CBRN force protection is that of protecting capability. There is a sophisticated web of technology, communications, and logistics that allows modern militaries to operate around the world. Dynamic military operations rely on “systems of systems” which can themselves be vulnerable to CBRN threats in several different ways.

The idea that CBRN threats are most likely to be delivered as battlefield weapons on the frontline as an extension of conventional weapons is old and only partially valid. CBRN weapons are more likely to have wider effects if used to disrupt command and control, communication, and logistics. Indeed, during the Cold War, much of the Soviet bloc’s effort on chemical weapons went into delivery systems such as SCUD and FROG missile warheads that could strike at ports, airfields, and storage depots deep in the West’s rear, thus causing more chaos and confusion than if similar amounts of chemical warfare agent were used in attacks on the front line. When one looks at conflicts and likely combatants in CBRN scenarios, there may be prolific use of doctrine and systems that originated in the Cold War-era Soviet bloc.

CBRN vulnerabilities to military capability are best illustrated by example. Imagine a combat (or peacekeeping) operation in Yemen. Such an operation would likely require a complex logistical operation using airfields, seaports, and possibly overland supply routes. A chemical attack employing persistent chemical warfare agents, such as Mustard or VX, that was targeted at seaport infrastructure and the land transport routes out of the port could seriously diminish operational tempo for a long period of time until necessary decontamination could be undertaken. As another example, an incapacitating chemical agent or biological agent that causes sudden illness at a major forward headquarters could cause significant disruption to operations by interfering with the complex command and control arrangements necessary for modern military operations.

Capability Protection

The primary way to protect capability as a whole is to apply the same measures and technologies that are applied to protecting personnel and for protecting equipment. The overall problem is that no military has ever invested sufficiently in CBRN force protection to be able to provide equal defensive capability everywhere at all times. Such a state of affairs is likely to mean that commanders and logisticians will have to make decisions about allocations of resources. It will also mean that the traditional practice of favouring front-line combat units when it comes to CBRN personnel and technology over rear-echelon units. The experience of many a CBRN NCO and officer is that frontline combat units receive higher priority in CBRN defence than combat support and logistics units. In the US Army, for example, infantry battalions will have a CBRN officer and infantry companies will likely have a CBRN NCO, whose job it is to uphold CBRN readiness. That same reserve battalion could easily have an older generation of protective equipment than the “front line” units.
But a reserve transportation battalion may have no CBRN staff, or if they are lucky, one CBRN sergeant for a large, dispersed force. However, when one looks at the overall big picture, that transportation battalion full of reservists with over 100 heavy cargo trucks is likely to be keeping a lot more than one infantry battalion in the fight by keeping it fed, watered, fuelled, and in ammunition. An honest assessment might yield the revelation that that transportation battalion, and the supply routes on which it drives, may need more protection than an individual combat battalion in many scenarios.

If modern military leaders want to engage with the topic of “protecting the force” from CBRN threats, then they must grapple with this sort of fairly complex analysis. This correspondent, who has been a participant and observer in CBRN affairs for three decades, has rarely seen the type and level of vulnerability analysis that would address the CBRN threat to global and regional military capabilities as a whole. While some fairly elegant work has been done to look at systemic vulnerability issues in C3I and logistical domains due to more conventional threats, truly “big picture” CBRN vulnerability assessment of interconnected issues is rare. The single biggest thing that the world’s militaries could do to address “protecting the force” is to engage in this type of higher-level analysis. Such efforts will derive the information necessary to make decisions about where to best employ detection technology and decontamination assets, as well as scarce CBRN specialists.

The Covid-19 Pandemic

The nature of modern warfare has long made the old paradigm of “front line” troops obsolete. The potential use of CBRN weapons in either “deep strike” or unconventional ways shifts the “front line” to ports, headquarters and supply routes. The heroic front line may be decontamination soldiers and truck drivers. Which leads to our present global crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic. It is now axiomatic that the heroes in civil society are cleaners, delivery drivers, and nurses. It would be negligent for this publication to ignore both the impact and lessons given by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The US Army in Europe relies on five Force Protection Condition (FPCON) levels –Normal, Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta. The levels increase from lowest condition at Normal to the highest and most protective at Delta. (GRAPHIC: US Army)

Covid-19 is a pressing reminder that the largest CBRN threat to military force in decades, is now one that comes from natural origins rather than acts of warfare. The current worldwide Covid-19 crisis should serve as a reminder that the “B” in CBRN predates all of the other disciplines. For millennia, disease was the largest producer of military casualties, not combat. Even in the modern era, force protection involves protecting armies from diseases endemic in their theatre of operations. Historically, diseases like typhus, malaria, typhoid, yellow fever, dysentery, and smallpox (to name only a few) have had significant impact on military operations. Much of the field of so-called “tropical medicine” originally derives from efforts to protect European military forces deployed in areas with endemic diseases little understood by European medics.

By the time this article reaches print, the crisis will have continued to evolve. As of the time of writing of this article, Covid-19 was already beginning to have an impact on military readiness. Exercises are being cancelled or curtailed. Naval vessels are being quarantined. Movement of both individuals and units is being reduced or completely halted. Training is being suspended in many places. As the pandemic grows, militaries around the world will continue to incur casualties. Military readiness will suffer in several ways. First, illness and death, even if only in small percentages, will cause attrition in military units that will affect the ability to deploy or fight. Second, as militaries enact sensible health measures such as quarantines and isolation, most types of military training will be reduced or suspended. Operational tempo of existing conflicts seems to have not yet been diminished, but it is likely only a matter of time.

Another aspect of the Covid-19 pandemic is that militaries around the world will be increasing focused on support to civil authorities. This is not a bad thing, in itself, as many military capabilities will be needed to support response and resilience efforts to protect the population from this virus. Military units are already providing transportation, aviation, logistics, planning, policing, and other kinds of support around the world. Reservists are being recalled to duty to assist. As the Covid-19 crisis evolves, it will be a test of how well military forces around the world can support their own civilian populace. Every aspect of military support to civil authorities will be under scrutiny. Civil-military relations, which vary greatly around the world, will become a subject of keen interest this year.

The defence and security aspects of the pandemic have caused concern at the international level. NATO has begun to seriously consider the problem. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary General, held a series of consultations with member states from 24 to 26 March 2020. Pooled NATO assets are beginning to be brought into use to help. For example, C-17 cargo aircraft from NATO’s “Strategic Airlift Capability” have been carrying medical equipment, including 100,000 protective suits, from South Korea to Romania. However, NATO suffers from a lot of internal and external stresses that pre-date the current crisis. How it will respond as an institution will be an interesting case study.

Soldiers from the CBRN Joint Task Force Civil Support (JTFCS) are prepared for role-players to come through their Mass Casualty Decontamination line at Exercise Guardian Response at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center, 4 May 2019. (Photo: US Army)

None of the aspects of CBRN force protection described earlier in this article have served to protect militaries from this menace. The Covid-19 pandemic will likely turn out to be the biggest disease-based threat to military operations and readiness in many decades. By comparison, the official statistics for the Vietnam War show that the US military only suffered only 938 deaths from infectious disease during the conflict, over a period of many years. This is a testament to preventive medicine. But can the US military get through a few months of a Covid-19 pandemic without incurring the same level of deaths?

While some societies, particularly totalitarian ones, may be able to quarantine their military forces, for most countries, the military resides within society or not very far away from it. A public health crisis in the general population will almost invariably affect the military population, particular ones with high contagion like COVID-19. As with the 1918 flu crisis, long forgotten but now being painfully remembered, civilian public health and biological resilience efforts are actually a component of force protection. A sick populace cannot operate industry and infrastructure, and industry and infrastructure that is not staffed cannot support military operations. Conversely, a sick and incapacitated military cannot provide effective support to civil authorities in their time of need. Contagion does not observe the gates at military bases in or near communities. Sick civilians will eventually make military personnel sick, and sick soldiers and sailors will go home and make the civilian population sick.

Photo: US Army

Protecting the population, which was the subject of an article in ESD 4/2020, is not a stand-alone discipline, nor is force protection. When confronted with virulent pathogens like COVID-19, they are the same. Shortcomings in civil preparedness bear directly on military readiness when it comes to pandemics. While it is easy to catalogue such shortcomings in light of the present crisis, there are clearly areas where common effort can pay off in both categories. Rapid development and deployment of biological diagnostic technology to identify pathogens would aid both civilian and military protection efforts. Likewise, rapid development of vaccines is a clear “win” in both categories. Stockpiles for emergencies can be broadened and shared. The reality is that both civilians and soldiers face biological threats, whether they are artificial or natural. More “joined-up” thinking, planning, and acting is called for.

There is an apt expression, possibly apocryphal and possibly coined by the late William Patrick, a US biological weapons developer. “Biological warfare is public health in reverse.” The present crisis points out that deficiencies in public health processes, institutions, and infrastructures, when confronted by a communicable pathogen of such ferocity as COVID-19, that the converse of Patrick’s proposition is equally true. A lack of public health leaves us all vulnerable to things like biological warfare or natural outbreaks of new biological threats. Every scientific indicator points to the fact that Covid-19 is not man-made. But the effects are much the same. The mess that the world finds itself in is surely an indictment of both population protection and military force protection measures. “Protecting the force” needs to look towards a broader horizon of threats, as does “protecting the population.” Covid-19 is bad and it will get worse before it gets better. But we need to learn from it.
“Protecting the force” is a hard concept to conceptualise and even harder to implement. But both long-standing basic principles and hard-learned lessons from current affairs need to be examined.

Dan Kaszeta is Managing Director at Strongpoint Security Ltd. and a regular contributor to ESD.