To generations of British ‘squaddies’ the instructions ‘blot, bang, rub’ will be ingrained into their psyche. Part of their personal decontamination sets, every soldier was issued with a ‘Decontamination Kit, Personal’ (DKP), stored in a paper wallet that folded up into a little packet about 2”x3”: Inside are four individual white packets: Each packet contained a small quantity of Calcium Montmorrillonite, a highly absorbent powder (Fuller’s Earth). This powder was used to soak up chemical agents and decontaminate equipment.
Chemical or nerve agents exercise a peculiar hold on the imagination. Unlike kinetic attacks, where the threat is at least tangible, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons remain elusive. There is something especially horrible about being attacked by something you cannot see. As the use of CBRN weapons increases, governments and defence departments have been tasked with developing robust and effective countermeasures to protect the public and military personnel.
In the 1988 Strategic Defence Review, the UK had some foresight in creating a unit to counter or at least detect CBRN agents. The outcome was the Joint CBRN Regiment, which consisted of the then- 1st Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) and as well as reserve elements from 2623 Squadron RAuxAF Regiment and the Territorial Royal Yeomanry.
The approach for preparing and responding to the threat of terrorism had been developed over the last 20 years as part of the UK Government’s ‘CONTEST’ strategy. The objective is simple, “to reduce the risk to the UK and its citizens and interests overseas from terrorism, so that people can go about their lives freely and with confidence.” The outcome of this strategy was the development of the ‘Model Response’, which sets out the operational parameters for responding to the deliberate release of chemical, biological or radiological materials. Along with a corresponding investment in equipment and training, the Model Response has provided the UK’s emergency services with a range of bespoke resources and procedures for effectively dealing with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) and hazardous material (HazMat) incidents.
The Model Response was based on delivering specialist assets directly to the scene of an incident. This includes the deployment of trained responders with appropriate protection and detection capability, medical countermeasures and bespoke disrobe and decontamination facilities. Clearly, such an approach is dependent on the timely arrival of assets on-scene. For incidents involving the release of biological or radiological materials, a short delay in the deployment of specialist resources may not have significant health consequences for exposed individuals. However, this may not be the case for chemical agents, particularly those with a rapid onset of action, such as hydrogen cyanide or nerve agents.
In 2010, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government produced the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), military units were cut due to an inaccurate prediction of a peace dividend after the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. Those cuts saw the removal of the Joint CBRN Regiment and their Fuchs vehicles, all 11 of them slated for disposal. The 1st RTR would merge with its sister, the 2nd RTR, to form a Challenger 2 Regiment. CBRN capability was retained at a smaller capability, from joint to purely under the RAF Regiment’s control. 27 Squadron RAF Regiment would join with 26 Squadron RAF Regiment, and 2623 RAuxAF to maintain CBRN capability.
The Arab Spring, a series of anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions that spread across much of the Arab world in the early 2010s was followed by the Syrian Civil War where Assad used chemical weapons on his own people and against ISIS. Questions were raised in parliament about the UK readiness for CBRNe response. A couple years later, Falcon Squadron from the RTR was re-formed along side the other squadrons of the merged RTR. The squadron’s role was officially known as a ‘CBRN Area Survey and Reconnaissance Squadron’. The Fuchs vehicles were recommissioned or regenerated. Falcon Squadron RTR provided CBRN Area Survey and Reconnaissance capability. Manned by the RTR, under the command of 22 Engr Regt in Force Troops Command.
The RAF regiment still held the bulk of CBRN capability. Next came Strategic Defence Security Review 2015, a document planning for the next 10 years. The indications were the role of CBRN would move back to the Army. So the British Armed Forces rightly restored its Counter-CBRN capability, but its adversaries are certainly moving at a faster pace.
28 RE, now sitting under 12 Force Support Engineer Group will not just have to deal with future CBRN attacks on British soil but help detect and clear paths for the Army’s single ‘war-fighting’ division in any operation. Their mettle was soon to be tested: a dynamic and joint approach with the emergency services and other agencies to deliver an effective response came quickly right on their doorstep.
In March 2018, UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced a $60m investment in a new Chemical Weapons Defence Centre to maintain the country’s “cutting edge in chemical analysis and defence”. The facility would be co-located at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) site at Porton Down near Salisbury. In recent years we have seen the use of chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria by both the Assad regime and ISIS and a nerve agent used in the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam in Malaysia. The UK military needed to provide equipment and training to ensure its forces are well prepared and appropriately protected against the full range of chemical, biological and nuclear threats.
The Defence Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear Centre (DCBRNC) site was first established in 1917 as a Trench Mortar Experimental Establishment under the administrative control of the war department’s ‘experimental ground’ at Porton Down. Known as Porton South Camp, it served as troop accommodation, ammunition store and as the trench mortar and artillery firing point.
The actual involvement of with chemical warfare dates from the formation of the Chemical Warfare School in 1926. The school conducted training for officers and senior non-commissioned officers (SNCO’s), running courses each month and regular demonstrations for the services’ staff colleges and other dignitaries.
In 1931 the Chemical Warfare School became the anti-gas wing of the Small Arms School but in 1939 it gained independent status as the Army Gas School, later to be re-named as the army school of chemical warfare.
From 1947 to 1948 the school became a joint army and Royal Air Force (RAF) establishment, named the Joint School of Chemical Warfare. The importance of minimizing the effects of nuclear weapons was acknowledged with the school studying and teaching the defensive aspects of nuclear warfare.
An attack involving the use of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, explosive (CBRNe) materials, potentially also involving explosives, either as a means of dissemination or an additional method of attack, could inflict large numbers of casualties and would represent a major incident for the UK emergency services. Coinciding with the re-organization of UK military CBRN response, the attempted murder of former Russian military intelligence officer and his daughter using Novichok was an extreme manifestation of an ‘active measure’ of a type for which the Russian state has been responsible in the past. It also occurred right on their own doorstep, less than 3 miles away – This event clearly showed that the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threat has continued to evolve.
The combination of the known Russian association with the development of the Novichok nerve agent, Russia’s likely motive was to punish those the Russian state regards as traitors, and the fact that a poisoning of a former FSB defector using radioactive Polonium 210 had previously been carried out in the UK in 2006 led not just the British government but the US and other NATO allies and EU member states to declare publicly that there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian State was culpable for the attempted murder of the couple and for using an internationally banned nerve agent to do so. The Russians also left an almost amateurish trail of evidence back to Russia.
The Operational Response started from the very first call to the emergency services – in this case at 16:15hrs on 3 March 2018, when an emergency services call reported that Sergei Skripal, a 66-year-old resident of Salisbury, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia had been found unconscious on a public bench in the centre of Salisbury by a passing Chief Nursing Officer for the British Army and her daughter (this was a key element as nerve agent symptoms were recognized early on. An eyewitness saw Yulia foaming at the mouth with her eyes wide open but completely white, they were both ”slipping in and out of consciousness on a public bench”. At 17:10, they were taken separately to Salisbury District Hospital by an ambulance and an air ambulance.
At 09:03 the following morning, Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust declared a major incident in response to concerns, shortly afterwards this became a multi-agency incident named Operation Fairline. Health authorities checked 21 members of the emergency services and the public for possible symptoms; two police officers were treated for minor symptoms, said to be itchy eyes and wheezing, while one, Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who had been sent to Skripal’s house, had been in a serious condition.
In such incidents, First responders from all agencies must work together quickly and efficiently to save life and then seamlessly hand over to specialist assets. Such a CBRN(e) event has many elements. Over 700 specially trained military personnel, including the Joint CBRN Task Force, were involved in the clean-up, of Salisbury, which was named ‘Operation Morlop’.
It is recognized that the command and control of the UK multi-agency response to a terrorist incident of this nature is challenging, as it involves:
- a high threat scenario
- multi-agency resources
- cross border police force areas
- significant support from partners
- intense political and media interest
- an enduring impact upon communities.
Impact and response will vary depending upon the nature of the material and event, for example:
- A chemical attack may produce rapid onset of severe symptoms. Many chemical agents can be readily detected and potentially identified with specialist equipment.
- A biological release may not be identified for some time and may only be recognized through health monitoring. The scene of any release may be unidentified.
- A radiological release may be accompanied by explosives (a ‘dirty bomb’), or the dispersal of radioactive particulates into the air, with no obvious sudden onset of symptoms.
- A nuclear attack is likely to be readily identified and result in immediate, catastrophic consequences and a long lasting radiation hazard.
- Explosives may be used as a means of dissemination for the above materials or, in its own right, as an additional method of attack. In the context of these JOPs the lower case (e) is used to differentiate the use of explosives only as a means of dissemination.
Another lesson learned was that the UK needed a fast response from trained troops operating in a civilian environment not an overseas battlefield. Post the Salisbury incident the Royal Marines were positioned ready to respond immediately if there’s ever a repeat of the Novichok attack on British soil. This spearhead response was handed to Zulu Company from 45 Commando, based in Arbroath, Scotland.
The marines were been given regular training since the heightened threat following the nerve agent attack in Sailsbury, England, including additional training at the DCBRNC at Westdown Camp on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. This three week course, a combination of classroom and practical training is known as Exercise Toxic Dagger. It includes company-level attacks and various CBRN scenarios based on the latest threats for ultimate realism, such as a raid on a suspected chemical weapons lab. It allows for updated personal training in PPE and skills such as data collection and interpretation.
Toxic Dagger is now the largest annual chemical warfare exercise in the UK, involving the Royal Marines and personnel from the DSTL , and supported by Public Health England (PHE) and the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE). in the readiness response.
It is designed to give the marines experience in the tactical planning and execution of CBRN defence measures. One of the training sites used is a deserted village known as Imber. The former settlement was commandeered in 1943 by the War Office to allow troops to prepare for the D-Day landings. It has remained the property of the Ministry of Defence ever since. The ‘Royals’ train here for reality, with electronic battle simulators and pyro, making the experience as real as it gets. Because the threat is a technical, scientific one, the ability to reach out to organizations with specialist skills greater than ours is crucial.
The Royal Marines are high-readiness troops who need to be able to react to all threats at short notice anywhere in the world. Having this ability to support in a domestic threat scenario is a very important role to maintain in view of the current threat.
On the 1 April 2019 the Defence CBRN Centre transferred from No2 Group RAF command to the Royal School of Military Engineering. 28 Engineer Regiment was re-formed to become the lead for counter Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear activity. It continues to work with Falcon Squadron and 27 Squadron RAF Regiment’s CBRN specialists based at RAF Honington. Falcon Squadron is now the British Army’s only mounted counter-CBRN unit and is a sub-unit of 22 Engineer Regiment.
UK’s experience in overseas operations and the recent domestic events have placed the country at the vanguard of CBRN response. The lessons learned from Salisbury were shared with her allies around the world. While it is clear, a state sponsored or terrorist attack using chemical or biological agents still remains a low-probability, it is a high-consequence scenario. Such an attack could cause mass casualties, panic and significant economic losses. The impact of the Covid-19 virus around the world has not been lost on the rogue actors, in light of this, we must be vigilant and ensure our military, first responders and our medical personnel are ready to respond.