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Defence CBRN Training – Centre of Excellence By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

modSix months ago when writing my previous paper on UK CBRN (‘The Vital Importance of Maintaining Strong CBRN Capability and Expertise’) I mentioned that I at some future point I hoped to visit the Defence Chemical Biological and Nuclear Centre (DCBRNC) centre at Winterbourne Gunner in Wiltshire. I have now had the opportunity of visiting this extremely important centre of CBRN training centre and I am most grateful to Commandant Wing Commander Scott Magee of Defence CBRN and his excellent team for hosting me through what was a most rewarding visit and one that provided necessary insight and update on current UK CBRN training procedure and practice.

The Defence Chemical Biological and Nuclear Centre (DCBRNC) designs and runs courses that qualify individuals of all three branches of our armed services (Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force) for operational, training and for staff CBRN defence appointments. The centre provides a total of eighteen individual courses ranging from CBRN Defence Advisor, Trainer/Operational Instructor, B-CBRN Warning and Reporting Cell Controller, Defence C-CBRN Specialist Foundation and Enhanced CBRN First Aid. These courses are hands-on and very practical in nature and well detailed throughout. Not surprisingly at Winterbourne Gunner, there is a very large emphasis placed on CBRN Medical.

DCBRNC is home to the Joint CBRN medical faculty, an important unit that acts as the centre of excellence for CBRN medical training for medical officers and others across all sections of the UK military. The centre also provides specialist medical training to other NATO members and one of the strong points that comes out of this visit is the high level of interaction between our NATO allies across all facets of CBRN and particularly of the already well established liaisons with France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and the USA. As well as military training, DCBRNC also supports civilian response in partnership with the Health Protection Agency and Department of Health and the location is also home to the National Ambulance Resilience Unit (NARU).

CBRN based medical training uses blended learning techniques including interactive presentations, table top exercises, collective training and simulation. Very highly invested, the medical training area which is used for pre-hospital training exercises along with high-fidelity hospital training using the SimMan3G is dedicated to CBRN medical management. This activity and layout is extremely impressive. Medical courses including clinical courses, defence medic CBRN course, casualty decontamination area course and enhanced CBRN First Aid are open to partner nations as well. All new entry Royal Navy and Army Medical officers are obliged to attend a 3 day course. The medical contribution to C-CBRN is based on a ‘hazards approach and continuum care’ basis. Threat driven, the aim is to be able to operate, project and sustain a medical mission in a potentially contaminated environment. When fully deployed, CBRN Medical Support capability is designed to detect, provide information, physical protection and medical based countermeasures together with full casualty care and wider hazard management.

Regular readers will know that I have long placed great emphasis on the critical importance of CBRN and training for eventuality. CBRN based training is there for one simple reason, to ensure that teams exposed to a CBRN environment are able to manage all known forms of the hazard and risk and provide the necessary military contribution to health resilience. Thus I have long championed the need to maintain strong CBRN capability and for this to be major priority of strategic defence based judgement. To observe the methods that we use to train the military of all three branches of our armed services at Winterbourne Gunner was to me as useful as it was very impressive. It has long been clear to me that in order to achieve the CBRN aims that we have set we need to ensure that sufficient numbers of military personnel are properly and fully trained in all forms of related CBRN in order to ensure that there are sufficient trained professionals to meet the various known and unknown forms of potential chemical, biological, radiological & nuclear hazards whether these are based on a domestic attack or when military personnel are deployed internationally.

In placing this area of expertise as one that should in my view and the view of many others be seen as one on very high priority and also to ensure that we maintain the UK’s well respected core competence my observation is that CBRN training at Winterbourne Gunner is very well executed. The design of the various courses, the use of assets employed and the equipment that the UK military has been provided dies demonstrate a willingness by the authorities to ensure that CBRN activity and training is seen as a priority and that the UK will remain a centre of excellence in what it does.

That said, I believe that a lot more needs to be done in terms of growing our CBRN footprint and there are those amongst our allies that consider that in recent years we may have pushed CBRN down the priority list. It is certainly true that not all in defence share the same level of awareness of need. Indeed, it may well be that the legacy and culture of CBRN and of how the function has developed has not been as important as I would view it by some branches of the military most probably because CBRN education and training is just not in their DNA.

Given the intenseness of the current system of course I might also express a degree of concern that calls to further increase CBRN training could well result in overstretch particularly as there is, as far as I can determine, little scope to reduce existing course lengths. From an education and standards aspect, while I am sure there are a range of agreed protocols unless I have read the situation wrongly I would suggest a need to ensure improved forms of assurance, evaluation and measurement. If a problem does exist then I would probably have to say it is due to a poor understanding of what UK CBRN strategy is, how military involvement in CBRN has evolved over the years and that we do not have a National Resilience Centre (NRC). It is true that creating a National Resilience Centre has long been talked about but as far as I can see very little progress has yet been made on taking this necessity forward. Establishing an NRC could resolve a number of issues including the need to have an organisation that is equipped to set necessary assurance standards across all branches of military and civilian CBRN.

For all that we in the UK are still very good at what we do in CBRN albeit that the accusation that we have placed less effort and resource into this important area over recent years is also true. The ability that we have to work with and share the benefits that we and those NATO countries with whom we have established affiliations is proof that we are still looked up to in the CBRN space but I do believe that we need to invest more. That this is a two, three and even four way relationship amongst NATO member is very important and that we can and do work closely with France and Germany, both of whom have well established, mature and very well financed CBRN centres of excellence, cannot be ignored.

Working with our NATO partners in CBRN has led to policies of instructor exchange in several countries and with Germany, burden sharing potential and making use of the DUE MOD’s excellent hazard management capability. Defence CBRN also has an excellent liaison with the USA which has led to regular exchange of officers, idea and capability development and training cooperation. Close working relationships have also been established with Sweden, Denmark and other non NATO allies for the purpose of harnessing knowledge, cooperation and consideration of future opportunities including live agent training.

The threat of CBRN attack has in my view grown exponentially in recent years and I take the view that the potential level of risk will continue to increase in the years ahead. We have done well and I can have nothing but praise for how Defence CBRN go about their business and how the Royal Air Force Regiment which has been the Lead Service Capability since 2010 have done their work. I make no comment here that lead service capability will over the next few years gradually switch back to the Army except to note a touch of regret. I would also make mention here that for its part the Royal Navy has put considerable effort into maintaining strong CBRN capability and that on a recent visit to the Royal Navy Diving School in Portsmouth I was hugely impressed with the levels of capability and expertise established.

The question that we have to ask ourselves in relation to CBRN is whether we consider that we are ready to meet all the known and potentially challenges and threats that face us? As I say, we have great strengths in the field of CBRN throughout and the support and relationship established in CBRN between the MOD, Joint Forces Command, DE&S who manage procurement and DSTL, where a mutual aid agreement support Live Agent Training and CBRN Enhanced Generalist Training is achieved and in the ability of Defence CBRN to use nearby DSTL facilities is hugely important in the overall construct. For all that, I remain very concerned as to whether, in this more cost conscious age, we are maintaining enough emphasis on the science concept of CBRN and the constant need for further understanding and development.

I was though left in no doubt about the strengths of Defence CBRN at Winterbourne Gunner and this in itself was very refreshing. A dedicated team of highly motivated professionals working together in what I can only describe as excellent facilities. The can do/will do approach and the attitude and understanding of importance and need was very impressive.

Depending on the level and whether courses are geared to deliver CBRN defence advisors, tactical commanders’ incident response, CBRN defence cell controllers, CBRN defence operational instructor, CBRN Clinical my understanding is that in general courses will vary from one to approximately five weeks.

CBRN equipment provided to all military personnel, including the General Service Respirator which came into service relatively recently, is excellent. The GSR has been particularly well received and having used it myself I can understand why. But that does not mean that within the whole concept of available CBRN protective equipment that that there are not issues left to be resolved. For instance, it has long been a problem that military personnel working in the full CBRN protection equipment environment can very quickly suffer from dehydration meaning that the work duration is limited. I suspect although I may well be wrong, that another issue that could need to be looked at again is that the increased level of contractorisation that has occurred in terms of CBRN, particularly that related to decontamination, since the 1997 Strategic Defence Review may well be counterproductive to the argument of the level of capability that we should have.

I would also note that although there is a clear strategic recognition in relation to CBRN contamination of military aircraft and a seemingly more than appropriate understanding of the potential risk that this presents in terms of health, future use of contaminated aircraft capability there is, as far as I can see, little evidence that sufficient investment is being put into this specific area. In terms of CBRN support for air crews though it is pleasing to note that the UK will be acquiring Aircrew Protection Equipment Detection (APED) kit.

The critical importance of Defence CBRN within UK defence cannot in my view be overstated. When it comes to training these guys know what they are doing and they do the job very well. We need to listen and learn from their observations and understand that they know more about this area than anyone else. From my perspective, in an increasingly dirty world, CBRN capability should be regarded as one of the most important component areas of all defence related capability. As one of two specialist niche areas of defence capability and knowledge base that I have specialised in for many years – the other being aviation medicine – I will continue to work hard to ensure that CBRN is not allowed to fall down the defence priority list.

That there needs to be greater awareness of the crucial importance and highly specialist nature of CBRN and of why we may need to revisit the strategy we have to ensure that it is sufficient to provide what we need is not for me to say but what is may be a view that CBRN must always be given priority. That we need to have sufficient numbers of trained military personnel able to operate within contaminated areas and that in the aftermath of attack can ensure survival should, in this more uncertain world that we live in today, go without saying. We must never in my view allow the Defence CBRN requirement to be undermined.

Our knowledge base and understanding of CBRN is extensive and as previously mentioned, the capability that various members of NATO have and that we share is extensive. But we must also ask questions of ourselves such as whether we are doing enough in terms of the hard core science and meeting the new and unknown challenges that might lie ahead? We must do more in terms of risk analysis, evaluation and assurance? If correct, the lack of requirement for a CBRN assurance qualification is worrying and I am not sure that there is any form of ‘qualification’ retesting on an annual or three yearly basis?

Keeping up with the science is hugely important and such is the importance of CBRN that I believe we should constantly ask ourselves whether sufficient resources are being put in and importantly, whether there is sufficient resilience across the whole CBRN piece? Are all sections of the military community being offered CBRN training or are there some sections, such as drivers for instance, that are no longer included? And are we paying enough attention to CBRN in the air domain? Again I am not sure what the intentions are but as yet I have not heard yet of CBRN related intentions in respect of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter?

For all that we are achieving an enormous amount in the UK and Defence CBRN really is doing a brilliant job of work. We work well with our allies but our problem is that despite all that we are doing we are not placing CBRN as a high enough priority and I am bound to fear that the pressure for cuts could undermine its vital importance. The message of awareness and need maintaining and invest in strong CBRN capability and training must not be allowed to be undermined.

As I had written in the previous piece (this is available on request) the potential for terrorist attacks using chemical, biological and radiological based weapons has arguably never been greater than it is today and with the increasing likelihood that more of those nations who we may well regard as posing a threat to peace and stability in the world already in possession of chemical and quite possibly, nuclear weapons as well I urged those charged with responsibility for UK defence capability to ensure that we continue to invest in maintaining strong operational CBRN capability across the military and civil structure. I reminded also that it is just fifteen years since anthrax attacks had taken place in the USA and that some other individual NATO member states woke up to the realisation of need to be better prepared and ready to combat all forms of unconventional terrorist incidents and potential attacks. Finally I reminded that CBRN attacks are by their nature, hard to predict and often local or small scale and that most often they are deadly.

Thankfully, given what we have established in Defence CBRN and in the specific units such as RAF Regiment 20 Wing and the Royal Navy at HMS Excellent on Whale Island, the UK cannot be accused of closing its eyes to how chemical weapons were used in Iraq by Saddam Hussein, or how in 2013 they had been earlier used in Syria and for recently, how North Korea has threatened their use. We know too that the Russian attitude and approach to the potential use of nuclear weapons is very different to our own. The CBRN threat can be from state and non-state actors alike and in my view the threat of both chemical, nuclear and biological weapons use can and will increase in the years ahead.

The Future

The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR2015) confirmed that within a planned transformation programme that Lead Service Capability for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear – CBRN including RAF Regiment 20 Wing and the Defence CBRN Centre at Winterbourne Gunner – will eventually be transferred from RAF Regiment responsibility, where this has been since changes announced in SDSR 2010, back to the Army. There is as yet no proposed date for a formal transfer of control and this will depend on ensuring that sufficient numbers of Army personnel have been trained and assured over the next few years. Although there will be no compulsory redundancies the transfer will see approximately 200 RAF Regiment personnel either transferring or leaving the military.

Winterbourne Gunner History

It is now almost one hundred years since the SCBRNC site at Winterbourne Gunner was established in 1917 as a Trench Mortar Experimental Establishment under the administrative control of the war department’s ‘experimental ground’ at Porton Down. Known then as Porton South Camp, Winterbourne Gunner served as troop accommodation, ammunition store and as the trench mortar and artillery firing point. The actual involvement of Winterbourne 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 and 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 minimising the effects of nuclear weapons was acknowledged with the school studying and teaching the defensive aspects of nuclear warfare. Accordingly, in 1957, the school was re-named as the Joint School of Nuclear and Chemical Ground Defence.

In January 1964 the title changed again, to the Defence Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) School in recognition of the emerging threat posed by biological warfare. A further change was made to the name in 1975 when it became the Defence NBC Centre. Following the 1987 Strategic Defence Review, the RAF assumed UK lead-service responsibility for NBC defence and in 1999 the Defence NBC Centre became a RAF administered unit within No 2 Group. The replacement of the site’s original World War 1 corrugated tin huts and wooden buildings was completed in 2005 with the completion of new messing facilities and state-of-the-art student accommodation. In 2005 to reflect the change in emphasis from cold war NBC war fighting to defence against a wider asymmetric threat, the centre changed its name to the Defence Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Centre (DCBRNC).

CHW (London – 14th March 2016)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS


Tel: 07710-779785


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