It was good to hear the Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson announcing £48 million of investment in a brand new Chemical Weapons Defence Centre to be built at Porton Down in order to ensure that the UK maintains a cutting-edge in chemical analysis and defence.
In doing so, Mr. Williamson rightly praised the bravery and professionalism of members of the Armed Forces involved in supporting the police in their investigation into the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter on March 4th and that we believe was carried out using the Novichok class of binary Nerve Agent, a poison that has been known about since the Cold War, and also commending the expertise of the world-renowned scientists working at Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down.
The tragic Salisbury incident has once again proved that UK military CBRN (Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear) capability currently a responsibility of the Royal Air Force and provided by the RAF Regiment remains in an excellent and state of readiness. However, that may not be the case for much longer as decisions appertaining to SDSR 2015 mean that at some point relatively soon this vital element of defence and security capability and which is quite obviously of huge national importance to all sectors of the community right now, is planned to be moved away from RAF responsibility to that of the Army.
While I have previously given my own view that transfer of CBRN capability away from the RAF made little sense from a strategic and operational point of view we are, as they say, where we are now – already in a period of transition. Even so, that does not stop me questioning the sense behind potentially degrading the current capability during what is now regarded as being a very critical period of time.
The long duration of transition since the decision was announced in SDSR 2015, the training requirement of Army (Royal Engineers) personnel in what is, after all, a highly complicated and very specialist area of expertise is bound to cause me to question whether we really should be taking such a very high level of risk moving CBRN responsibility away from the RAF to the Army in the immediate future?
UK CBRN capability and expertise has long been considered world-class and what is, I understand, planned to be a 6-year handover/transition period from that of the Royal Air Force to Army responsibility clearly illustrates the many complexities and difficulties of the task. Indeed, even when the six year period of transition is complete, my understanding is that an Army CBRN Regt would by then only have achieved basic Initial Operating Capability. By then, many trained RAF personnel who carry the experience and expertise will no doubt have either been dispersed or departed from the RAF.
CBRN capability has long been a specialist area for me and I had, during the run up to SDSR 2015, been extremely pronounced in my views that such was the vital importance of CBRN effort and capability and given the hugely successful record of operation by the RAF Regiment, that responsibility for CBRN should be left exactly where it was.
To that end, only weeks before publication of SDSR 2015, I had been given a personal commitment that the status-quo for CNBRN would after all continue and yet, quite the opposite occurred in the SDSR 2015 announcement. But, as I have said, we are where we are and I am not about to challenge the overall Royal Air Force line that the paramount need is for the force to focus on core capabilities of which it became very clear at the time of SDSR 2015, CBRN was not to be considered one of those.
As we fast approach almost three years since the SDSR 2015 announcement, my personal understanding is that the Army has yet to even begin to develop CBRN staffing ability let alone deciding how it intends to provide trained specialist personnel or facilities. Worse perhaps, is that when questioned, such appears to be ‘disinterest’ on the part of the Army to take on CBRN responsibility at all that they are not even begun planning for this to occur before 2021/2.
In the meantime while CBRN capability remains a responsibility of the Royal Air Force and presumably on its budget, it seems to me that the whole area of CBRN would appear to be in a quandary, rather like a ship without a rudder. True, the Royal Navy has a certain amount of CBRN capability and expertise for use in regional areas close to its base in Portsmouth. But that is simply not enough and no force, not even the current RAF Regiment expertise can stay ahead of the game without training new people and garnering expertise.
Other than direct training that is mostly related to proper use of safety and life support equipment that is provided to all members of the military and something that I have myself undertaken, suffice to say that as things currently stand the Army has had little or anything to do with the wider elements of CBRN capability and training. I have sensed for some time that there has been little interest on the part of the Army to take on CBRN capability responsibility and operation and I suspect that this is primarily due to the added cost that it will need to take on to its budget.
Personally I have little if any confidence of the Army’s ability to develop an effective Force capability in CBRN and therefore I take the view that it doesn’t make sense to dismantle what is, as I have said, world-beating UK military CBRN capability so long as fear exists that under the Army the CBRN might well be far less capable than it is now. Certainly, as events in Salisbury have shown, the risk of degrading CBRN capability through a period of transition and when the demand have rarely been higher makes little if any sense. Why on earth would anyone of sound mind risk damaging CBRN capability at such a critical time?
Sustaining high level CBRN capability should be a given. One solution could have been to leave the situation alone but assist by moving some Army posts to the RAF. But, as far as I am aware this was not considered and the decision itself was, I am told, made without consultation with Chief of the General Staff. As I say, this decision did not relate to strategy or who should best be responsible for CBRN. Instead it related to budgets, personnel numbers, cost of operation and politics as opposed to sensible defence and security policy. The bottom line in my view is that by creating uncertainty we are potentially courting some very big risks for CBRN capability.
We ended up with the capability in the first place because we were recognised to do it better. Even if the RE does it equally well in the end, there will be risk during the handover and probably for a long time afterwards as they build corporate knowledge. This will be difficult to sustain in any case given the Army’s shorter engagement lengths, compared with the RAF. Their manning model will also make sustaining the capability more expensive.
The Royal Air Force in the form of its Force Protection responsibility within the RAF regiment was given the CBRN job originally because it was recognised, objectively and internationally, that it was best placed to achieve this in a cost-effective way. In fact, the RAF Regiment has been the Tri-Services’ leader in CBRN Defence capability since WWII and going on through the whole ‘Cold War’ period, both Gulf Wars right up to the present day. While UK CBRN capability may not be as large as that to be found in the US, we are in the UK widely recognised as being the world’s premier specialist CBRN force and for having the most comprehensive number of roles.
As I say, although I dislike reinventing the wheel and personally find the period of transition very worrying, given that we are where we are now, although I might like to I am not here and now proposing that the SDSR 2015 political strategy should be reversed. Indeed, I am sensible enough to know the complications of doing that and I am perfectly sure too that in the end the Army, through the Royal Engineers, will eventually be able to undertake the CBRN role as equally well as the RAF. But, it is the potential of ‘mind the gap’ that worries me most. The time required for the Army to build the corporate knowledge and expertise they require cannot happen overnight. Another factor more recently brought to my attention is that with the Army having shorter engagement and retention periods, compared to those which exist in the Royal Air Force, manning the CBRN capability effectiveness requirement and then in sustaining it could end up being far more expensive.
CHW (London – 18th March 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785