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UK Defence – Vital Importance of Maintaining Strong CBRN Capability By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

MODWith operational CBRN (Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear) capability and expertise used in virtually every conflict that UK armed forces and others have been engaged in since Kuwait it is, at a time when the geo-political world appears much less stable today and when the potential of threats against us and our NATIO allies have increased surely right to stress the vital importance that strong, specialist CBRN capability plays in defence.

As a vital area of expertise and operational importance and one that I have personally supported for over very many years my concern here is to ensure that as we approach SDSR 2015 that specialist CBRN capability and the need to maintain strong awareness should not be undermined. CBRN may only be a small part of the UK military budget but the very specialist role that it plays within our overall defence capability it is in my view absolutely vital.

The potential for terrorist attacks using chemical, biological and radiological 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 possibly nuclear weapons I would urge that those charged with responsibility for UK defence capability that they ensure we continue to invest in maintaining strong operational CBRN capability.

With the primary structure and operational responsibility for UK CBRN capability handed to the Royal Air Force Regiment, following the last Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR 2010), those involved in CBRN are to be congratulated for having worked so hard to consolidate what had previously been a more scattered approach to the holding of CBRN operational capabilities. Having long had responsibility for Force Protection the decision to transfer CBRN responsibility to the RAF regiment made a great deal of sense. Indeed, I would add a view that the whole of the military has definitely benefited from the ‘consolidated’ approach and that today there is a far better understanding of the CBRN process.

Internal consolidation of operational CBRN activities over the past four years has been required to be done against a background of limited funding availability. Since 2011 responsibility for CBRN operational capability has been in the capable hands of 20 Wg (Defence CBRN) Wing RAF Regiment, based at Honington, Suffolk. Transforming the previously disparate CBRN operational capability into a cohesive operating unit with limited funding has clearly taken time to achieve but today the unit is fully able to deliver specialist Counter-CBRN Force Elements at Readiness (FE@R), advice and support to all parts of the UK military both on the Mainland and on overseas contingent operations, to other Government Departments as and when required and to civil organisations as well at very short notice.

20 Wg (Def CBRN) provides specialist, force packaged capabilities at readiness that complement a Forces’ organic generalist C-CBRN protection capability. All members of the armed forces possess specific personal CBRN equipment and are trained to use it but the work of 20 Wg RAF Regiment is to provide operational support. To achieve that it is configured for employment throughout the spectrum of operations, from peacetime to high intensity conflict and against all potential forms of sophisticated adversary that might be in possession of a variety of classical and novel CBRN agents.

Ready for operations 24 x 7 in hot, temperate or cold climates. 20 Wg RAF Regt (Def CBRN Wg) must also be able to operate effectively with allies’ specialist CBRN Defence forces including those of the NATO Response Force (NRF). 20 Wg also has a standing responsibility to support UK operational requirement, to support the Technical Response Force (TRF) and also the Nuclear Emergency Organisation (NEO).

But what we are doing may not be enough. While substantial investment has been made in supplying all members of the armed forces with the new General Service Respirator investment in other CBRN capability has been more limited. We do in my opinion need to invest more in CBRN capability and to make sure that we do not lose sight of the increased level of threat.

It is just over fourteen years now since anthrax attacks took place in the USA and that 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. CBRN attacks are by their nature hard to predict and often local or small scale. But most often they are deadly. We know how chemical weapons were used in Iraq by Saddam Hussein, in Syria during 2013 and how North Korea has threatened their use. The CBRN threat can be from state and non-state and in my view the threat of both chemical, nuclear and biological weapons use can only but increase in the years ahead.

While the UK has always taken the threat of CBRN use very seriously and has a long history of involvement in Force Protection I believe that we need to invest more in CBRN equipment and particularly in maintaining equipment and operational capability. Having completed the consolidation of UK CBRN capability within the RAF Regiment I believe that stability is now a key requirement. So too is ensuring that not only do armed forces personnel continue to understand the importance of CBRN in relation to the increasing level of threat and of what is being done to protect and support them but also that the Government accepts the need for increased investment in CBRN.

At some future point I would hope to look at the wider UK armed forces CBRN training operation that is conducted by the MOD at the Defence Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear Centre at Winterbourne Gunner. In respect of the more recent history of operational capability the Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regiment (CBRN) had originally been formed in 1999. This was designed to be the specialist operational unit supporting deployed UK military forces. Responsibility for CBRN operation changed from Army control to that of the RAF Regiment as a direct result of SDSR 2010. Merging the various disparate CBRN units into one cohesive unit made great sense in my view and today the Royal Air Force is the lead Service.

As previously mentioned the tasks undertaken by 20 Wg (Defence CBRN) Wing today are essentially to operate and sustain specialist Counter-CBRN Force Elements at Readiness in support of Defence Counter CBRN operations at both strategic and operational levels. Of necessity this will involve target reconnaissance, target/agent exploitation, biological agent sensing plus most other known forms of hazard management requirement.

There to all UK military elements either domestically or whenever they are deployed the CBRN force capability the 230 full-time specialist military personnel that are involved in UK CBRN protection either supporting the military or standing ready if required to support civil and emergency organisations are clearly stretched.

Strong CBRN capability should also be seen as being a part of the UK nuclear deterrent capability just as it might also be seen as contributing to UK influence and projection of power. But the reality of CBRN operational capability is that it is there as an element of Force Protection, an enabler if you like that is ready and able to deploy and support a mission wherever and whenever required at very short notice.

CHW (London – 29th October 2015)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS


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