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Since the end of the Cold War, the United Kingdom’s homeland resilience capacity has been quietly atrophying. The country’s patent lack of preparation for the domestic emergency of COVID-19 is the clearest example of this yet. The UK currently has the highest morality rate in Europe and the third worst in the world (behind Mexico and Ecuador). This outcome is indicative of the UK’s general failure to make ready for a major chemical, biological (e.g. COVID-19), radiological or nuclear (CBRN) ‘event’. Such an event could occur through accident, natural causes (as with the current pandemic), or via the actions of an adversary state or terrorists. For all of these contingencies, the UK’s general degree of preparation appears to be lamentably low, especially when compared to other countries. A particular failing appears to be an inability, after a CBRN event, to decontaminate significant degrees of terrain, structures, vehicles and people swiftly and efficiently. This inability makes it much harder, using homeland resilience terminology, to ‘bounce back’ from such events. There seems to be a failure to take the issue of mass decontamination sufficiently seriously in the UK – particularly within the Ministry of Defence. This is a critical weakness which should be rectified.
The UK currently has no practical means of conducting mass decontamination. The Ambulance Service has sole responsibility for ‘mass decontamination’ in the UK, despite lacking both the capacity and skill-set for the task. There is, however, a question of semantics here. In the UK, the term ‘mass decontamination’ does not, apparently, refer to the cleansing of ground, structures or vehicles. It refers solely to decontaminating people – and not even large numbers of people. Here the word ‘mass’ refers merely to the ‘method’ used to decontaminate people (in special tents) and not to the number of people being decontaminated. Thus, in essence, and as this article explores, the UK has no real ability to conduct the true ‘mass’ decontamination required to deal with a ‘Chernobyl-scale accident’ or an event generated by adversarial action.
The situation in the UK
It might be thought that CBRN decontamination after a domestic emergency event would actually be a military task – as it is in virtually every other developed country in the world (with assistance from such countries’ civil defence organisations – which the UK lacks). The UK’s armed forces, during the Cold War, certainly gained a corpus of knowledge about the decontamination drills to be conducted after any type of CBRN strike. Despite this, the armed forces today seem to have only a very minor role in CBRN decontamination.
Of course, this was not always the case. There used to be, post-Cold War, a Joint CRBN regiment formed from both the Army and the RAF. This was disbanded, though, in 2011 because it seemed an unnecessary expense in an era when the use of CBRN weapons seemed unlikely. After the use in Syria of chemical weapons in 2016, however, it was decided to reconstitute some limited CBRN detection capacity within just the RAF. CBRN responsibilities were then later transferred over to the Army in 2019 with the re-designation of just one squadron of 1 Royal Tank Regiment as the CBRN Area Survey and Reconnaissance Squadron (with some 80 personnel). But, as its name suggests, this sub-unit is merely concerned with detection and monitoring tasks; it was not set up to decontaminate anything, let alone on a large scale. Finally, as the Army began to take CBRN more seriously, this squadron was nominally transferred in mid-2019 to a newly reformed unit, 28 Engineer Regiment. This is set to act as an actual Counter CBRN force. This unit now appears to be responsible for decontamination and yet it does not seem to have any equipment to carry out such tasks at any sort of scale. Certainly, as yet, it has no dedicated vehicles or equipment for large-scale decontamination. All it has are the CBRN reconnaissance vehicles from 1 RTR.
There is still, of course, the Defence CBRN Centre at Porton Down. Its role, though, is now merely to act as an education and training establishment, including for students from the Ambulance and Fire Services. It has no active operational role.
CBRN preparation in other countries
The UK’s allies appear to be much better prepared for a CBRN emergency and for the decontamination tasks which will invariably follow. In the United States, the military recently, in 2018, updated its JP 3-11 Operations in Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Environments. This covers not just battlefield tasks but also the conduct of CBRN mitigation tasks in a domestic role, including mass decontamination. The US Army itself is well-endowed with a range of decontamination vehicles, equipment and skill-sets. Moreover, in the case of a homeland CBRN event, the US National Guard can also engage in decontamination tasks as can the civil defence body, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Other countries in Europe have similar bodies designed to conduct wide-ranging mitigation tasks in the case of a major CBRN event. Spain can, for instance, be used as just one representative example of a European country that takes the occurrence of a major CBRN event seriously – notably that of a nuclear accident in Spain or one which brings fallout from abroad. Whereas the UK armed forces have at the moment just one squadron devoted merely to CBRN reconnaissance, the less well-endowed Spanish Army has a long established CBRN regiment (350-strong) with the skills and equipment to conduct not only all the reconnaissance tasks but also to engage in the actual mass decontamination of terrain, structures, vehicles and people. Moreover, further decontamination capacity in Spain lies with the paramilitary Civil Guard. This has its own CBRN unit (NRBQ – Nuclear, Radiológica, Biológica y Química) with 3,000 personnel. And yet more capacity lies with units of the Civil Protection force, which also has a decontamination capacity.
The UK, by way of comparison, has only its Ambulance Service and a small, ill-equipped military unit to meet the same challenges. This is insufficient.
Why this is a problem
This situation is concerning. Firstly, it appears that the British Army would have to rely, in any overseas engagement where CBRN weapons might be employed against it, on allies who do have a decontamination capacity. This reliance obviously carries risks. Even more worryingly, it means that the UK’s armed forces are not in any real position to help the UK population itself in any major CBRN event calling for mass decontamination tasks. It should be remembered here that it is such events that will, overall, represent the greatest threat of all to this population – made painfully apparent by the ongoing pandemic. And while they are also, of course, unlikely to occur, they cannot be ruled out. Nuclear accidents in the UK or one abroad, which then brings contamination to the UK (as Chernobyl did in 1986) are certainly not beyond the realms of possibility. More concerning though, is the now increasing threat from weapons of mass destruction being used by state actors. In June, for instance, Russia adopted a more aggressive stance on the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons. Much more pertinent, though, is the burgeoning threat from biological weapons (BW). Although they are banned under the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, their use is coming to appear more and more on the threat radar of a number of states. Given this BW threat, the ability has to be present in countries like the UK to be prepared to conduct mass decontamination tasks.
The threat from biological weapons
This new BW threat comes with the growing acceptance that future peer-state ‘warfare’ is more likely to be non-kinetic in character rather than kinetic. States will try to defeat their opponents by employing non-kinetic means that will, as the UK’s Chief of Defence Staff very recently put it, ‘erode [their] social resilience’. The aim is to create a ‘chaos’ that makes the targeted states, ideally, ungovernable. The targeted state would thus be, in essence, defeated because its homeland resilience capacity would have been overcome. As the CDS went on, ‘their goal is to win without going to war’. And with his use of ‘their’, he was referring, of course, to China and, in particular, Russia.
When it comes to generating domestic chaos in adversary states, Russia has, indeed, recognised the fact that BW are a perfect non-kinetic tool. The Russians understand that while BW are difficult to target accurately, they are immensely effective at spreading panic and to breaking the will to resist of both fielded forces and domestic populations. Moreover, they can be used deniably via a ‘covert means of delivery’, as the US military CBRN manual puts it. This means that they have the benefit of being used against adversary states while not provoking – because attribution is difficult – a kinetic retaliatory response. In Russian military thinking, the use of BW is certainly seen as growing in likelihood – but against Russia by NATO! (The Russians do not admit that they possess any BW). Moscow constantly accuses the West of conducting ‘hybrid warfare’ against Russia and NATO’s use of BW is stated, according to Russian logic, to fit into this type of warfare.
And it is not just the Russian military that sees a threat from BW. The ordinary civilian press within Russia has, in recent months, seen a plethora of articles carrying such headlines as ‘The Third World War has already begun and its weapon is biological’, ‘“Virus launched to create panic: expert on next-generation biological weapons’ and ‘Biological warfare 2.0. Yuri Fedorov on the “fifth problem”’.
Of course, an argument can also be made (and is) that Russia is developing its own BW regardless of any supposed NATO threat against it. This is simply because BW can be viewed as highly effective force multipliers when used against states which do not have adequate defences against them. The Russians understand that future war is not all about tanks and missiles, or even AI and cyber; it is also about using those weapons that NATO is not prepared for. This fits into the mode of asymmetric thinking currently adopted by this Russian military where it specifically seeks to target any adversary’s weaknesses to gain operational or strategic advantage. And NATO certainly does have weak defences against any use of BW by Russia. Whereas the entirety of NATO can currently muster only one CBRN Defence Battalion (strength of c.500) for operational use, the Russian military has its 22,000-strong Radiological, Chemical and Biological Defence (RKhBZ) Troops. The RKhBZ forces are, moreover, currently being modernised and reinforced.
This force structure is not only ready for the use of CBRN weapons on battlefields of the future, it is also ready for their use by any adversary against the Russian population. The Russian armed forces are designed to play a notable role in strengthening homeland resilience in the event of a major CBRN event, be it the result of an attack from abroad, an industrial accident or, as with the current COVID-19 pandemic, one naturally occurring. Indeed, there is particular expertise within the RKhBZ when it comes to dealing with biological agents. This is evidenced by the fact that the RKhBZ has not only been conducting numerous decontamination tasks during the COVID-19 pandemic but also by the fact that the Russian vaccine for COVID-19 appears to have been developed in the RKhBZ’s military laboratories, rather than in civilian ones. This would seem to indicate just how committed the Russian military is to the study of BW.
The Russian armed forces will, moreover, when dealing with CBRN events within the country also work alongside the personnel of the 340,000-strong civilian Emergency Situations Ministry. This also boasts a panoply of skills, capacity and equipment to deal with such events – including that devoted to the decontamination of areas, structures and people.
All this about the possible future use of BW may sound alarmist, but it is important to note here that it is not only in Russia that the future use of BW is seen as increasing in likelihood. Articles are also now being carried in reputable Western sources with titles such as, ‘New killer pathogens countering coming bioweapons threat’, ‘The threat of biological warfare is increasing’ and ‘Russia is ready for a nuclear, chemical or biological weapons-based war’. In the United States, moreover, official documents have been highlighting the danger from BW. The White House, for instance, in a 2018 National Biodefense Strategy report, pointed out that ‘The use of biological weapons…by state or non-state actors presents a significant challenge to our national security’.
The UK military and decontamination capacity
In contrast, in the UK there seems to be no sense that BW ‘present a specific challenge to our national security’. Indeed, there is no sense that any specific preparations need to be made that reflect the same degree of urgency about any major CBRN emergency that is evident in both Russia and the US. There is certainly, as noted, no standing capacity as yet within UK Defence structures to conduct the mass decontamination tasks that the Russians, the Americans, the Spanish, and many others are prepared to conduct. It should be remembered, moreover, that Russia, the US and Spain (along with other European countries) have further layers of decontamination capacity established in their civil defence, civil protection and paramilitary bodies. These countries do not have to look to under-equipped and overstretched ambulance services to conduct mass decontamination.
While this inability of the UK’s military to engage specifically in mass decontamination tasks seems to raise no specific concerns with the Ministry of Defence, it did once. For instance, in the 2007 version of JDP02 UK Operations: The Defence Contribution to UK Resilience, the word ‘decontamination’ is used 45 times. Come the 2017 version of this same document, however, and while there is still talk of the military’s role in planning and support roles in the case of a CBRN emergency (whether through accident or man-made) there is no mention at all of the word ‘decontamination’. This apparent change in terms of responsibility is also questionable given that Defence is now putting itself forward, as noted in the 2017 version of JDP02, as the agency of ‘first resort’ when it comes to dealing with homeland emergency situations. This contrasts with the 2007 version of JDP02 where it was made clear that ‘military aid should always be the last resort’ for such tasks. As the Vice Chief of Defence Staff had confirmed in 2014, ‘Defence is no longer considered a ‘last resort option… [but]…should be ready and configured to play an early role in providing civil resilience’. But if Defence is not currently configured to conduct CBRN decontamination tasks at any scale or pace due to its lack of standing capacity then just how much of a ‘first resort’ can it represent in this regard?
This seeming ignoring of the whole question of mass decontamination appears to leave the UK, in homeland resilience terms, handicapped in its ability to ‘bounce back’ after any major CBRN event. This needs to change. It is remiss enough that the UK’s armed forces have no real ability to conduct battlefield decontamination, but the fact that they are also not able to provide mass decontamination capacity in a homeland resilience scenario is approaching unforgiveable.
The research for this article comes in part from a British Academy COVID-19 Small Grant