CBRN and National Security - DEFENCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, Issue 33
Now for the science
Major Jim Cameron explains NBC AL – NATO's deployable analytical laboratory concept.
I can only think that life for our predecessors must have seemed much more straightforward… The apocalyptic engagements that we planned and prepared for during the Cold War brought with them the warm certainty that, if you suspected that someone was trying to kill you with chemical agents, then you were probably right. It was such a certainty that we trained our soldiers to mask up not only on alarm but on bombardment, battlefield noises and smells. Rifleman Bloggs, with detector paper and (if he was lucky) a NAIAD, was thought sufficiently well trained and equipped to generate the warning that would have affected the decisions of his government, let alone his military commanders. Modern operations call for a different approach and, with today's threat, the business of distinguishing the attack from the endemic – the deliberate from the accidental, is far more complex.
To allow effective decision-making, there is a trade-off to be managed in order to confirm or deny a suspected attack, that of time against confidence. Clearly, the generalist trained soldier's warnings are timely, but the confidence in his findings are low. The formation of specialist CBRN military Forces enhances that confidence and new technologies allow us to equip our specialists to an unprecedented degree. In educational terms, however, the primary requirement of military specialists to be soldiers first remains a limiting factor on the level of confirmatory analysis that we can expect of them.
For a Government to make decisions, they like to be advised by their own scientists. In addition to developing specialist military capability to bring back forensic samples to homeland laboratories for their scientists to analyse (SIBCRA), many nations over the past 10 years have experimented with deploying their scientists forward into the field, with varying levels of success. There are risks associated with deploying scientists forward, as with any high value asset. The logistic and husbandry burden of deploying civilians into forward areas is considerable, and comes with no guarantee of success. Having looked after, guarded, fed, clothed and chauffeured your scientist to that key moment where he or she is to have pivotal effect, it can be somewhat disappointing to be told: 'No, you don't want me, you need a toxicologist'…the need for robust generalists is clear.
In well found headquarters and in more permissive environments, direct scientific support has been employed to tremendous effect. Immediate analysis can be combined with expert reachback, enhanced by the development of a common understanding that can only be generated by training together and through experience. The United States made great efforts in the Iraq conflict to bridge the divide between military and expert by employing their civil scientists armed, and in uniform, as part of composite teams. Newer NATO members in particular have sought to qualify military personnel and have developed expert career streams supporting PhD level specialisation.
These initiatives have been encouraged by the NATO Joint Assessment Team (JAT) concept, underpinned by the requirement for deployable analytical laboratories (NBC-AL) as a composite part of the NATO Multinational CBRN Bn structure.
The deployable lab's mission is the provision of 'timely' confirmatory analysis to the military commander – a sub-forensic and in-theatre provider of information to support decision-making at the operational level. Recognising differences in national approaches, the structure of the Battalion as a whole is relatively loosely defined in order to allow different national interpretations of a common theme. The NBC-AL element of the NATO CBRN Bn is defined as an HQ element, under which analysis is divided into three separate 'labs' – Chemical, Biological and Radiological. Each lab then has its own dedicated samplers, EOD, decon and sample courier capability – complex functions broken into simpler component parts in order to encourage piecemeal participation from those nations who are working towards an integrated capability.
The UK has some considerable experience of the mechanisms of achieving confirmation, with specialist troops heavily employed in Afghanistan and Iraq, underpinned by [dstl] expertise in Kuwait, Baghdad and Qatar. Developments in equipment, expertise and in reachback have given the specialist greater utility, typified by the Jt CBRN Regt Light Role Teams (LRTs). UK military doctrine is therefore moving away from the static analytical lab, manned by civilians in a permissive environment, to the multi-discipline LRT. The team is equipped with complementary detection technologies, applied in steps to provide an early analytical function. By understanding equipment limitations, team members can employ different detection technologies in order to cancel out false indications.
The results of different sensor output achieved during the LRT recce is also good information for the supporting scientist. This is combined with voice, photo, video and text reporting from the site, while top end detector output data (GC/MS, DNA analysis or gamma spectroscopy) allows the scientist to dig into the available information in order to help lend weight to the presumptive results from the field. Communications are therefore vital, and the secure voice and data advances that satellite communications have brought over the past few years open up new possibilities. An LRT in Basrah recently ran a live reachback link with [dstl] while on-site, with the duty scientist looking at equipment data and video. He was able to advise on the use of the equipment in order to minimise interference; the team did another sweep and the presumptive results were confirmed – from the comfort of his own office.
Although validated on operations, LRT is not always going to be the answer and so it has been with great interest that G Sqn Jt CBRN Regt has been involved with becoming the HQ NBC-AL. Comprising seven contributing nations, it has been educational to see the professionalism with which other nations have approached elements of the business of providing confirmation. The Poles, for example, deployed on LOYAL LEDGER with a very modern bespoke mobile chemical laboratory. Run by military PhDs, it contains a sophisticated GC/MS that threw our level of analytical capability into sharp relief. The preparation and certification processes have proved very valuable, and have given us much food for thought to inform the endorsed LRT project, coming online over the course of the next year.