The civil war currently raging between government forces and the Free Syrian Army and other insurgent groups in Syria has renewed attention to the threat of use of chemical weapons (CW) by a nation state against intervening foreign forces or on its own civilian population. Syria is known to possess the world’s largest deployable CW stockpiles of Sarin and VX nerve agents and mustard agent, weaponised on artillery rounds, air-dropped bombs, rockets and missiles. Proliferation of CW and biological weapons – mainly Anthrax stocks – to terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and al-Qaeda is also of utmost concern.
The US Department of Defense has estimated that 75,000 US troops would be needed to protect Syria’s CW facilities – providing they were sent in before looting, transfer to insurgents, or release. Dangers of CW release would arise from attempts by government forces to re-occupy the sites using heavy weaponry, or by aerial bombardment – as launched by Saddam Hussein on the Kurds at Halabja in 1988. And although Iraq was cleared of large stockpiles of CW ordnance, hundreds of legacy chemical shells provide the means for ICDs (improvised chemical devices) for warring sectarian groups in both neighbouring countries.
CBRN defence in a new era
CBRN defence – including against widely available TICs (toxic industrial chemicals) – is therefore once again become an important factor in planning for force protection, having previously been to the fore in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. After the 9/11 attacks military CBRN defence systems were adapted for homeland security and something like the reverse is now evolving: the ‘all-hazards’ approach of homeland CBRN defence is now being applied in design of military CBRN equipment in the current very unstable period of conflicts, where a CBRN attack would affect civilians and troops alike.
Intelligence gathering is a vital adjunct in hunting down CBRN in the field, including information on existing and legacy munitions and stores of precursor chemicals. Specialist UK SIBCRA (Sampling and Identification of Biological Chemical and Radiological Agent) teams, now renumbered to 26 Squadron RAF Regiment, are trained to enter CBRN caches and collect evidence. Sensitivity of detectors to CWAs and TICs must be balanced with their ease of use, and avoidance of false alarms and false positives.
Biological weapons, which Syria is reputed to possess, pose a different challenge to an occupying force. Biosurveillance on military operations; combined with vehicle reconnaissance detection, requires the acquisition of information on disease patterns in local populations and at military bases, recent examples having been attempted poisoning of NATO food supplies by the Taliban. New systems on board recce vehicles are also designed for protection against genetically modified strains from laboratories, and for dealing with troop and civilian exposure to misplaced radioactive materials, as occurred during looting by Iraqi civilians in the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Detection on the move
Detection of CBRN agents involves steady state monitoring and CBRN scene assessment. The problem of IED attack on unprotected vehicles means armoured CBRN recce are required. The General Dynamics Piranha 3 boasts a ground sampling system which enables sample collection with ballistic, mine, IED and RPG protection. It also includes a wheel sampling unit for ground contamination sampling, as well as the state-of-the-art CBRN recce vehicle’s usual complement of nuclear, CWA/TIC (chemical warfare agents/toxic industrial chemicals), and biological air monitoring and measuring instruments.
The US is developing, from FY2013, the CBRN Dismounted Reconnaissance System (DRS) for reconnaissance and surveillance, post-attack hazard assessment, sensitive site assessment, and area monitoring, and the Next Generation Chemical Point Detector (NGCPD) for handheld, stationary, and on-the-move point detection, identification and quantification. The aim is to pick out and identify CWA and TICs in limited environments – confined spaces and terrain that is inaccessible to CBRN reconnaissance vehicles. In these scenarios only dismounted CBRN reconnaissance can be carried out – mirroring the perilous foot-patrol searches for IEDs. The NGCPD is hailed as giving joint forces the combined means to interdict CBRN operations as well as for force protection.
In March 2012 the US Army awarded Battelle a contract to manufacture 140 Chemical Vapor Sampling Systems, to be deployed on board the Stryker NBC Reconnaissance Vehicle (NBCRV). The order also includes making 840 Training Sample Canisters and 20 Training Support Packages at Battelle’s Eastern facility at Aberdeen, Maryland, with initial deliveries due by January 2013.
Also in March, US company FLIR Systems introduced a new Multi-Modal GC/MS (gas chromatograph mass spectrometer) for liquid, solid, and vapour samples which also provides continuous, direct air monitoring. Griffin products have been in use with the US military for explosives detection and other chemical target detection and confirmation. The Griffin 460 is an instrument multi-modal system for field-based forensics and other mobile laboratory applications, as well as for integration into facility air-handling systems. The Griffin 460 can be programmed during continuous monitoring applications to alert at the presence of selected chemicals in interior and exterior environments for near-real-time detection and identification of a chemical agent release. It simplifies sample handling through the use of lightweight accessories such as a fully automated purge-and trap-accessory, used along with the Griffin X-Sorber handheld vapour sampler.
And applications for field smartphones are coming on stream. In March 2012 Universal Detection Technology brought out the RadSmart Device – a first-generation smartphone application for a radiation detector. Designed to detect radiation levels and automatically send the collected data to a smartphone, RadSmart is being developed in collaboration with Honeywell India. Its caesium iodide (CsI) scintillator can detect traces of radiation on surfaces, clothing and food.
Chemical-resistant rubber is still the most flexible material for the airtight seal of the modern military mask, and current designs aim for improved fit and faster donning time. The latest masks are also combined with two-way radio communications, voice projection and head-up displays. Visual protection under all extremes is also essential with the use of toughened, scratch-resistant polycarbonate or polyurethane visors, tinted to protect the wearer against UV or laser beams. To protect against an airborne biological threat, a very fine particulate filter can remove particle sizes as small as 0.003 microns. Battlefield operations demand extreme exertion and therefore compact supplementary air supply systems are being developed.
Avon Protection’s new ST53CBRN mask and modular SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) system is available with panoramic optically correct flexible visors, clear, sunlight, laser and blublocker outserts, and voice projection units. The ST53SD is a short-duration variant of the Avon Protection’s new ST53 CBRN mask, designed to support military and Special Forces for short-term tactical operations. Boasting the world’s smallest, chemically hardened positive pressure demand valve, it is specifically designed for stealth operations as it utilises non-reflective black components. Its electronic communications port enables voice projection and radio communications. The patented twin exhalation valve enables the mask to be used as a negative or positive pressure respirator, so that the soldier can enter varying threat environments without the need to change equipment. Full respiratory protection with a 1 or 2 cylinder of 7 and 15 minute durations is provided for a fast-action CBRN response.
Use of CBRN protection kit in the field requires full training in its usage, maintenance, and servicing to ensure its efficiency and full protective qualities. Quantitative test methods provide a scientific measurement of fit. The Portacount tester manufactured by TSi is simple to use in military field environments and provides a real-time measurement of the wearer’s fit to the mask.