Countering the Chemicals

This is an article published in our April/May 2016 Issue.

Battelle has developed a range of test and evaluation systems to help experts address CBRN incidents. Here, a Battelle employee applies chemical agent during swatch testing of military uniform fabric. (Battelle)

In the latter half of 2015 and early 2016, the Middle East remained the main theatre where CBRN (Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear) threats are an ongoing threat, translated into reality by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

To this end, the organisation has employed mustard gas and chlorine in multiple attacks using bombs and mortars, mainly in Iraq throughout 2015 and into 2016. That said, any region is at risk from insurgent CBRN action and, as for protecting against incidents using such weapons, Asia-Pacific, European and North American countries are better-equipped than their Middle Eastern counterparts.

Under Threat

In February US Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan assessed that ISIS had used “chemical munitions on the battlefield” and cited reports that the group had access to chemical precursors (which can be used to make chemical weapons) and munitions, and had the ability to make small quantities of chlorine and mustard gas. According to leading Chemical Weapons (CW) expert Colonel (rtd) Hamish de Bretton Gordon, who provides CW advice to non-governmental organisations operating in Syria and Iraq, leading several missions to Syria to this end, ISIS has chemical weapons albeit in very small quantities, including mustard agent and Toxic Industrial Chemicals (TICs) like chlorine. Test results held by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OCPW), which verifies adherence to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, revealed that ISIS used sulphur mustard gas against Kurdish forces in Iraq in 2015 based on samples taken from 35 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters battling ISIS who became ill in August 2015 near the city of Irbil in northern Iraq.

chemical weapons
CW expert Col. Hamish de Bretton Gordon analyses suspected chlorine samples on the Syrian border. Col. de Bretton Gordon is a leading authority on ISIS’ use of chemical weapons. (Avon Protection)

Col. de Bretton Gordon sees more CW being deployed by ISIS to defend Mosul, also in northern Iraq. The city has been under ISIS occupation since 10 June 2014, and on 21 January 2016 Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi Army, with support from US air power, began attempts to liberate Mosul although at the time of writing (March 2016) ISIS remains in control of the city. ISIS has ‘form’ in this regard. The outfit used chlorine-laced bombs to defend Tikrit in northern Iraq which it occupied on 11 June 2014, during the Iraqi Army’s liberation of the city in March 2015. Chorine causes more injuries than fatalities, but in areas with little available medical treatment, these injuries are often long-lasting. Col. de Bretton Gordon added, “ISIS also had the desire, but probably not the capability, yet to produce an Improvised Nuclear Device (IND). There is also unsubstantiated speculation that they are trying to develop a Biological Weapon (BW) utilising anthrax and possibly plague.”

The importance of Mosul is that it houses facilities taken over by ISIS which were used for erstwhile Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s CW programmes, although Syria’s chemical stockpile was a likely source of ISIS’s sulphur mustard. Also at Mosul nuclear isotopes are housed that could be used for Radiological Dispersal Devices (RDDs), but not for INDs, which require special weapons-grade nuclear materials notably uranium and plutonium. In mid-February reports emerged that ISIS had stolen radioactive material stored in a laptop-sized case from a storage facility near the southern Iraqi city of Basra. A RDD can be fashioned from civilian-use isotopes such as cesium-137 and cobalt-60, commonly used in hospitals and research centres. The material reported stolen is typical of civilian use, in this instance iridium-92, which is used in industrial gamma radiography to test flaws in materials used for oil and gas pipelines. It is classed as a ‘Category 2’ radioactive source by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, that is, it can cause permanent injury to a person in close proximity to it for minutes or hours, and could be fatal to anyone exposed for hours or over several days. If used in an explosive device, a prime problem is detecting if it has emitted radioactivity as the signs and symptoms of such an effect would not show up immediately unless first-responders are equipped and trained to detect all types of radioactivity from a bomb explosion.

ISIS Targets

An improvised chemical device
An improvised chemical device recovered by the Indonesian Police that had been planted in a supermarket in Jakarta by returning ISIS cadres. The country faces a clear and present danger from such individuals using CBRN. (Indonesian Police)

But the threat does not stop at the Middle East and Europe. Col. de Bretton Gordon puts Australia close to the top of the ISIS attack list, marginally behind Russia and France, since Australia became heavily involved in the global fight against ISIS deploying the Royal Australian Air Force and the country’s Special Forces to the United Arab Emirates in September 2014 to support operations against ISIS in Iraq. He described a chlorine bomb recovered by the Indonesian Police in late-March 2015 that had been planted in a supermarket in the capital, Jakarta, by returning cadres who had been fighting with ISIS in Syria. “The device shows a level of sophisticated construction, with two detonators and five kilograms (eleven pounds) of chlorine and acids.” Col. de Bretton Gordon estimated this had not been acquired through the Internet but possibly from the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, or Mosul, where ISIS’s CW programme is based.

Returning ISIS members from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or from other training camps elsewhere will have become ‘sleeper cells’ in Australia waiting for the opportunity to strike in an attack similar to those launched by Islamists in Paris in January and November 2015, or the hostage attack in Sydney in December 2014. In mid-2015 Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop warned of the use of improvised CW like chlorine, organophosphates (pesticides) and RDDs, saying later, “(ISIS’) recruitment of highly technically trained professionals, including from the West, have revealed far more serious efforts in chemical weapons development.”

Stepping Up

The DST Group
The DST Group provides science and technology support to improve the Australian Defence Force’s CBRN defence capabilities. Australia faces a tangible threat from ISIS’ use of CBRN weapons on its territory. (Australian Department of Defence)

Therefore, pre-attack and post-attack procedures will become more prevalent in Australia and other Asia-Pacific countries under threat to demonstrate resilience to an attack. The Australian Government’s Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) provides science and technology support to improve the Australian Defence Force (ADF, which includes the country’s army, navy and air force) CBRN defence capability through the protection of personnel from the strategic, tactical and physiological impacts of exposure to CBRN weapons and TICs. A new, purpose-built laboratory is being built in Melbourne, due for completion later in 2016. This will enable the DSTO to use scientific support to the ADF for CBRN defence. 

The mission of Australia’s Special Operations Engineer Regiment (SOER) includes neutralising CBRN threats and the ability to respond both domestically and in support of Australian forces deployed overseas in high-threat environments. The ADF provides specialist CBRN advice and resources for detection, decontamination, rendering safe and recovery in Hazmat (Hazardous Materials) emergencies including analysis of CBRN material, personnel and civilians, and areas affected by CBRN materials. Its International Deployment Group utilizes the Specialist Response Group for particular medium- and high-risk planned operations or emergency incidents in addition to force protection. The Australian Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Data Center (CBRNDC) provides technical intelligence products and services to support law enforcement and it collects, collates, analyses and disseminates invaluable technical information and intelligence when CBRN agents are used.

Australia’s Special Operations Engineer Regiment
Australia’s Special Operations Engineer Regiment (SOER) provides leading-edge mobility, survivability and specialist counter-CBRN capabilities. The SOER can respond to domestic incidents and those that occur during deployment. (Australian Army)

Indigenous Protection

The Duram Dual-Blower Hood
The Duram Dual-Blower Hood consists of a head covering with a panoramic front visor. It excels in its particularly high air-supply rate. The high air-supply rate and the simplicity of use make the blower hood suitable for people performing high-stress work. (Duram)

Australia’s indigenous CBRN protection company, Duram Products, manufactures respirators, escape hoods and PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) suits for security forces, Special Forces and civilians. A mode of protection becoming more widely deployed is the escape hood. To protect against chemicals and toxic fumes, the new Duram Personal Escape Mask can be carried in pocket size pouches, designed as “one size fits all” with two filter assemblies to provide electrostatic particles filtering, and active charcoal specially impregnated to absorb acid gases with an optimal exhalation valve which enables rapid exhalation and improves physiological conditions for the user. Protection is guaranteed for around one hour against toxic gases discharged in fires in modern buildings.

The Market

In terms of market expansion, according to the CBRN Defence Market Report 2016-2026, published by London-based research company Visiongain, overall world revenue for the prime CBRN defence sectors of detection, protection, decontamination, simulation and training is forecast to reach $11,2 million in 2016 in the following client countries: Brazil, France, Germany, India, Israel, Japan, the Republic of Korea (RoK), the United Kingdom and the US, and in burgeoning markets in the People’s Republic of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

A leading company in the CBRN field, Battelle, focuses on developing state-of-the-art test and evaluation systems which are vital in the field and also for ‘post-event’ operations. Vice president and general manager of Battelle CBRN Matt Shaw said, “We go beyond the simple ‘pass-fail” test approach and that is what makes us stand out. As the question of how to protect become more sophisticated, the tools being used to answer them, the test equipment, analysis and understanding, need to keep pace.” 

Battelle has developed a range of test and evaluation systems to help experts address CBRN incidents. Here, a Battelle employee applies chemical agent during swatch testing of military uniform fabric. (Battelle)

RoK Readiness

Out of countries facing real CBRN threats, the RoK is on constant alert in response to its northern belligerent neighbour. On 6 January the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) announced it had successfully carried out its first underground test of a hydrogen bomb. The seismic analysis that led to this claim was, however, doubted by experts, including Rand Corporation analyst Bruce Bennett who said, “The bang they should have gotten would have been ten times greater than what they are claiming. So Kim Jong-un (the DPRK’s Supreme Leader) is either lying, saying they did a hydrogen test when they did not, they just used a little bit more efficient fission weapon, or the hydrogen part of the test really did not work very well or the fission part did not work very well.” The RoK’s National Intelligence Service also stated that the blast “probably fell short” of a hydrogen detonation, which is vastly more powerful and technologically advanced than a fission bomb explosion.

Nevertheless, the January nuclear test was the fourth by the DPRK since 2006. According to US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, in January the country restarted the plutonium reactor at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Centre, north of the capital Pyongyang, which provides fuel for its nuclear weapons, and had taken steps towards making an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), having launched a long-range rocket under the guise of its Bright Star-4 satellite launch on 7 February, soon after the January test. This was internationally condemned as the DPRK is banned under United Nations sanctions from using any ballistic missile technology.

DPRK Threats

The DPRK has also long-posed a serious CW threat. It is not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention and, according to the RoK 2012 Defence White Paper, began producing CWs in the 1980s and has an estimated 2500 to 5000 tons in several facilities nationwide, as well as possessing the capability to produce BWs including anthrax and smallpox. For CBRN protection, the RoK imports much of its PPE and respirators from Avon Protection (UK), Optrel (Switzerland) and Apollo Safety (US).

The threat of the DPRK’s BW has prompted the US and the RoK to carry out joint defence exercises for biological warfare, codenamed ABLE RESPONSE, every year since 2011. These involve both countries’ departments of defence and health, the US Department of Homeland Security, their disease control centres, and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This preparedness is also meant to deal with the possibility that pathogenic bacteria could accidentally spread from the DPRK, prompting the need to detect and to confine these organisms swiftly.

Joint training exercises are also carried out by US Air Force (USAF) Bio-environmental Engineering, Emergency Management, and Republic of Korea Air Force CBRN teams, such as that held in August 2015 at Osan airbase in the northern RoK. Two groups within the USAF 51st Fighter Wing jointly responded to an improvised explosion as part of a week-long series of intense, integrated emergency response capability exercises for emergency managers from the 51st Civil Engineer Squadron and bio-environmental engineers from the 51st Aerospace Medicine Squadron, and specifically designed for Hazmat emergency responders. According to the commander of the 51st Aerospace Medicine Squadron Major Jung Lee, “this training event focused solely on our areas of responsibilities, and allowed us to fully utilize our knowledge and skill sets without any interruptions. It is not intended for all military members or all emergency responders.” Months earlier, in March 2015, soldiers from 20th CBRNE Command of the United States Army carried out a two-week exercise, KEY RESOLVE, in the RoK, with UN Command (the United Nations’ unified command for multinational military forces supporting the RoK) troops from Australia, Canada, Denmark, France and the UK.


Japan has experienced the worst CBRN attack to date, when the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo released near-weapons grade sarin nerve agent on the Tokyo subway on 20 March 1995. Japan also experienced the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant following the Tsunami which hit the western coast of Honshu Island in the Fukushima Prefecture on 11 March 2014. This was the world’s worst nuclear disaster since the meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant in the Soviet Union (now Ukraine) on 26 April 1986. The Fukushima disasters showed the vulnerability of nuclear power plants also to insurgent attacks. The environmental effects and psychological impact caused by the dispersion of, and contamination by, radioactive substances in the environment and food chain from the Fukushima accident has dwarfed anything that guerrillas could accomplish to date. But a physical or cyber-attack on a nuclear power station, and particularly on a spent fuel pond, could trigger an environmental disaster on this level. 

The Fukushima nuclear plant disaster
The Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in 2011 was the worst since the Chernobyl meltdown in 1985 and the full environmental effects are still to be measured. (TEPCO)

At the military level, Japanese Self-Defence Forces (encompassing the country’s sea, land and air forces) use protective masks and protection suits to prevent internal exposure, and cooperate with agencies to measure contamination and to transfer casualties in the wake of such disasters. The Chemical Defence Units of these services are equipped with chemical reconnaissance vehicles shielded from radiation and provide practical training for civil protection by local governments every year.

The sarin incidents spurred national agency defence against chemical attacks. Therefore the chemical protection, chemical detection, transportation of casualties, decontamination and medical activities overseen by the Chemical Defence Unit of the Japan Ground Self Defence Force (JGSDF) have been boosted. Enhanced cooperation between the armed forces and related agencies also includes lending suitable chemical protection suits and dispatching liaison personnel from the Chemical Defence Unit. The Technical Research and Development Institute of the Japanese Ministry of Defence and the JGSDF are developing and procuring personnel protection equipment and detection technologies, with research and development into CBRN technologies, CBRN Threat Assessment Systems and equipment for CBRN decontamination, chemical agent surveillance, medical countermeasures for biological agents, new system for biological agent detection and CBRN reconnaissance vehicles.


Among countries possessing gold standard CBRN defence capabilities, Singapore is in the forefront. Its Civil Defence Force (SCDF), under the purview of the Ministry of Home Affairs, mitigates hazardous materials incidents and provides fire-fighting, rescue and emergency medical services. The SCDF operates a collective protection sheltering system to complement an island-wide Public Warning System used to warn the public of military threats such as an air raid, and have hardened Metro rail transit stations to serve as civil defence shelters.

Singapore’s Defence Medical and Environmental Research Institute (DEMRI) conducts research into force protection against CW and BW. During the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) crisis in 2003, DMERI defence engineers launched the world’s first precision temperature scanning system, effectively preventing the spread of the virus. This illustrates the ‘all-hazards approach’ now prevalent in many countries to defend not only against CBRN attacks and threats but those, with the potential to cause world pandemics, produced by Nature. Just as this preparedness approach is aimed at protecting populations from both deliberate and accidental attacks, all countries at risk have to become better-equipped and trained to deal with CBRN modus operandi which combine the bomb, the bullet and the machete along with hostage-taking and increasingly CBRN.

by Andy Oppenheimer