Risks of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Warfare

The notion of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) warfare is a broad concept which encompasses the composition, delivery means and effects of engineered weapons containing one or more of these agents. They are considered to be the most deadly and indiscriminate weapons used in modern warfare, and can be utilised to kill or bring damage to a large number of individuals, structures and the biosphere, and accordingly pose a significant threat. Due to the dynamic nature of CBRN, effective risk management is required to ensure vigilance and innovation to address the threat. Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense, also known as CBRND, are protective measures taken in situations in which CBRN warfare hazards may be present, and are used as a means of addressing the threats posed by a CBRN incident. Acknowledging its severity, the 2016 Defence White Paper wrote, “over coming decades, the challenges of weapons of mass destruction will continue to be of concern to the international community” (Department of Defence, 2016). Australia, a country who does not partake in the manufacturing or storage of CBRN, “seeks to control the export of chemical or biological weapons and the Proliferation Security Initiative framework aimed at preventing the illicit trade of sensitive weapons of mass destruction technologies” (Department of Defence, 2016). This report will address the threat posed by the rise of chemical and nerve agents used in warfare, and the real-time threat and the challenges it poses to the Royal Australian Corp of Signals.

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The current trend in warfare has moved away from conventional methods of deployment of overwhelming numbers of personnel to win a war. As a result, the use of CBRN has emerged itself in small, discreet devices commonly known as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). The growing concern for CBRN in IEDs has complicated military operations, processes and procedures. The added complexity of CRBN coupled with an explosive charge is dubious at best for the manufacturer, similarly for the person sent to defuse the device. As well as the clear physical effects of such weapons, there are rising mental health effects on Defence Personnel too, indicating the severity of the negative effects posed by CBRN. In order to address this, there has been a surge in CBRND funding from the Australian Government, with the Australian Defence Force entering into a, “$243.5 million contract with Leidos to cover the acquisition and initial support phase of five years for LAND 2110 Phase 1B from the Australian Department of Defence (ADF), providing chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence (CBRND) protection to the ADF” (Kuper, 2018). The initiatives emplaced by the Australian Government benefits the capability to address a CBRN incident and attributes itself to the new in-service AirBoss NBC Gas mask.

The characteristics of a chemical agent are its physical state, which can be liquid, gas or solid as well as its persistency, and method of entry. Notably, chemical agents are commonly administered as a liquid or gas. Chemical agents may be classified as Nerve, Choking, Blood or Blister agents. The intent of Chemical agents is to elicit a psychological effect on personnel. The persistency in which, the period of time during which chemical agents remain a hazard in an area of Chemical agents is less than a week or non-persistent in nature. In contrast, the intent of Nerve agents are to incapacitate personnel and cause fatality. The rate of action indicates how long an agent will take for its full effects to take hold such that, for Nerve agents such as Tabun, Sarin and Soman are immediate (CBRND, 2005). These examples of Nerve agents, where even a small drop of some nerve agents such as tabun on the skin can cause sweating and muscle twitching where the agent touched the skin. Exposure to a large dose of tabun by any route may result in these additional health effects: Loss of consciousness (CDC, 2018). Chemical and Biological warfare will inhibit normal day-to-day operations, whereas Radiological and Nuclear warfare will render the equipment and site obsolete and untenable. The period of time in which exposed equipment is still under the effects of radiation or contaminant is Agent dependent. In every case the risks for decontaminating equipment are rationalised; comparing resources, time and capability. The planning rates to decontaminate A vehicles is per site, 4 vehicles per hour and requires 700litres of water (CBRN, 2005).

Royal Australian Signals Corps has a history and affiliation with CBRN dating back to 1 January 1925, where the Corps was separated from the Australian Corps of Engineers. A large portion of Signals equipment is dispersed in the open during military operations without overhead or external protection. Accordingly, it presents a high-value target to enemy forces, due to the significant capability such equipment provides during operations. Chemical agents tend to have psychological effect on personnel, such as Hydrogen Cyanide, Phosgene and Mustard which prevents body tissues from using oxygen in the blood and cause rupturing of skin forming blisters, respectively. Understanding the limitations of the current in-service communications equipment negates the ability for any means of overhead protection without compromising signal strength. Fortunately, the agents themselves will not erode or deteriorate the equipment; however, it leaves a site contaminated. Therefore, the importance of self-decontamination is paramount. The integration of training both individual and collective is recommended to prepare personnel for the threat posed by CBRN.

CBRN poses risks to personnel, the supply chain, equipment, and Defence capability, and as such, it is vital that the Defence Force understands the extent of the threat, so as to protect personnel, equipment and capability. The effects of CBRN warfare on personnel has a heavy psychological and physiological burden. Depending on the type of agent being nerve, blood, blister, it has detrimental effects to a person’s wellbeing. Depending on the persistency, agents may linger on equipment for an extended period of time. This complicates the ability to pack-up, decontaminate and use the equipment for operational use. Often the best means of decontamination is weathering wherein the equipment is left, exposed to the elements, indefinitely, resulting in natural decontamination. Ultimately, the use of CBRN affects capability. CBRN will complicate the normal operations as experienced today. The introduction of Dress-states will burden the psyche of ADF personnel after extended periods of living in a contaminated zone. The nature of blister agents renders gas mask cannisters obsolete in 20 minutes when working in a contaminated site. As such, it is vital that the Defence Force personnel are aware of such risks, and protective measures are implemented.

Such protective measures can be effectively adopted to address the Growing threat of CBRN, through both training and equipment. Individual and collective training may be utilized to accustom ADF personnel, in particular Signalmen to the hardships of working in scaled Dress-state levels. Dress-state 4 necessitates the use of all Personnel Protection Equipment including gas mask and suit. The suit reduces dexterity and visibility, in turn reducing effective work. Individual training may be using thick, black gloves when erecting communications equipment and understanding the complexity of normal processes and procedures. In addition, the introduction of detectors such as M8 and M9 detector paper and Chemical Agent Monitors (CAM) will allow Signalmen to interrogate and position early warning devices in their location, thus addressing the threat posed by CBRN (CBRND, 2005).

As such, Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear agents pose a significant threat when used in warfare, due to the dynamic and indiscriminate nature of the threat.  The versatility of such agents being liquid, gas or solid can mean that they are hard to control, and that the impacts can be far reaching and significant. With respect to the Royal Australian Corp of Signals, the threat is particularly relevant, as Signals provide vital operational capabilities to enable communication within the Defence Force. In order to address this, and ensure effective CBRND, the Defence Force has adopted protective measures through training of personnel and introduction of new equipment to ensure these vital capabilities are protected. Despite this, CBRN still poses a real-time threat to the Royal Australian Corp of Signals.


Department of Defence 2016, Defence White Paper, Australian Government. Available from http://www.defence.gov.au/WhitePaper/Docs/2016-Defence-White-Paper.pdf   [11 Aug 2019]

Kuper, S 2018, Leidos secures CBRND protection contract, Available from: Defence Connect.

LWP-G 3-9-10, Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defence, 2005.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2018, Facts about Tabun, Available from https://emergency.cdc.gov/agent/tabun/basics/facts.asp  [11 Aug 2019]