How CBRN training programmes can benefit from lessons learned

Written by Bryan W Sommers, Argon Electronics

As major incidents such as the 2018 Novichok nerve agent poisoning in Salisbury have demonstrated, Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) emergencies can push national and international response capabilities to their very limits.

Conversely though, these types of challenging CBRN events can also provide a powerful learning opportunity by highlighting the core skills, resources and training that most effectively support and underpin emergency response.

Salisbury poisonings prompt chemical attack questions

In an article published by the Association of the United States Army (AUSA), Retired Col. Liam Collins, former director of the Modern War Institute at West Point, explores some of the key lessons learned from the Salisbury nerve agent attack.

He also discusses how this knowledge might best be applied in order to strengthen military readiness in the chemical environment, to identify readiness shortfalls and to improve proficiency.

Among Collins’ key observations is the importance of increasing the focus on CBRN training within the military operational force.

In particular, he emphasises the value of staging “operational-level war games” that incorporate not just disaster response but the full spectrum of CBRN operations.

Combat operations in a CBRN environment

As commander of a Special Forces detachment in the 1990s, Collins says, he routinely conducted close-quarters battle training with live ammunition while wearing protective masks and, on occasion, with full protective equipment.

But with the decision to minimise CBRN training during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he believes the Army’s expertise in the CBRN environment underwent a period of “atrophy.”

The challenge now, says Collins, is to refocus military efforts on the conducting of combat operations in a CBRN environment, including decontamination training.

He also emphasises the importance of having access to sufficient stocks of equipment and PPE is vital in ensuring that personnel are able to operate for extended periods of time in environmentally challenging conditions.

“Taking a timeout, unfortunately, is not an option in a true chemical environment,” he says, “(and) even the most mundane of tasks can pose severe challenges.”

A joint-agency approach to CBRN response

Another factor that the Salisbury attack highlights is the diverse variety of individuals and teams that can be called on to respond to a CBRN emergency – from police, ambulance, the fire service and the military to healthcare organisations, crisis management institutions and detection/verification specialists.

How well these different groups are able to work with and alongside each other can be a hugely significant factor in the effectiveness of emergency response.

What is important is that CBRN training offers a sufficient degree of flexibility and adaptability in order to accommodate individual learning outcomes and to acknowledge differences in emergency management structures.

Enhancing CBRN training with real-world capability

Realistic exercises can provide an invaluable training ground for testing the effectiveness of response to a CBRN incident.

Through the provision of realistic scenarios there is the opportunity for personnel to hone their practical skills, strengthen their knowledge and enhance their decision-making abilities within a safe, immersive and controlled environment.

Incorporating the use of simulator detector equipment into military CBRN training continues to provide instructors with a flexible, scaleable and safe training solution.

In addition there is now also the option to take realistic CBRN instruction to a new level through the use of new software that interacts directly with actual operational detector equipment.

With the introduction of the new Radiation Field Training Simulator (RaFTS) for example, there is the opportunity to extend CBRN training capability beyond the realm of radiological training to encompass a much wider variety of hazardous substances, even more complex virtual scenarios and multiple instrument types.

The security environment in which CBRN responders are required to operate is in a state of continuing evolution – fuelled in no small part by the growth of international free trade, increased cross-border movement, globalisation, fundamentalism and the information-sharing capabilities of the internet.

In this challenging and ever-changing CBRN environment, a commitment to hands-on, realistic training has a vital role to play in ensuring a common knowledge base, a minimum level of best practice and the highest possible standard of operational readiness.


About the Author

Sergeant Major Bryan W Sommers has forged a distinguished career in the fields of CBRNe and HazMat training. He recently retired after twenty-two years service in the US Army, with fourteen years spent operating specifically in Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) environments. In 2020 he was appointed as Argon Electronics’ North American business development manager.