by Sebastian Meyer-Plath, Sales Director, BLÜCHER, Erkrath
As Winston Churchill once very rightly observed, “national security is the primary duty of any government and certainly takes precedence over economic stability”.
Defending people against potential attacks with chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) substances by terrorist groups or state aggressors is a crucial part of national security and hence must be addressed, whatever cost it may incur.
A changing perception of risks and threats
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered a change in the threat perception among politicians but also among the public in general. But are Europeans ready to play their own role to achieve a working society-encompassing CBRN defence/protection and what could that role be? Clearly, establishing and equipping relief organisations is one side of the coin, the other side is how to prepare the public to accept personal responsibilities. These responsibilities start with, for instance, accepting as perfectly normal bi-weekly test runs of sirens, the organisation of training sessions in schools and workplaces, keeping stocks of essential supplies at home, and, of course, agreeing that taxpayers’ money is spent on essential installations and equipment, including collective protection installations, respirators, protective suits, mass decontamination facilities and much more. Cold war levels of preparedness spring to mind….
Thankfully, the economic burden of this responsibility does not just rest on the shoulders of each Member State, but can be shared between them, since the European Union participates in this mission, starting with the rescEU Program under the EU Civil protection Mechanism.
The example of Germany
Developing multi-nation capabilities, however, creates challenges in various areas. Germany, a federal republic, can serve as a perfect example to examine the most prominent issues.
Of course there are government organisations with CBRN defence capabilities like the Bundeswehr, the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance, the famous “Technisches Hilfswerk“(THW) and a small portion of the Federal Police, all under the responsibility of the Ministry of the Interior, except the Bundeswehr. There are also disaster relief organisations at state (Land) and county levels. But how can they all be brought together to maximise efficiency?
It is intrinsic of course to a non-centralised federal system that there is a tendency for non-coordinated and insular procurement. Only after major incidents involving more than one of the 16 states has the importance of interoperability been realised and implemented, as evidenced by recent procurements under federal leadership and the introduction of standardised technical specifications according to a DIN Standard, providing procurement agencies, at the very least, with an opportunity to follow a common standard if desired.
But taking further steps towards society-encompassing CBRN protection means continuing to close substantial gaps. As an example, the “normal” police patrols, that play an important role in satisfying the need for security in communities and that are always the first on the scene, are currently not equipped with any personal CBRN protection, nor are the ambulance services, hospitals or morgues. And to drive the nail home, there is no CBRN Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for personnel operating critical infrastructure like power stations, water supply and communication facilities etc. So, even as Germany, like many other Member States, has excellent specialised capabilities, it is still far from having a society-encompassing CBRN defence and has not yet brought about a change in the public’s mindset, simply because such overt information is not available.
The magic word is standardisation
In scaling up the challenge to the European level, we face similar difficulties, in particular in organising relief or response packages for delivery to the location of an incident in an EU Member State. Interoperability with the CBRN protection equipment in use locally, doctrine, training and sufficiency in numbers are topics that require a lot more work.
The magic word regarding society-encompassing CBRN defence or protection for the EU is standardisation. There are existing standards in the area of technical capabilities within NATO, in the form of numerous Allied Engineering Publications (AEPs) and Allied Technical Publications (ATPs). They define a multitude of accepted test methods and capabilities, but still give a lot of choice in the test methods used at national level, depending on the facilities and competencies of the national testing laboratories.
In Europe, we still have a chance to agree on a set of European norms, rules, and regulations to achieve as much harmonisation as possible, to at least ensure that all Member State understand the capabilities and limitations of Personal Protective Equipment, to take just one example. Anything less might well lead to a follow-on disaster after the primary incident if first responders fall victim to a misjudgement over the protection characteristics of, say, a respirator or filter cartridge.
CBRN defence – a European endeavour
Another important factor is for procurement agencies to understand industry and supply chain constraints. The Covid-19 pandemic still has a tremendous effect on the current supply chains of many companies in Europe that are crucial for supplying CBRN defence or CBRN protection equipment. Lead times are much longer than anticipated and there is not much potential for improvement. Expected and actual delivery times can differ by six months or more. Since industry cannot and will not be able to stock for all eventualities, the term “war time reserve” springs to mind, perhaps under a more palatable name!
So, is society-encompassing CBRN defence achievable? It certainly is and most EU Member States were quite close to it during the cold war. Since then, a lot has been disbanded, forgotten or shelved, but with an effort, some of it can be reactivated, at least on the planning side. So, we don’t need to start from scratch in every area, but in some we do, and we should start now. This however provides us with a chance to rectify some of the errors made in the fifties and sixties and to make this a European endeavour.
For equipment, standardisation is the magic word, for the rest it is understanding and accepting realities.