The UK must make CBRN strategy a priority

by Rt Hon Jim Murphy MP

The complexity of the Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) threat is deeply challenging and is not yet universally understood. New weaponry can be developed and new opportunities arise for states and non-state actors who aim to cause mass destruction.

The vast majority of nations are good global citizens that adhere to international non-proliferation obligations. Contrary to John F Kennedy’s warning 50 years ago, the number of nuclear-armed states isn’t over 20 but is still in single digits. But the threat of CBRN remains real and it is vital that the international community remain resilient and designs a response which is as broad as the threat itself.

We agree with the government’s 2010 National Security Strategy’s recognition of ‘International terrorism affecting the UK or its interests, including a CBRN attack’ as the top Tier One threat. While the current government has recognised the specific threat of CBRN, however, we are concerned that they have not introduced a new strategy or updated that which they inherited. There is also uncertainty about the money saving measure to delete the Joint CBRN Regiment to move all anti-CBRN capabilities over to a Royal Air Force Regiment.

The UK, however, will not prevent or improve national response and mitigation capacities through a small specialised unit – we will do so through a broad spectrum of capabilities, working across agencies and borders while prioritising co-ordinated technical expertise.

There is an inverse relationship between the probability of use and the lethality of each technology. Nuclear attack, for example, would by a long way the most lethal, while radiological attack would be the least. Radiological attack, however, has the highest probability due to its presence in civilian settings, but nuclear is the least probable due to the difficulty of acquiring the necessary materials. These differences point to our need for some discrete preventative and responsive strategies which focus on C, B, R and N respectively as well as collectively.

In light of the extent to which CBRN materials can be found in legitimate commercial or civilian sectors it is also important we encourage education amongst the medical, chemist and scientific communities about the potential for abuse in areas of dual-use. It is compulsory too that we share threat information between business, scientists and government, since 80 per cent of the UK’s critical national infrastructure – a possible  target of any CBRN attack – is in the private sector. 

The Institute for Public Policy Research has found that insufficiently secure government laboratories around the world remain a worry and recommends improved international knowledge sharing, as well as harmonisation of national standards, regulatory practices and best laboratory practices.

The threat posed by CBRN in the UK is very real, and one Londoners live with. We know that from experience, having had the less than subtle assassination of Alexander Litvinenko with Polonium-210 in our capital city. We look at the sarin attacks in Tokyo and understand the tragic havoc which could be wreaked should a terrorist try something similar on the London Underground, which carries three million people a day from all around the world.  London is a global city facing a global threat, and so it is right that we look to our partners for inspiration as to how we can protect ourselves.

It is vital that emergency service staff are trained, with regular exercises in response, including in decontamination and relevant first aid. Detection of chemical or biological materials at the scene of an attack is also essential.

One of the most impressive models is the Securing the City strategy in New York, which equips local and regional agencies with world-leading radiological detection equipment. New York has established a permanent radiological defensive ring through the installation of fixed detection equipment to monitor traffic at all bridges and tunnels that lead into the City.  The sensors have been networked to enable them to provide real-time radiation data so at all times experts can take a reading and know instantly about threat levels or indeed the nature of an attack. New York City operates more than 4,500 radiation detectors across the metropolitan area.

The Deputy Commissioner for Counter Terrorism of the New York City Police Department has called this effort “unprecedented”. London can learn from New York and aim to develop similar approaches to detection across the UK’s great cities. The government must examine this issue, which is one a future Labour government would subject to review.

The ease with which new technologies can be attained and developed into sophisticated weapons to counter or even make superfluous high-end armour will increase the need for equipment programmes and defensive strategies to adapt and modernise.  This is now a priority issue for all developed nations. 

Our collective response to the CBRN threat should have at its core good intelligence, determined detection, strong international agreements deeply implemented in national policies, robust defences and well-organised response capabilities.

New technologies promise enormous benefits for humanity, and it is each of our duty to promote scientific advance and exploration, but that imperative must be coupled with the knowledge that new technologies are also now an inescapable part of our national and international security challenge.


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