CBRN, or chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear, refers to any dangerous material that could be used in an attack with the potential to create mass casualties or disrupt society. Typically, the term is associated with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) such as nuclear or chemical weapons but can also be used to describe other materials that are a threat to the civilian population such as radiation hazards or toxic agents.
A terrorist attack using CBRN materials could have significant consequences for the local and international environment. The goal of a CBRN attack is to inflict as many deaths and injuries as possible by targeting the most vulnerable elements of the population. The use of CBRN materials in an attack would create a complex and dynamic risk that requires a coordinated response at all levels of government and internationally.
There have been a small number of attacks involving the use of CBRN materials by terrorist organisations worldwide, including one attempt to kill a member of the Russian royal family in Salisbury with the Novichok nerve agent. Despite the low probability of a UK terrorist attack using CBRN materials, the threat remains real and evolving. The proliferation of dual-use equipment and the availability of recipes and instructions for the construction of crude devices has the potential to increase the capacity of terrorists to develop, produce and use CBRN weapons.
The toxicity of a CBRN material is determined by the type of agent, concentration and amount of exposure as well as the individual’s ability to react to it. There is often a delay, or latency, between the time of exposure to the agent and the appearance of symptoms which may range from mild irritation (e.g. rashes) to fatal illness and disease (e.g. cancer). Whether a CBRN agent has deterministic or stochastic effects is another important consideration when planning an attack.
While the use of WMD by state and non-state actors is the most serious threat to NATO’s security, a range of other threats are evolving that pose a challenge to Allied resilience. These include the proliferation of CBRN materials and the use of hybrid threats to create ambiguity, delay or prevent attribution, and to undermine a cohesive Allied response. Against these challenges, ORR’s CBRN Office has built and sustained capabilities, a robust relationship network and a risk-based approach to inform allied planning and response to CBRN events. The JCBRN Defence COE provides a focal point for CBRN analysis, insight and innovation without duplicating or competing with existing NATO capability. Other NATO Centres of Excellence and Education and Training facilities also contribute to the Alliance’s CBRN defence. These include the Defence against Terrorism COE, Military Medicine COE, Explosive Ordinance Disposal COE and Maritime Security COE. cbrn