Following Captain Obvious: A guide to CBRN operations against obvious targets

By U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate Airman Jason Frost. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As we noted in a previous post, CBRN operations on Obvious Targets are the most straightforward of all CBRN operational activities. Because they involve a known use or suspected agent/weapon, traditional detection and basic analytical approaches are useful. Depending on agent concentration and likelihood of contamination, PPE selection is relatively straightforward. These collections will typically fall into three basic areas, with different PPE and equipment required. Where we differ from most approaches to these missions is in these three areas, and the equipment in one of them. The three major areas of Obvious Targets are intelligence collection, overt collection (the bulk of CBRN operations, and where most CBRN operators play), and covert collection. While this extends the boundaries, in which much of the CBRN community operates and thinks, this categorization makes the most sense from an equipment and mission execution standpoint. For example, if the mission was to take a soil sample in an open area where chemical weapons were used, the approach will be fundamentally different if that sample collection is carried out as part of a clandestine intelligence operation, an overt collection by a military unit on the ground, or a covert collection by an inserted special operations unit. The actual CBRN collection (take a soil sample) remains the same, but everything around it changes dramatically using this categorization.

First up are obvious CBRN collections carried out as part of clandestine intelligence operations, upon which I will not spend much time elaborating on for obvious reasons. Based on historical examples, clandestine collection from sites of suspected use usually involves the use of HUMINT sources to collect sources from areas of suspected use, using various equipment. These may include soil, vegetation, solid material, liquid, or air samples (Tucker 2001). The two major examples of clandestine CBRN operations of this type are the suspected use by the Russians of a toxin "Yellow Rain" in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the 1990s controversial chemical samples that formed the basis for the bombing of an industrial facility in Khartoum by the Clinton administration. See the sources from Tucker and Noah at the bottom of this post for more on those. In the case of our example, the scenario might involve sending a source into an area with basic PPE to collect one of these samples and smuggle it out to a lab for analysis. Alternately, a sample might be provided as a “walk in” – for instance, a dissident group providing a sample to outside contacts that reaches the intelligence community. Chain of custody and other issues are lower priority here than the ability to get a sample without being detected or from an denied access area. These kind of missions can have serious “provenance” issues, which aren’t worth getting into. The overwhelming majority of CBRN operators are never involved in these sorts of missions, so they really aren’t worth looking at further here.

On the traditional side of CBRN operations, the overt collection of samples of “obvious” targets will utilize a more traditional emergency response approach. This is where most CBRN operators earn their pay. The missions are pretty straightforward and well-practiced. Based on an analysis of casualties and effects, teams can adopt the appropriate PPE and utilize standard equipment common in the CBRN community to conduct monitoring and basic tests on potential samples to determine concentrations and locations to sample.

Equipment common in the CBRN community for this purpose includes everything from basic methods like the use of M-8 detection paper and pH paper to advanced air monitoring systems like multi-gas monitors and chemical agent detectors utilizing Ion Mobility Spectroscopy or other detection technologies. Teams can carry out basic on-site or near site analysis using portable field analytical technologies like Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR), Raman Spectroscopy, or Near Infrared (NIR). There are also several portable Gas Chromatograph/Mass Spectrometer technologies available. For biological toxins, the previous technologies are of some use, and for biological agents, there are several field portable systems utilizing polymerase chain reaction (PCR) analytical processes to conduct DNA identification of bio agents. For radiological missions, the detection equipment is well developed, and several advanced Gamma Spectroscopy instruments are in common use, several designed specifically for non-proliferation weapons/special nuclear material identification.

Based on many years of observation, there is a tendency among some CBRN operators to overload their collectors during obvious sample missions. This is particularly a problem observed among Civil Support Teams, but it is not isolated to them. If it is an “obvious” collection, the equipment and PPE will most often narrowly focus on safety and sampling. The approach here is relatively straightforward – PPE levels are determined according to SOP (and these do not all need to be in Level A, quite the contrary). Next, entry teams should equip themselves with basic safety devices; a recommended standard load for nearly all CBRN operations is a multi-gas monitor and a personal radiation detector. Next, depending on what information they have about the target and the material sought the entry team may wish to grab some point detectors or radiation monitors (depending on the mission) though they may not be necessary, M-8 paper might suffice in some scenarios. The goal here is not identification of any substance, but sample location (a mindset shift, but an important one). Finally, the team needs sampling kits, and preferably prepared, pre-packed sample sets for quick multiple sampling, there is nothing worse than having to dig through a sample bag in the middle of a hot zone – better to make up the bag/kit with everything you need ahead of time.

Operations from that point are straightforward – find some of the bad stuff, bag it, tag it, and get it into a mobile lab or take it with you for lab analysis elsewhere (depending on your unit and mission requirements). Of course, if a unit is drilling and tapping a round or drum, then the approach is even more straightforward (though always more nerve wracking). Teams in obvious scenarios should seldom, if ever, need to conduct any downrange analysis, which only wastes time and overloads the sample team. Better to grab and go into a lab with all of its toys, then monkey around downrange. If required, additional time in the hot zone or additional hot zone entries can focus on additional information collection. The priority for almost all of these missions is identification, which is actually an “initial confirmation” since there is likelihood that the substance of concern is already known/suspected. 

There is another type of overt mission – those carried out by M93A1 Fox vehicles. A special comment on those is necessary. While their collection capabilities are designed for a battlefield and known chemical warfare agents, their most frequent use in Iraq between 2003 and 2008 was trying to identify hazardous materials, something they were fundamentally ill equipped to do. The personnel, training, and equipment in a Fox are not equivalent to the mobile lab in a CST or the capabilities of Tech Escort or another special CBRN unit. Trying to use them in that role is a fundamental error that can produce bad intelligence and information for military commanders. While their capabilities have improved, a Fox is not a substitute for a more qualified unit or element. Capabilities like the Fox have a clear mission set, and they can carry it out well, but their mission parameters must be well known and understood by commanders and S-3 sections at least at the Brigade level and higher, if commanders are to avoid assigning missions they cannot reliably carry out.  

The third type of obvious CRBN mission is the covert collection. These will either use an approach similar to traditional CBRN teams, with a smaller footprint while attempting to avoid detection of their activity, or go minimal and rely on contamination avoidance. Depending on their mission, they may need to do some basic onsite analysis. Their mission planning will be more intense as well, as they will be planning ingress and egress as well as other operational missions on site (SSE, etc). These missions might involve the use of special CBRN collectors as part of a special unit not normally trained or prepared to conduct CBRN collection. Here the larger unit is an enabler, with the CBRN collection either the mission focus or an adjunct to another mission, like a kill or capture operation against a known terrorist. Aside from the mission planning and operational execution, the collection process is identical to that of overt teams. These missions require well-trained CBRN operators able to work with mission planners to develop GO/NO GO criteria, which must be established beforehand based on equipment sets, PPE, and decon capabilities. Unlike many overt collections, which typically have a big footprint, these do not. Further, these are intelligence driven operations, so if the intelligence turns out to be wrong, or there is a change of conditions, the team may no longer be equipped to carry out the mission.

Decontamination in obvious missions tends to be more important than in the other targets, only because the risk of exposure is so high. Consequently, these missions tend to have some of the highest logistical footprints. The exception to this involves clandestine collected samples or covert collections by special teams, which will most often use minimal decon, and pursue a strategy of contamination avoidance and PPE removal.   

A final note on obvious targets for those operating with limited footprints, these teams have to work outside the box. For example, a team with only basic PPE (for example standard military charcoal impregnated suits and protective masks with standard military filters) might arrive at a target only to discover that the building containing the chemical round they were to collect, is showing concentrations above the IDLH level inside, a clear no go criteria. Innovative operators might realize opening doors and breaking windows could lower the concentration and allow entry. Another example might be a team with only charcoal impregnated suits running across highly corrosive materials that pose a splash hazard, another no-go. However, a quick search of the area turns up a supply of Tyvek suits, allowing the operation to go forward. Learning the art of improvisation, rather than getting hung up on equipment and what-ifs, is one of the most valuable skills a CBRN operator can learn.

Next time we’ll talk about the intricacies of CBRN operations against clandestine or state sponsored laboratories, so subscribe to our RSS feed, follow us on Facebook, and stay tuned!


Drielak, Steven C. 2004. Hot Zone Forensics: Chemical, Biological, and Radiological Evidence Collection. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

National Fire Protection Association. 2008. NFPA 472:  Standard for Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Incidents. Quincy, MA: National Fire Protection Association.

Noah, Timothy. 2004. “Khartoum Revisited, Part 2” Slate. March 31. articles/news_and_politics/chatterbox/2004/03/khartoum_revisited_part_2.html (April 26, 2013).

Tucker, Jonathan B. 2001. “The ‘Yellow Rain’ Controversy: Lessons for Arms Control Compliance.” The Nonproliferation Review (Spring): 25-42.