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Top Ten Things People Get Wrong About CBRN

Top Ten Things People Get Wrong About CBRN

In a shameless effort to drum up traffic for CBRNPro.net, I hereby present the first (and hopefully last) clickbait. Since every other site in the world uses these, I'd thought I'd give you, my dear readers (and hopefully a bunch of people who might become dear readers) a "top ten list." If only I could get Nick Cage to read it like it was an old David Letterman show. I hope you enjoy it.

10.  That whole “WMD” thing: 

There are only two weapons in history documented to produce “mass destruction”: high explosives delivered by artillery and aircraft, and nuclear weapons. Chemical weapons have not even killed that many people in the grand scheme of warfare casualties. Even in World War I, when used extensively, the number of casualties in a major chemical attack might be 30 to 40 percent with most recovering in a week or two, while the number of deaths was below 5 percent. Artillery, the “king of battle,” using high explosive and shrapnel, killed most people in World War I, followed by bullets. Both paled in comparison to the number that died of the flu in 1918 and 1919 or of secondary infections while otherwise hospitalized.

Chemical weapons are hardly a weapon of mass destruction, most of the time. I’ll concede the point on the widespread use of carcinogenic defoliants and incendiaries – they cause serious destruction. Oh, and to be clear - the only known effective wartime uses of biological warfare are ancient – literally. While many countries pursued bio-weapons and some still do, the last successful, known use of a bio-weapon in warfare was some British troops giving smallpox infested blankets to French allied Native American tribes in the French-Indian Wars that predated the American Revolution. Before that, it was things like flinging dead plague victims over the walls of besieged cities and poisoning water supplies with dead bodies.

While bio-weapons create fear, the more significant threat comes from more traditional public health threats. We are more likely to face an emergency or disaster created by a natural outbreak and continued diminishing vaccination rates than any produced by bad actors or in warfare. Public health preparedness that focuses on the traditional threat mitigates the threat from all sources. Better to focus on Ebola outbreaks and SARS, not wild fantasies. 

As for the "R" in CBRN...

9. Dirty bombs: 

These things would be the most over-hyped threat in CBRN world if it weren’t for scientists using insane bio-weapons scenarios to gin up funding for their research (see my discussion of that problem here). There are means of “salting the earth” with radioactive material that were explored during the Cold War and where the idea/name comes from – those were bad. That is not what we are talking about here. Some knucklehead with a cobalt-60 source and TATP is not going to end the world. About the only thing they can do is complicate the response to the damage caused by the explosive and make the average citizen lose their mind the second they hear the word “radiation.”

"Dirty bombs" are the ultimate weapons of mass disruption. They are also going to cause a large number of "worried well." Fortunately, we have you covered in that regard, just read our series on the Aum Shinrikyo attack in Tokyo and the response: 

Aum Shinrikyo, Part 1: What Really Happened 21 Years Ago?

Aum Shinrikyo, Part 2: Points of Failure

Aum Shinrikyo, Part 3: Worried Well

Aum Shinrikyo, Part 4: Conclusion and Summary

8. Face melting chemicals:

If you remember The Rock, the chemical is supposed to be some variant of VX. Now VX IS nasty stuff. It’ll make you die like a cockroach, but it will not melt your face.

 7. And this bit of nonsense: 

What is it with Hollywood and shooting atropine directly into your heart?!?

That is not how you do it.

That is not how you do it.

Dude, you missed your thigh. Also, use an autoinjector, that needle is a lot smaller. Seriously, the number of things The Rock got wrong is too many to count. At least it got this right [Warning: NSFW or sensitive losers]:


6. Chemical weapons are “worse” than other weapons.

Since World War I, the world has, to use the most common phrase, “recoiled in horror at the use of chemical weapons.” It has not seemed to care so much about starving people to death and using food as a weapon, murdering large numbers of civilians through indiscriminate shelling and bombing, or attempts at genocide in any number of countries, including hacking tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children to death with machetes in Rwanda. If someone can explain to me why killing someone with chemicals is “worse” than tearing them to pieces with bullets or explosives or hacking them to death with a machete, I’d love to hear it. In the end, it doesn’t matter how you do it – killing someone is always horrific. It is the end, not the means that make it that way.

5.  Getting your mask on quickly will save your life:

This pernicious lie originated in the First World War when British trainers used the motivational yell “There are only two kinds of soldiers in a gas attack – the quick and the dead” to train Americans. Some knucklehead also picked up the “six second rule” from the same Brits and it became standard for almost a hundred years in the American military, despite the fact that American chemical officers immediately began complaining that it produced casualties. Troops were forgetting to hold their breath and were so focused on speed, they donned their mask incorrectly, resulting in casualties.

Incidentally, we covered all of the history about those early years, including that bit about the mask, in a series at CBRNPro.net:

Re-examining the History of Chemical Warfare, Part I

Re-examining the History of Chemical Warfare, Part II

Re-examining the History of Chemical Warfare, Part III

Re-examining the History of Chemical Warfare, Part IV

In any case, just remember, when donning your protective mask: slow is smooth, smooth is fast. At least the Army finally dropped the time standard for this Common Task, but old habits die hard.

Speaking of Die Hard, we have to talk about...

4. Black-market nuclear weapons and the stuff known as Red Mercury: 

(Black-market nuclear material/weapons is another bad movie trope – see A Good Day to Die Hard, or the much worse, Broken Arrow, or the umpteenthousand other bad TV and movies that use it).

At the end of the Cold War there was a lot of concern about “loose nukes.” Some of it was legitimate. Yet, the majority of “black-market” nuclear material that crops up around the world is something called “red mercury” and is a scam developed by Russian mafia types that have since cropped up all over the place. The history behind this one is interesting. Best as can be known, originally the “red” part referred to its origins in the Soviet Union, but by the mid to late 1990s scam artists starte coloring red their material in one way or another. The Wikipedia entry on it is an amusing read for a knowledgeable reader (okay, some parts of it are hilarious) better to read the NYT account for a better understanding if you are new to the subject. Or even better, check out the gloriously funny Campaign Against Red Mercury.

Special deal, just for you, available now on our Merchandise Page. Source: The Ever Excellent "Campaign Against Red Mercury"

Special deal, just for you, available now on our Merchandise Page. Source: The Ever Excellent "Campaign Against Red Mercury"

There remains legitimate concern about the smuggling of nuclear-related technology, like Pakistani centrifuges to Iran. However, actual Special Nuclear Material, at least as far as is publicly known, has never been on the black market. During the brief period of Soviet collapse in the early 1990s, nothing appeared to leak out, in part because of a massive effort by the US and Russia to contain the risk. That was, incidentally, the subject of another bad 1990s movie The Peacemaker. WMD was ALL the rage back then, until the George W. Bush administration changed opinions on the topic.

Those efforts did not really end (even if the Nunn-Luger cooperation did). Want to spin up the entire national security apparatus of multiple world powers? Say the word "loose nuke" in an intelligence report. There are suggestions, like those in the book One Point Safe, referring to the effort to contain the threat in the 1990s, that the majority of “black-market” nuclear material were (are?) part of sting operations run by Western and Russian intelligence services and law enforcement. In any case, most “black market” nuclear material is probably a scam of one sort or another, a lot, like the above, shockingly unsophisticated.

The real issue with building a nuclear weapon is obtaining the Special Nuclear Material, something so cost-prohibitive that it remains the exclusive territory of nation-states – states not likely to leave the stuff laying around. That is why a “terrorist nuclear weapon” remains, for the time being, an extraordinarily low probability. Even if a bad actor obtained SNM, there are a lot of scientific and technical hurdles to building a nuclear weapon and delivering it to a target. As for stealing a weapon, it is not out of the range of possibility, but the countries that have them guard nuclear weapons better than, well, anything. Not to mention many of them are on missiles that the average thief cannot load up in the back of his '96 Toyota.

Those hurdles put such things out of the ability range for most terrorists, especially those with less than a high school education wedded to a religious ideology based on a medieval rejection of science. There are many knuckleheads who try to black-market anything radioactive. That is dangerous and worrisome, though (see #9) not something to lose too much sleep over in the grand scheme of things. The real threat of a loose nuclear weapon involves regime collapse in places like Pakistan or North Korea. So, until that happens, better to worry about other things.

On a side note, there are many stories of scam artists tricking government agents across the world into buying bogus material like “red mercury” to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. So…don’t be that guy, please. Oh, and if you turn up with a Drager tube labeled “Sarin” at a lab, claiming to have saved the world, expect ridicule and derision [True Story]. On a more positive note, there are stories that Osama Bin Laden blew some serious bank on red mercury, so win some, lose some.

3. CBRN is just an advanced form of HazMat: 

We’ve covered this. It is the most popular post on CBRNPro.net, CBRN versus HazMat: One of these things is not like the other. Read it. Chemical weapons are just hazardous chemicals, but CBRN operations are not Hazardous Materials response and cleanup, or vice versa. 

2. NoBody Cares:

Long before it was CBRN it was NBC (Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological). Troops loved to make fun of the guy in the room with all the protective masks by reminding him that it stood for “NoBody Cares.”  NBC, CBRN, CBRNe, or the older ABC for atomic, biological, and chemical (apparently television acronyms are useful when referring to “WMD”), no matter what you call it, the weapons themselves have not appeared on most battlefields, with a few notable exceptions, since World War I and II. No one likes CBRN training if they are not a CBRN-type and even a lot of CBRN types would rather not put on that suit and mask for four hours in the middle of August. Plus, there is always this bit of fun/torture in basic training, just to make sure everyone knows that CBRN sucks:

You can't see it, but the Drill Sergeant is smiling. Source: DVIDS, Photo by  Sgt. 1st Class Ronald Shaw

You can't see it, but the Drill Sergeant is smiling. Source: DVIDS, Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Ronald Shaw

CBRN is a backwater for a lot of the US military, despite appearing in every national security strategy as a national security priority for over 20 years. The Army always looked down on the Chemical Corps. The Army tried to do away with the Chemical Warfare Service in 1919 and 1920, right after a war full of the stuff. The brilliant bureaucrat, but (slightly) crazy Amos Fries  only saved the CWS with a brilliantly orchestrated PR campaign coordinated with the US chemical industry. In 1972, while Creighton Abrams was fixing the rest of the Army, he disbanded the Chemical Warfare Service and the Chemical Corps, succeeding where the Army brass failed in 1919. It was a short-lived success when everyone remembered shortly thereafter that the Soviets had a huge chemical and biological weapons arsenal.

Creighton Abrams. So, he got one thing wrong. He still saved the Army after Vietnam and got a badass tank named after him. Source: US Army

Creighton Abrams. So, he got one thing wrong. He still saved the Army after Vietnam and got a badass tank named after him. Source: US Army

Still, CBRN remains something of a looked-down on branch of the US military. That is not going to change and is helped even less by the Chemical Corps association with things like smoke generators, fog oil, and poorly trained troops. The latter was the result of any number of bad decisions by well-meaning but ill-informed individuals at the Chemical School and "Big Army" over the years, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s. Things are changing, slowly, but the fact remains, CBRN MOS’s in the military are not a career choice that will get you on the short list for glory, honor, and multiple stars on your collar. Hell, the Marines do not have CBRN officers, despite having the dubious honor of the highest chemical casualty rate in any battle ever fought by US forces (Belleau Wood, the subject of our first book.)

CBRNPro.net takes a more expansive view of CBRN than most, one that goes well beyond the military and their focus on CBRN defense. We include the entire nuclear weapons enterprise, missile defense,  the intelligence community, civilian CBRN/HazMat response, and emergency management and planning. If it involves a CBRN weapon somehow, it is CBRN in our definition, though we will never, ever talk about smoke generation, fog oil, and bung wrenches. However, we still like to keep it real, and that means recognizing that while “nobody cares” will always be a problem, it cannot affect our readiness. The threat of CBRN use is increasing, not decreasing, and we must prepare for it. We addressed that recently. Read that here: Sounding the Alarm: Are We Ready for the Chemical Battlefield in Korea?

1. There were no “WMDs” in Iraq: 

This one has recently evolved into the “Syria got their WMD from Iraq” bit of idiocy we addressed in The OPCW is 21 and it doesn’t matter anymore in Syria. As for the original version," Bush lied, people died," that is now the accepted common “truth” by most the world’s public, media, and way too many CBRN professionals, that is flat out wrong. “ I know, it goes against all of your preconceived notions and neat ideological boxes, but it is the truth. I know. I was there.

I may also be one of the only people in the world who read the final report (admittedly for selfish reasons: I wanted to see if any of the stuff I did was in there). That report, the so-called Duelfer Report, instead of the impressively named 3 volume, 1 addendum Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD, details the truth as far as it can be known, and clearly identifies the problems with the accepted wisdom, long before it became the accepted, but flawed, wisdom. It even has a sequel - the 2005 report by the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction

The Iraq Survey Group, the successor to the 75th Exploitation Task Force, sent to discover and secure what military intelligence (primarily from the Defense Intelligence Agency) believed to be Saddam Hussein's WMD arsenal, struggled to find anything that matched their intelligence. That is true. They were hopelessly wrong about most things. Their target packages were seriously flawed. Both organizations were slapped together and never worked well. They were chaos on the best of days. That is why we now have the 20th Support Command, so it cannot go like that again. 

However, it was not just the US that was wrong or only a few idiots around Secretary Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney (despite media portrayals). The British, French, and other world intelligence services all believed Saddam had maintained at least some chemical weapons capability in 2003, and likely more than that. Why? By the end of the ISG’s mission in 2005, the truth was self evident to those knee-deep in finding out why: the intelligence services of the world believed what they believed because that was what Saddam and the Baathist regime in Iraq wanted its neighbors to believe.

After 1991, the Iraqi regime ordered its military to “dispose” of its chemical weapons. Some of them got buried, out in the desert, and they did not keep good records of what they did or where they did it. Other parts of the program, built with some help from European experts (mainly from France, Germany, and Italy), were dismantled by the UN - especially those not already destroyed by bombing around Taji. The UN did not do the greatest job in destroying some of the weapons though, and more than a few popped up after 2003, after supposedly being destroyed in 1991-92. There was also an attempt by the Army to blow up some weapons in 1991 that was seriously flawed. The NYT documented some of the post 2003 incidents pretty extensively, see here.

Scientists and engineers who worked on the Iraqi program were told to find other pursuits in academia and elsewhere, but to remain available to return to the regime effort once the inspectors were gone. However, the real secret was that the IIS (Iraqi Intelligence Service) was told by senior regime officials to create the illusion that the regime still held on to a nascent chemical weapons capability. Incidentally, it is not clear how involved Saddam was in all of this, and those who questioned him after his capture never seemed to ask that much about his decisions in 1990-1991 and 2003 regarding chemical weapons, at least that I've been able to find. If you are curious, the best accounts of what was going on inside the regime back then come from the Iraqi Perspectives Project and Kevin Woods at JFCOM in the 2000s, some of which is publicly available and published. 

Still, it was after the first Gulf War when the games began, and the cat and mouse game between the regime and inspectors started. In addition to the regime not having a good handle on what became of everything ordered destroyed in 1991 creating problems in their disclosures to the UN, the IIS was playing games. These were not just little things either. They would do things like load trucks up with items and drive off just before inspectors arrived at a site, in plain view of satellites monitoring the situation, for example. There were many others. Like taking inspectors to a lab that was supposedly  "inactive" for ten years, yet somehow was spotlessly clean a (no dust, in Iraq, hard to do). When inspectors checked the "inactive" lab, they would find the hotplates were still warm from when it had been on just minutes before their arrival. 

Then there was CURVEBALL. In addition to the regime playing its games (which contributed to the DESERT FOX strikes in the late 1990s by Bill Clinton), there were regime opponents actively selling the idea that the Iraqi's had active WMD programs, in hopes they would get the West to topple the regime. See here and the report mentioned above of the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction for more on all that. While there were some in the Intelligence Community, especially at CIA, who doubted the CURVEBALL information, it was not entirely inconsistent with what intelligence agencies picked up elsewhere as a result of Saddam's disinformation campaign. Its easy to see why so many fell for it - it all fit.

Ultimately, Saddam was worried that if his neighbors found out he no longer had a WMD program, they might think him weak and either attack or attempt to depose him. His opponents were hoping that if they convinced the world, Saddam had WMD, the same enemies Saddam though he was deterring, would attack and depose him.

CBRN weapons were to Saddam, like most dictatorships that pursue them, about regime survival. They were a strategic deterrent. He viewed them as a strategic asset. Despite the fact his chemical weapons were a tactical weapon in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, much as they were in World War I. His misunderstandings about chemical weapons’ usefulness was one of the reasons why he never used them during the first Gulf War or in 2003. Saddam did not think they offered any tactical benefit. He was hopelessly wrong about that, but hey, win for us. Also, the US, Britain, and Israel all threatened to hit him with nuclear weapons if he used chemical or biological weapons against them, so that probably helped too.

The IIS disinformation campaign in the 1990s and early 2000s tried to make Saddam's enemies think he might still have a capability, even while the regime was being (mostly) honest about the present state of their CBRN programs with the inspectors. This “walking the fence” was his undoing. Intelligence agencies around the world monitoring the situation were not likely to take the regime’s word for anything. The disinformation campaign the IIS ran was proof positive the Iraqi’s were “lying” and easily detected. Add in the efforts of people like CURVEBALL and well, we know the rest of the story: Colin Powell at the UN, Thunder Run, Mission Accomplished, Sadr, Al Qaeda in Iraq, Zarqawi, Fallujah, Sunni Awakening, the Surge, Maliki, Obama and the withdrawal, ISIS, all of it

Definitely not the "Winnebagos of Death," just...those damned weather balloon trailers, bane of too many people's existence. Source: Defense Department

Definitely not the "Winnebagos of Death," just...those damned weather balloon trailers, bane of too many people's existence. Source: Defense Department

It is easy to forget, in the beginning, the majority of the world’s intelligence community believed the intel they were picking up in Iraq, not realizing it was disinformation. There were a few dissenting voices about going to war over it, but not that many about the underlying intelligence, despite much dissembling by some of those involved - after the fact. What dissent there was before 2003 was primarily about the extent of the Iraqi program, a few specific parts of the intelligence picture associated with CURVEBALL, and whether a pre-emptive strike was justified or the whether the regime, despite the ongoing issues, was “contained.” You would have been hard pressed to find an intelligence analyst in 2002 who thought the Iraqis did NOT have some sort of WMD program. They just disagreed over what it was and how big.

Following the 2003 invasion and the discovery their target packages were almost universally wrong, the 75th Exploitation Task Force and the Iraq Survey Group (both ad hoc dysfunctional organizations on the best of days) eventually turned their attention to figuring out what really happened, though it was late in the game in 2004 by the time they really got down to it. It was mainly through interviewing participants captured in 2003 that the truth started to emerge, though there were documents that helped piece things together.

The real truth was simple. Saddam wanted the UN inspectors out and the sanctions lifted, so he instructed the regime to cooperate to a degree with the UN, but he also wanted to convince his neighbors he still had a program. So, you had the IIS disinformation program, which got amplified by regime opponents like CURVEBALL. Saddam's goal was to get the inspectors out, get the sanctions lifted and eliminate the no-fly zone. Then he could finish off the Kurdish and Shia opposition that rose in rebellion in 1991, once and for all. He had every intention of restarting his CBRN programs as soon as the inspectors were gone and communicated that to key participants. His plan did not work, obviously. Occam's razor cut everyone in the process.

Along the way in 2004 and early 2005, the ISG also started digging up actual chemical weapons, some of the ones the Iraqi's buried back in 1991 and lost the paper trail to, or had failed to disclose. Others continued to pop up during the war in IEDs, looted from sites around the country (again see the NYT). All of those were pretty useless as weapons by then, but the idea that the ISG never found anything is as mistaken as people’s understanding of intelligence before the war. Don’t believe me? Read the reports, ESPECIALLY the 2005 addendum that no one paid attention to because they had already made up their mind. Find it here

Thanks for reading! Now, if you've made it this far, why not check something else out on CBRNPro.net!



The OPCW is 21 and it doesn't matter anymore in Syria

The OPCW is 21 and it doesn't matter anymore in Syria