Countering CBRN attacks

India has long had expertise in creating and using nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) weapons. But it has voluntarily abjured the use of these weapons and has destroyed its biological and chemical weapons stockpiles and facilities in keeping with the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions. However, it has retained and deployed its nuclear weapons with the clear provisos that it would not be the first to use them and (what has hitherto proved to be utopian) that if there is a perceptible movement towards universal and complete nuclear disarmament India would match every step taken by other nuclear weapons nations to end the threat of use of weapons of mass destruction. It subscribes wholeheartedly to the Hague Code of Conduct.

India has the biotechnology, the laboratories and the scientific manpower to create, store and disperse biological and chemical weapons along with the safety equipment for those involved in handling the dangerous pathogens. Yet it made a deliberate choice to join the international community to firm up the twin Conventions and ensure ratification and adherence. Its expertise includes the creation of reagents that can warn of the presence of the pathogens and thus trigger counter-measures for the security and treatment of the population that could be affected.

The nomenclature of the threat has changed from the pure nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) to the omnibus chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) in recognition of the possibility that insane groups or individuals could lay hands on precursor agents (raw uranium and plutonium) and turn them into ‘dirty bombs’ with the aid of conventional explosives. The panic factor could bring a nation to its knees.

Counter measure equipment

The much-maligned Defence Research and Development Organization has been working on NBC counter-measures almost from the day when the Government decided that it would acquire nuclear weapons technology to be able to dissuade attacks by State actors. By 2012 it had decided to display some of its products and stalls were set up at the DEFEXPO of that year but at the last moment it was decided not to highlight the nuclear aspect of India’s indigenous defence effort.  It was reported at that point of time that as much as Rs 1200 crore had been invested in the design, development and production of NBC equipment. The equipment and technology encompassed the whole range from detectors and reconnaissance vehicles inclusive of micro-UAVs to nano-technology based sensors; dosimeters to check the extent of radiation contamination on individuals and the environment; portable gas chromatographs to check the purity of a suspect substance; Roentgen meters to define the extent of X-ray and a-rays at a particular location. The equipment included inflatable shelters that will withstand the effect of radiation and a spray of NBC agents for at least 48 hours.

Expectedly, the bulk of the equipment has been supplied to the Armed Forces especially given the Indian nuclear doctrine  being reactive rather than ‘first strike’. The equipment is intended to protect the forces-in-waiting to enable them to execute a conventional strike against an enemy who has used his ‘first strike’. These forces would grab enemy territory and neutralize vital points and vital areas thereby deprive the aggressor of the ‘fruits’ of a nuclear first strike. This is why the CBRN reconnaissance vehicle is based on the tried and tested BNP infantry combat vehicle. It can sniff out contaminants and mark out the area of contamination for follow on forces to clean up if possible or avoid if necessary.

In the first phase the Indian Army ordered 16 reconnaissance vehicles eight of which were delivered in 2010. It is estimated that of the bulk of the CBRN equipment produced indigenously by private-public participation  eighty-five per cent was earmarked for the Armed Forces.

For civilian use the National Disaster Relief Force has been created in every State and Union Territory. A group of 300 personnel inclusive of the Border Security Force, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the Central Reserve Police Force, the Central Industrial Security Force is assigned the counter-CBRN role within the security architecture.   

Backup support

However, rarely has a counter-CRBN team been seen exercising in the capital city of the nation. The state of the national capital region as a whole is chaotic to say the least. The most recent evidence of total disarray is in the manner in which US Secretary of State John Kerry was driven into a traffic jam in Delhi. The Delhi Police (both the traffic wing and the VVIP security detail) clearly was clueless of how to handle a flooded landscape. Would  the forces set up for national disaster relief  know what to do in a CRBN situation? Simultaneously, with the flood situation the national capital is widely afflicted with a pandemic of dengue and chickungunya and hospitals are overflowing with patients. In one hospital a major crisis was caused by the crash of a computer (an everyday occurrence) in the  registration counters. There is no such thing as a backup. What will happen if an epidemic of anthrax or any other biological agent is induced by enemy agents or “lone wolf’ (freelance) terrorists?

The very first requirement in a CRBN situation is the deployment of a “flying squad” very much in the same concept as that of a police requirement. Flying squads are pre-positioned and are expected to know the landscape in which they are expected to operate. A team deployed post ipso facto of a disaster will be groping its way around (the very narrow streets in many localities will not allow any effective deployment of NDRF teams unless the teams are trained to operate dismounted from their reconnaissance vehicles and on foot).

A roadmap suggests that: Stakeholder engagement is an important process that needs constant attention; it is important to engage various non-governmental agencies, organisations and individuals towards building an architecture of security. A successful system requires close working relationships between government ministries, national agencies and the industry. In the National Capital Region of India there is conflict on every issue be it shortage of water, the phenomenon of annual flooding, civic issues and everything else where the Central Government and its operational arms-the Lt Governor, the Delhi Police, etc-are arraigned against the elected representative government that arrived in office by a huge mandate.

The Armed Forces have their own training and reorientation facilities. They deal with the military aspects of CRBN defences. The National Disaster Relief Force is the institution that will be required to deal with the civilian population in the event of an accident or a deliberate event. It needs to be seen in that mode more often and in more places.