Long, long time ago, I can still remember
The recent Skripal case shows how far the CBRN capability in the UK has dropped
CBRN has always been the insurance policy: it doesn't happen every day, but you keep paying in as you know you'll need it at some point. Throughout the Cold War that ethos held firm in the military, with many an exciting exercise spoiled by the 'buckets of instant sunshine' and having to get suited up... but still it happened. Post Tokyo Sarin attack the civilian forces also started paying into the insurance policy and after the Amerithrax attacks they even started paying the extra premiums. How long ago that seems now! The past ten years have seen a decline in the UK's CBRN capability, slowly at first but then faster and faster as 'austerity' bit harder and harder.
Some examples of this
1. Scene Assessment. A decade ago a Scene Assessment System (SAS)/vehicle was touted by the Home Office to allow law enforcement officials a far greater detection, identification and monitoring (DIM) capability that they had in 2008 or in 2018. As the letter below shows, this was binned just before Christmas in 2009, after a competitive process that cost the various consortiums millions of pounds, ostensibly due to a shortage of threat. This lack of a mobile scene assessment system meant that the Army needed to bring their aging Fuchs into Salisbury, something that has not been practised/exercised. While the SAS might not have possessed the necessary Novichok spectra, they would have had a much greater capability to respond and reassure the public. Law enforcement have been forced to carry DIM risk due to a strategic decision that we were not under threat, despite numerous near misses over the years.
2. Mass decontamination units. The government announced that they were cutting the amount of decontamination units that the fire service possessed. While the Salisbury incident was not a mass decon incident it could well have been, and the impact of a shortage of these could have been acute. These MDU/IRUs were replaced by the Immediate Operational Response (IOR) policy, something quite untested against agents like Novichoks. When Public Health England is nominating wet wipes and laundry detergent as adequate decon surely a bit of soap and water might have helped provide peace of mind. Quite how the Immediate Operational Response would have fared against another scenario is not known, but it failed in the case of the Skripals. Also despite having a Government Decontamination Service this has so far not been used in Salisbury. Instead Public Health England (PHE) and the Army has needed to come in to deal with pulling samples and trying to ascertain contamination levels. The military has also been press ganged into evidence collection and been asked to package and remove large pieces of evidence. This again is something that has not been practised by the military and civilian forces and anyone with CBRN experience that has watched the evidence being removed videos must feel that this was not ideal. A shortage of civilian assets and joint military-civilian training forced them to 'Keep Calm and Muddle On.'
3. Regionalisation. Many law enforcement officials only get a few days of CBRN training every year, these are largely refresher courses to help keep them safe. Specialist assets that used to be common in the UK have now been regionalised, if they exist at all. Due to a shortage of adequately trained personnel, and despite assets in closer locations, like Eastleigh, assets had to come down from London, and national assets were immediately deployed with no reserve in case there was a second attack. The regions have been pared down to near non-existence thanks to years of cuts, Metropolitan and national assets have been thrown in to fill this void. This is not a sensible policy and shows how 'one deep' the capability is.
4. Training. As mentioned previously there have not been a joint exercises between the military and civilian forces to properly train the force. Exercises have either not tested the system, or have simply had military liaison officers sit in on them. The MoD and Home Office have never engaged, even when the MoD has assets like the Joint CBRN Regiment. When more training should have happened due to asset draw down (or capability holidays in the military) the opposite happened, bureaucratic heads entered the sand and there was no practical exploration of 'What do we do now?'
5. Protective equipment. It is clearly apparent from the briefest scrutiny of footage that the civilian forces have inferior respiratory protection to the military assets - FM12s rather than GSRs. This isn't to mention the consistent personal protective equipment debacles that the Home Office has barrelled into. The Home Office has been unsure what protective level they want, what style of suit, thermal burden, how many, how much training etc etc over the past ten years and has delivered failure after failure. Risk has been carried, and continues to be carried and building a new center at Porton is going to have no impact on this.
6. Mortuary. As unpleasant as it might be to face, the chances of the Skripals surviving is slim - though we wish them well. The UK mortuary CBRN capability is deader than any patient they will handle and this is not scheduled to change. Quite what individuals will be able to handle the post mortem and where they will do it is a mystery. Mortuary staff have always been the unluckiest Cinderella, never getting to go to the ball... but the lesson behind decades of neglect in this sector will soon become apparent as officials decide that they need to know exactly what happened to the Skripals. Sergei and Yulia are 'Patient Zero' for Novichok exposure, understanding the impact of these agents is vital, trying to find a PM suite and staff that are trained to handle them will be a near impossibility, the odds are good that it will default to a military capability.
7. Comms. It has yet to be announced, but sure as eggs are eggs there will be communication difficulties between PHE, police and military assets. How can I be so sure? They haven't trained together, without all any form of interoperability the different forces will either be forced to use their own cell phones or borrow radios. As an added problem, I very much doubt the military will have wanted to talk about Novichoks on an unsecure line. Comms are always an issue at a real event, and this will be no different.
There are many other negative elements that can be added to this list. The most positive one is the continuing example of the sacrifice that first responders and the military are prepared to offer, no matter how badly they are equipped, trained and otherwise prepared. They deserve better, and the government has to look past 'flagship' projects like Porton Down to do this. Ghouta (et al.) in 2013, Kim Jong Nam in 2017, Sergei Skripal in 2018, the time to carry risk has gone, it's time to start paying the CBRN insurance policy Ms May.