Academic journal article Defense Horizons

Responding in the Homeland: A Snapshot of NATO's Readiness for CBRN Attacks

Academic journal article Defense Horizons

Responding in the Homeland: A Snapshot of NATO's Readiness for CBRN Attacks

Article excerpt


The possibility of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members having to respond to a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) incident is not a hypothetical scenario reserved for training exercises. Indeed, a number of countries worldwide have considerable experience in dealing with a variety of naturally occurring, accidental, and deliberate CBRN incidents. NATO itself, however, has no clear conceptual vision of its role in civil emergencies because preparedness of this sort remains a national responsibility.

For many years, NATO's military forces have addressed CBRN issues as part of their military planning. But the question remains as to how NATO nations view the capability of their military forces and the contribution that these forces can make in dealing with the consequences of a domestic CBRN attack within one or several member countries. This paper provides insights into current thinking of NATO members--based on an informal survey of Alliance military attaches assigned to Washington, DC--regarding the planning, assets, and training for such a contingency.

The resulting snapshot of NATO CBRN capabilities suggests specific initiatives that should be considered within the Alliance to improve its collective response to a CBRN incident. Areas recommended for particular emphasis and further study include bolstering Alliance capabilities for biological and radiological contingencies; strengthening command and control and logistics capabilities; addressing the airlift shortfall; intensifying multilateral exercises; and creating an Alliance-wide mechanism for sharing lessons learned.

Terrorist bombings in Madrid and London, Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Southeast Asia, and the earthquake in Pakistan are all reminders of the importance of civil preparedness for domestic emergencies, whether natural or manmade. In recent years, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has made civil emergency response a higher priority to reflect the changing role of the Alliance and to contribute to the transformation of its forces. A number of studies have made the point, however, that no single comprehensive approach to civil emergency response exists within NATO. (1) Civil emergency preparedness remains a national responsibility, and Alliance members have distinct domestic governance structures, face different risks, and experience diverse cultural influences in the way they conduct their national business.

One domestic contingency that has received considerable attention from NATO members is the risk of attack by terrorists using chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) weapons. The occurrence of such events--whether accidental or deliberate--is certainly not hypothetical. The United States alone has experienced events that range from a partial reactor meltdown to anthrax attacks. Worldwide, there also is considerable experience with dealing with such crises.

One notable incident involved the release of anthrax (Bacillus anthracis) spores in 1979 in Sverdlovsk in the former Soviet Union. In that event, 96 people were hospitalized, 68 of whom died. (2) The Soviet government initially claimed that the deaths resulted from gastrointestinal anthrax caused by tainted meat. In 1992, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, President Boris Yeltsin confirmed what Western analysts had long suspected when he revealed that the incident was in fact caused by inhalation anthrax from an accidental spore release from a biological weapons facility. (3)

Also in 1979, the United States experienced its most serious radiological incident with the reactor accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. A failure in the nonnuclear part of the powerplant led to inadequate cooling and the melting of nuclear fuel pellets. Investigations by several well-respected organizations concluded that, despite serious damage to the reactor, most of the radiation had been contained and that the actual release had negligible effects on the physical health of individuals and the environment. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.