CBRN Threats

CBRN is an acronym for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear, which are the four weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In addition to WMD, there are also a range of non-WMD threats to civilian populations and military personnel. CBRN threats can be of a domestic or international nature. They are not a subject of speculation or paranoia, but an actual reality that must be addressed by all countries around the world.

Using the tools of science, NATO is addressing this threat in a number of ways. These include enhancing cooperation with the United Nations, enabling the Alliance to effectively leverage global reach and capabilities for effective deterrence and defence, and building and expanding NATO’s reachback capability through the CBRN Defence COE.

The terrorist threat posed by CBRN materials has never been greater. Terrorists are able to easily obtain dual-use chemicals and equipment, make use of recipes and instructional material available on the Internet and create crude devices for the purpose of conducting chemical/biological attacks. The proliferation of these types of WMD is being driven by innovation in the areas of materials, delivery systems and new means for concealing weaponry.

An attack by a terrorist group using CBRN would likely involve attacking soft targets in densely populated areas such as fairs, religious congregations, entertainment clubs and rallies. There is a distinct probability that such attacks could be coupled with the use of nuclear devices.

Such incidents result in the deaths of people and disruption to societies, and are difficult to contain and control. The effects can last long after the incident has ended, with survivors experiencing panic reactions and possibly post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor guilt syndrome.

In order to prevent such attacks, all states must adopt a comprehensive approach, with their own laws and policies on the subject. For example, the UK police and fire services have a dedicated unit tasked with dealing with these types of incidents.

During a cbrn incident, citizens can be exposed to poisonous gases or vapours that can penetrate the lungs and cause respiratory illness, toxins that can enter the bloodstream and kill or harm humans and animals and radiation from the vaporising of radioactive material. Such material can be absorbed via the skin, where it can cause sickness or death, or by ingestion, where the toxins enter the body through the mouth and nose.

NATO continues to build the capacities of its national military and civil defence forces through Education, Training and Exercises (ETEE) that are geared towards today’s CBRN threat. The Alliance also offers substantial support to NATO Allies in their efforts to educate and train national military and civil defence forces. This includes a unified training and education programme for the NATO CBRN defence mission.