CBRN Defense is Back


By Col. Friedrich Aflenzer

Project Officer for CBRN defense at the European Defence Agency, Col. Friedrich Aflenzer, discusses the Agency’s recent initiatives after CBRN defense was included as one of the 22 EU Capability Development Priorities.

In 2018, CBRN defense was not at the heart of the EU Capability Development Plan (CDP) and its priorities. CBRNe – the combination of CBRN defense and explosive ordnance disposal capabilities – merited only a mention. That reflected the lack of urgency felt by the European Defence Agency’s (EDA) Member States for the need for CBRN.

A lot has changed in Europe since then. With the war in Ukraine, EU countries and their populations sense a heightened threat. The EDA has also been affected by the shift, and the number of EDA Member States has now risen to 27, as Denmark joined the Agency in 2023, meaning that all EU Member States are now also EDA Member States. Furthermore, all EU defense ministers sit on the EDA Steering Board.

CBRN’s return to prominence began with CDP revision. The Steering Board initiated the review of the Capability Development Plan and the EU Capability Development Priorities in July 2022 in an 18-month process. It is important to highlight that the EU Capability Development Plan is not a document, but rather a process of which the EU Capability Development Priorities are the most tangible outcome.

The Plan Explained

The Capability Development Plan addresses short, medium, and long-term capability needs. It has four inputs, known as Strands, including two with the EDA as the penholder, and two with the EU Military Staff as the penholder. 

The EU Military Staff work on Strand A and Strand C. The former is the Headline Goal Process identifying the critical shortfalls from a force planning perspective, and the latter focuses on including the lessons learned from missions and operations. Observations from the war in Ukraine have featured prominently in this strand.

Parallel to this, the EDA is responsible for Strands B and D. Strand B is the Long-Term Capability Assessment to identify key future strategic environment factors, future capability requirement areas, and technology groups that Member States need to focus on to support the development of defense and security capabilities. Strand D considers the potential for cooperation based on entries in the EU cooperation database.

All deliverables are validated by Member States in the Capability Development Plan team community, where each Member State has a representative. In fact, in this case, the EDA received over 180 comments from Member States on the final draft of the priorities.

The common theme of this revision was to define clear, concise, actionable, impactful, and time-limited priorities.

The Strategic Compass objectives and the lessons learned from the war in Ukraine have played a prominent role in shaping revised priorities, although future engagements should not be anticipated or prepared for only based on past and current wars.

It is particularly important that the specific requirements stemming from the EU’s new Rapid Deployment Capacity and the Interim High Impact Capability Goals are properly addressed, ensuring a higher degree of consistency.

The drafting of the 2023 Priorities also took into consideration available information on NATO capability development efforts, evolutions of concepts, and the “single set of forces” principle, thereby ensuring that these priorities remained as coherent as possible with NATO. 

All the considerations and influences led to a doubling of the priorities to 22 in contrast to those of the 2018 EU CDP. These 22 priorities address both operational realities and future threats and challenges. They represent the appropriate mix between reaffirmed and new priorities, between the qualitative and the quantitative dimensions, and between short-term and long-term perspectives.

Furthermore, the level of detail ensures clear guidance but also the needed flexibility during implementation. The priorities capture those next generation capabilities that are vital to bolstering European military capacity across all domains. Fourteen priorities were defined for the five military domains (Ground Combat Capabilities, Naval Combat & Maritime Interdiction, Air Combat Platforms & Weapons​, Space Operations, and Cyber Defense), plus eight for the Strategic Enablers and Force Multipliers.

All 22 of the 2023 EU Capability Development Priorities, © European Defence Agency

CBRN Back in the Picture

CBRN defense is a new priority in the EU CDP, within the “Strategic Enablers and Force Multipliers” domain. This priority was examined and assessed in detail, and the EU Member States described its content as encompassing “the capability for the upgrade and development of advanced individual and collective protection methods and systems against future evolving CBRN hazards and threats”.

The CDP revision underlined that advanced detection and identification, as well as new decontamination methods, will increase survivability and sustainability. In addition, the establishment of an automated EU wide network of CBRN data from all available sources will support this ambition.

CBRN defense must be considered as a full spectrum capability requirement for hybrid response capabilities, crisis management operations, and high-intensity confrontations. For CBRN situational awareness, the networking of sensors, Europe-wide transmission of data, and automated processing are deemed essential, leading to a real-time situational picture and a forecast of the spread of the threat.

Like every other priority, CBRN defense has been assigned different key areas that need to be developed in the future to close capability gaps. In the case of CBRN defense, four Key Areas have been defined. These are:

Enhanced Sensors and Advanced Materials

Nanotechnology offers significant opportunities for the development of miniature sensors capable of detecting hazardous particles with negligible energy consumption. Likewise, other material technologies, such as self-decontaminating surfaces, are also expected to provide further active protection against persistent and evolving CBRN threats. Field identification through easy-to-use, hand-held systems lead to confirmed threat identification and facilitate the initiation of targeted countermeasures.

CCE radio and antenna, © CBRN SaaS/RSS Industry Consortium

CBRN-related Data Networking and Automation

The integration of CBRN advanced sensor and detection/identification devices into other platforms such as small autonomous vehicles or drones will be key to facilitating the accomplishment of several CBRN tasks by using robotics and autonomous systems. These could be used while operating in CBRN hazard areas, conducting CBRN reconnaissance tasks, or transporting hazardous materials, thereby enabling CBRN reconnaissance and surveillance procedures in zones where human sensor carriers cannot be sent due to the threat. The Europe-wide networking of the relevant CBRN data using artificial intelligence for analysis will increase the quality of the real-time CBRN situational picture.

Improved and Innovative Recovery and Decontamination Methods and Equipment

All forces, including specialized CBRN defense units, will need modularity, multifunctionality, and scalability to reduce costs and limit dependence on specific-purpose platforms. They will also need to be able to rapidly recover and restore affected personnel and equipment, and will require materiel to strengthen their resilience against evolving CBRN threats. The focus will remain on environmentally sound procedures and methods that ensure both legal and standard-based decontamination and full decontamination success.

Common Defense Approach to Explosive Ordnance Threats with CBRN Involvement

A common CBRN defense and EOD approach is required to deal with improvised and/or conventional ordnance with additional chemical or radioactive agents. Jointly developed procedures and methods, including joint training, exercises, and adapting equipment, will contribute significantly to effectively confronting the CBRNe threat.

CBRN Reconnaissance and Surveillance System, based on a Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) initiative, © CBRN SaaS/RSS Industry Consortium

EDA Initiatives “CBRN-Knowledgebase”, “Live Agent Training”, and “CBRN SaaS”

Making the EU CDP a reality will depend on joint efforts. The capabilities demanded by politicians must be developed or improved to strengthen the defense capability of the EU against CBRN threats, and to protect soldiers and the civilian population alike.

For this reason, the EDA began processing at an early stage and took initial steps. Different projects linked to the Priority and Key Areas were embarked upon together with Member States and selected organizations with which the EDA already cooperates professionally. These initiatives are:

CBRN Knowledgebase

A CBRN Knowledgebase is being developed together with the Joint CBRN Defence Centre of Excellence and a contract has been concluded with the Spanish company Bilbomatica. The database will become a website that can be used by everyone and will massively reduce the time it takes to find usable and available information. This CBRN Knowledgebase will facilitate search and research into CBRN defense matters and make validated and verified data available. The CBRN Knowledgebase will be ready for use at the end of November 2024.

CBRN Live Agent Training for CBRNe Specialists and Teams

CBRN Live Agent Training for specialists and teams will be developed together with the Framework Nations Concept/Cluster CBRN Protection, and will be based on the training needs analysis, learning, and activation goals required to ensure that performance gaps are defined and training opportunities systematically provided. The first pilot training is scheduled to take place in autumn 2024.

Unmanned Ground System Sensor Pod, © CBRN SaaS/RSS Industry Consortium

CBRN Surveillance as a Service (CBRN SaaS)

CBRN SaaS is the EDA’s flagship project in the CBRN defense area and started in 2019. Member States launched a joint capability and technology development project to establish a sensor network consisting of unmanned aerial systems and unmanned ground systems. 

CBRN SaaS will be interoperable with legacy systems to provide a recognized CBRN picture that augments existing common operational pictures used for EU missions and operations. The project plan foresees three main phases: design, prototyping, and testing. CBRN SaaS is currently in the testing phase. 

The industry consortium developed a Technological Demonstrator, field-tested by the contributing Member States. Under the umbrella of PESCO, the first phase to achieve initial operational capability will end on May 31, 2024. Afterwards the second phase to achieve full operational capability will be conducted.

The EDA will tackle the implementation of the EU CDP’s CBRN defense priority with full commitment and will successfully complete the project that has already begun. Further projects that serve the Member States will follow and be treated with equal commitment in line with the EDA motto “Stronger Together”.

Col. Friedrich Aflenzer is a Project Officer in CBRN defense at the Capability, Armament and Planning Directorate at the European Defence Agency.

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