IEDs: Live Agent and Delivery System Developments


By Fritz Pfeiffer

Researcher at the Büro für Umweltgeologie & Sicherheitsforschung in Germany Fritz Pfeiffer discusses results from recent IED trials with simulants and the challenges they pose.

Nowadays we frequently observe less than satisfactory stories on the illicit availability and use of live chemical agents. Despite OPCW goals being reached, there is not much space for optimism of any kind. Enormous amounts of dumped chemical munitions in various states of decay still offer sources to profit from.

New techniques of preparing microencapsulated agents or modifications of existing delivery systems are the current concern and research issue at the Büro für Umweltgeologie & Sicherheitsforschung / Office for Environmental Geology & Security Research (BfUS). Although a sensitive topic, we can reveal some results from trials with simulants and the challenges they pose.

For the targets affected, the ease of negating protective envelopes is evident as reasonably small improvised explosive devices (IEDs) can penetrate up to 500 mm of reinforced concrete, or 250 mm Rolle Homogenous Armor (RHA), and still deliver significant amounts of agent into small volumes up to 30m³.  

Equally disturbing are simple homemade subtypes of shaped charges with significantly smaller maximum penetration, but capability to deliver comparatively large volumes of agents. They can contaminate up to 100 m³, with excessive contamination both on and behind the point of entry.

Live Agent Developments

  • The Novichok Group (N-Group)

    This a relatively new group of Soviet-developed nerve agents with a characteristic phosphorous-nitrogen-carbon bond. There exist several different judgments on the toxicological and physical properties of N-Group members. At the very least, one can to some extent reconstruct the timeline of the appearance of N-Group live agent members before and after the fall of the Iron Curtain. 
Appearance of information about and/or samples of N-Group members in military use.

Contrary to public opinion, knowledge of the latest Eastern Bloc nerve agents – either unitary or binary – came to NATO only after the Eastern Bloc’s collapse. It is notable that all Eastern Bloc army CBRN-labs held samples to identify friendly or enemy nerve agent release. Therefore, adequate reference was present at an army level, but usually not below. These are samples whose study has become of increased interest in the West.

The chart above shows the flow of information from open literature related to interest in organic chemical structures with an element composition and bonds later found in the N–Group of live agents by a then member of the agent development team.

  • Synthetic Opioids: Fentanyl- and Nitazene-Groups 

The threat from these solids can be derived from their minimal effective dose and rapid onset of effects. Meanwhile, thermostability is necessary for a number of dispersal systems. Moderate shockwaves yield particle clouds well within the range to penetrate breathing systems. In the form of cruder dusts, .177 projectiles as well as larger .68 caliber polymer balls can be filled with these agents.

A dust-filled .68 ball without a wax cover, © BfUS
Blocks of gelatin with “contaminated” .177 projectiles, © BfUS
A .177 projectile back, filled with crystalline simulant; agent emulsion from a .68 sphere; and a hollowed .68 polymer sphere with dust simulant, © BfUS

Delivery System Developments

  • Bundled Dynamite Cartridges with Carbamates (Jalisco Nueva Generation Cartel) 

    This spring, Mexican authorities discovered a set of chemical IEDs arranged in daisy chain mode with pull wire leads acting on electrical detonators. The dispersal charges consisted of two dynamite cartridges and two glass bottles with tin caps holding an unspecified carbamate. This kind of design indicates how organized crime approaches combining IEDs with CBRN elements.
  • Flash Powder Pyrotechnics/Pressure Cooker

Given the ubiquity of flash powder explosive all over Europe and the comparative ease of its illicit acquisition, we undertook a series of dispersal tests with Mustard simulant. From a thermodynamical perspective this seemed to be a poor choice in the first place, and the heat generated in formation indicated it is.

But, as usual, the design of the IED determines the outcome. The picture below shows a very successful dispersal test, with said pyrotechnics in their neat state inside the cooker. The simulant was placed outside at a 90° angle.

A dispersal trial with a pressure cooker (including approx. 1kg flash charge)  and 2 liters of H Simulant with adjusted viscosity, © BfUS

The result was a vertical plume of severely burned pyrotechnical constituents and a column of heat above 1500°C, which is no environment for the H simulant to survive. However, the fire column left the nearby radial area almost unaffected. Meanwhile, contamination in the area where the simulant was placed remarkably reached 17m. Further trials confirmed a range envelope with easily detectable contamination of up to 20m from Ground Zero.

We can therefore state that preparing the explosives and filling the cooker of the IED can be done in under five minutes. The units containing agent can be conveniently and quickly positioned, while contamination is significant and even. The handling of the chemical agent is much more complex, however.

  • 12-Gauge Fentanyl Tablet Shot 

    Another method of dispersal at individuals or small groups is shown in the next picture below. Although the 12-gauge ammunition in the picture allows practical ranges of 10-15 meters, individual targets may be hit at distances of 9-10 meters without a shot cup.
12-gauge ammunition with tablets containing fentanyl simulant, © BfUS
  • 12-Gauge Shaped Charge with Riot Control Agent (RCA) Cast into Eutectic Mixture with Energetic Filler

Energetic materials can form eutectic mixtures with some RCAs and thus be cast to the most efficient density as is done with TNT, or TNT-CE-Mixtures. The mix of RCA with pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) can be realized quite simply and gives proven good results.

Penetration of 30 mm Steel by a 12-Gauge shaped charge projectile, © BfUS

The potential for small caliber projectiles, such as a 12-gauge, cannot be overlooked when it comes to the moderate consumption of energetic material and RCA into one unit. Penetration is decreased by around 30% but even for a 12-gauge, remarkable potential remains.

After the passage of the jet quite a volume of RCA in its finest particle sizes can follow through the vacuum, with immediate effect to all individuals without respiratory protection in, for example, a vehicle. Concrete penetration does suffer too but seems to retain around 80% of the penetration power. Due to the comparatively cool gas formation behind the projectile, a significant portion of the admixed agent is effective. The mass of the projectile has ballistic limitations due to its flat trajectory.

  • 2” Directional Charge with Large Volume H Simulant to Defeat Vehicle Armor

In these trials, the use of H simulant was required as releasing live agents is prohibited on most ranges. For proper observation of agent distribution, a simulant liquid was chosen resembling the viscosity of H simulate of technical grade purity.

Trials to reveal the threat to armored vehicles have led to unexpected results. Specially designed shaped charges holding small energetic charges in their back and large volumes of agent in the front are capable of shooting the latter through thin armor plate at tremendous velocity. High-speed film indicates an entirely liquid projectile traveling at 600-800 meters/sec. 

For an H simulant, this specific mode of action indicates that 10-15% of agent next to the energetic charge are readily destroyed by the sizeable conflagration on the plate. In the same stroke, due to the stark temperature gradient, we observed reformation of molecular fragments, readily forming higher mustards on the surface of the target, and leaving not too much gas for immediate detection outwards.

Pictures from a test using a large agent volume shaped charge against vehicle targets, © BfUS

The setup is comparably cool for most of the penetration process, rarely exceeding 600°C. The flame front may reach up to 1200°C, however. In the end one significant result was that simple setups can be made from plastic funnels or printed cones, with limited penetration.

That deficit can easily be rectified by the application of more agent resisting lead or steel cones. Copper does very well too, aluminium alloys not so much. Zinc is better omitted too. In between stand liners made up of metal powders and epoxy resin, the latter are simply built and reasonably cool in gas formation and agent tight construction.

Analytical Problem with Dumped Soviet CWA Simulant 

In 2018, we had to investigate the contents of a large steel drum that was exceptionally well made. The picture below shows a once-green Soviet Army live agent container. A white square shows a skull and bones as well as “Warning” and “Poison” written in Russian. One central 50mm spout hole is the only access.

A Soviet chemical agent container dumped near Ludwigslust, Germany, © BfUS 

As the hole was no longer accessible a special drill apparatus was used to create a 6mm sampling port that was to be closed by a steel screw with lead covered threads after sampling. During the sampling process and back in the lab we constantly observed Sarin alarms from the Ion-Mobility-Spectrometer and a strong phosphorous alarm from flame spectrometry.

The final picture shows the reaction under the lab hood. Mass spectroscopy took a number of runs to detect what turned out to be a diesel/CN mixture after all. No phosphorous, let alone Sarin, was present in the barrel.

A GB alert from contents of the dumped Soviet chemical agent container, © BfUS 


Old agents and not so old modes of delivery and dispersal may create a localized high potential threat to protected volumes, be these stationary or mobile. Detection is always a viable option, though mostly ex-post.

Fritz Pfeiffer is a CBRNe expert in analytics and counterterrorism at the National Infocentre of Chemical Warfare Agents, and conducts research at the Büro für Umweltgeologie & Sicherheitsforschung.

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