The Defense CBRN Center


Shaping the Dutch Response to CBRN Threats through Cooperation and Modernization

By Captain (R) P. (Pepijn) Kuyper, Communications Officer, Defense CBRN Center, Netherlands

The threat for a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear incident

Over the years, the development and proliferation of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons have continued to progress. Unfortunately, non-proliferation treaties have (often) not stopped the progression and proliferation of CBRN agents and –knowledge. Globalization is one of the prevalent causes of proliferation as information and expertise on CBRN is no longer bound by national borders. The failure to contain the spread of knowhow about these weapons has caused a potentially threatening situation for nations seeking to prevent CBRN incidents from occurring. Politically unstable regimes have CBRN agents in their arsenal, and even non-governmental (terroristic) groups have obtained the intent and know-how to deploy CBRN-agents to further their objectives. These risks are being reinforced by technological advancements that enable new production and distribution methods of CBRN agents. Finally, worldwide industrialization combined with the use of toxic industrial materials (TIM’s) creates the potential for (intentional) CBRN incidents.

It is clear that contemporary developments in the CBRN domain are cause for concern for those trying to mitigate the risk and impact of CBRN-incidents. Therefore, it is vital for nations and institutions to come up with a future-proof strategy on how to deal with this dynamic threat.

The Defense CBRN Center

Located in Vught, The Netherlands, the Defense CBRN Center (DCBRNC) provides knowledge, education, training, and operational support in the CBRN domain for military personnel and first responders. This way, the center plays an essential role in preparing CBRN specialists and other first responders to the occurrence of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents. Moreover, by providing support and advice for emergency services and other impacted actors, mistakes can be avoided, and lives can be saved in the heat of the moment.

In order to provide these services, the center has a multi-disciplinary team of specialized military and civilian personnel. Besides the Dutch military, representatives of the police, health services, safety regions and fire department are present to enhance civil-military cooperation. Moreover, the center employs several civilian CBRN specialists and academics, including from TNO (the Netherlands Organisation for applied scientific research) to improve research on CBRN related topics. Finally, the Defense CBRN Center has military liaisons from Germany and Belgium to improve international cooperation and exchange know-how and knowledge.

Educating and training CBRN response at Europe’s largest CBRN training facility

The CBRN School of the Defense CBRN Center plays a pivotal role in educating CBRN responders. To achieve this, the DCBRNC offers courses taught by employed specialists on chemical, biological and radiological agents. However, knowledge is not all, since one needs to be able to apply it. Therefore, the center offers practical and theoretical knowhow, i.e., schooling and training.

In order to provide adequate and realistic training scenarios, the Defense CBRN Center houses Europe’s largest CBRN training facility. The National Training Center CBRN (NTC CBRN) has over 35 training settings that represent likely locations where a CBRN incident could occur. These settings include a shopping street, container terminal, restaurant, supermarket, post office, chemical and biological laboratory, hospital, highway, drugs lab, collapsed building and a living room and kitchen. Additionally, specialists can even train their CBRN response in a cinema, airplane cabin and a complete metro station. To make training conditions even more realistic, temperature can be regulated, and CS-gas and smoke machines can be deployed. Finally, chemical simulants and radiological sources can be planted on the location for Detection Identification and Monitoring (DIM) specialists and sampling units to find and identify.

Civilian and Military Responders training together on the NTC CBRN
Civillian and Military Responders training together on the NTC CBRN

Research and expertise on CBRN

The Defense CBRN Center aims to be a meeting place for research and expertise on CBRN. The center’s Defense Expertise Center (DEC) CBRN embodies this objective. Academics and specialists from both the civilian and military domain closely work together to improve our understanding of CBRN agents and countermeasures. Continuing such an endeavor is critical, since the CBRN threat remains dynamic. The DEC works closely together with other research institutions and its counterparts from other nations. Besides acquiring and sharing knowledge on CBRN, the center also uses its expertise to advise actors on CBRN-related issues and consequently helps shape policy and doctrines. For example, the DEC plays a central role in the European Defense Agency’s push to modernize (among other things) CBRN equipment by providing the agency with expert insights into equipment requirements. Additionally, the expertise center has been investing in (the testing of) bio detectors due to the contemporary bio threat. This threat has been exemplified by the coronavirus outbreak. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the DEC advised health organizations on required counter-measures against the coronavirus. Finally, the DEC constantly receives information on changes in the CBRN threat to adjust CBRN protocols accordingly. This way, the Defense CBRN Center plays a pivotal role in shaping both national and international (e.g. NATO) CBRN defense procedures and capabilities.

Responding to CBRN incidents

The Defense CBRN Center has a specialized unit, ready to respond to CBRN incidents 24/7.. The CBRN Response Unit supports civilian emergency services and organizations with the response to (the threat of) a CBRN incident. The unit has an Advice & Assistance (A&A) team that advices affected responders and organizations, a Detection Identification and Monitoring (DIM) unit that detects, identifies and monitors CBRN-agents after an incident, and a decontamination unit that is capable of decontaminating equipment and critical infrastructure.

CBRN Response Unit of the Defense CBRN Center

In order to safely respond to CBRN incidents, the CBRN Response Unit has modernized its equipment. DIM units have a reconnaissance vehicle at their disposal. From within this vehicle, measurements can be safely conducted; even when on the move. If needed, scouts can exit the vehicle in protective suits to conduct further analyses with their detectors. However, this does expose personnel to working in a potential hazardous environment. To mitigate the risks, the unit also has a tracked robot designed to conduct reconnaissance missions at a distance. Using a camera, an operator from within the reconnaissance vehicle can navigate the robot towards the incident location. The robot can be equipment with different detectors that detect chemical and radiological substances. This enables the DIM team to assess the situation on the ground and to adjust their plan accordingly.

Reconnaissance vehicle and robot of the CBRN Response Unit

The CBRN Response Unit has been deployed numerous times. From a suspected suitcase with an unknown hazardous substance at Schiphol Airport to inspecting a package containing an unknown powdery substance at the Military Postal Organization in Utrecht.

The Defense CBRN Center is both nationally and internationally a renowned educational institute in the field of CBRN. However, in order to stay relevant, it is paramount to modernize our education to adapt to the changing learning environment. One has to be able to think outside the box when confronted with unexpected crises that infringe on an institution’s educational capabilities.

The need for modernization

The corona crisis has taught us that one cannot solely rely on physical services. Accordingly, the Defense CBRN Center is (considering) implementing new services to stay relevant in the ever-changing CBRN domain. Or as the commander of the center addresses the matter: “The Defense CBRN Center is both nationally and internationally a renowned educational institute in the field of CBRN. However, in order to stay relevant, it is paramount to modernize our education to adapt to the changing learning environment. One has to be able to think outside the box when confronted with unexpected crises that infringe on an institution’s educational capabilities.” – Lieutenant-colonel Van Wijk.

Lieutenant-colonel A.P. (André) van Wijk EMSD – Commander Defense CBRN Center

Adding the third dimension to digital learning

Situations can arise in which instructors and students are not able to physically interact (e.g., the COVID19 pandemic). Consequently, courses have to be canceled or altered in such a way that only a limited number of people can participate in programs. To still be able to educate CBRN-responders, the DCBRNC aims to offer courses in a digital environment. Whereas normal ‘E-learnings’ can be a helpful tool for distance learning, although limited in their educative potential. Therefore, the Defense CBRN Center considers using 3D, 360° and virtual reality in its curricula. This way, students could be digitally confronted with CBRN incidents and response (e.g., 360°-filming the procedure of a DIM team in a CBRN incident setting). Adding this immersive educative domain could help prepare participants deal with CBRN incidents adequately. Of course, implementing such technologies does not replace the added value of a real-life physical training setting. Nonetheless, it can prove to be a valuable educational addition.

About the Author

Pepijn Kuyper is a communications officer at the Defense CBRN Center. Prior to this fulfilling job, he was a corporal in the army reserves. He holds a master’s degree in crisis and security management and a bachelor’s degree in political science with a focus on security and intelligence studies.

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