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The End of the CBRN Taboo

A new era in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defence and deterrence is emerging with the threat landscape in Europe. Nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation treaties promised peace to the citizen across the world. 

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Defence Industry
1 December 2022
Rowena Judd
5 minutes

“Man seeks drama and excitement; when he cannot get satisfaction on a higher level, he creates for himself the drama of destruction,” Erich Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destruction (1973).



A new era in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defence and deterrence is emerging with the threat landscape in Europe. Nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation treaties promised peace to the citizen across the world. Peace was promised implicitly, even from conventional war, yet today we are seeing Russia practising so-called offensive deterrence. Nuclear weapons, radiological accidents or chemical weapons are being brandished by Russia, not to deter an enemy attack on its own soil, but to cover and support its invasion of a sovereign state, Ukraine. The Russian state continually and explicitly reminds the world that it will consider nuclear escalation as an option. A dangerous precedent has been set. Weapons that have been taboo for decades are now being used as blatant threats.

The use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), for the most part chemical and nuclear weapons, has been rare since World War 2. They were taboo and deterrence has kept CBRN weapons off the international battlefield. The same cannot be said for civil wars, where the use of chemical weapons as a means of domestic riot control is exempted from the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)ii . Rogue states have used chemical weapons on political dissenters outside their own borders, testing publicly and openly, the resolve of nations seeking to enforce non-proliferation. The volume of non state actors in conflicts has burgeoned, and with them, so has the risk of CBRN, as many of these weapons are cost-effective and easy to deploy. The spectre of a nuclear threat or even conflict, and consequent mass radiological exposure of civilians has new intensity with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and its intimidating posturing towards the West. In the Asia Pacific context, China has doubled its military budget since 2012.

The increased proliferation of CBRN weapons is a global concern as the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and the ease of procurement enables them to be rapidly and effectively incorporated into grey zone operations. Grey-zone warfare can be broadly defined as the exploitation of the operational space between peace and war to change the status quo through the use of coercive actions that remain below a threshold that, in most cases, would prompt a conventional military response. They are deniable, more often associated with cyber but can be combined with a conventional attack during state-on-state conflict.

Common characteristics of most CBRN agents is that they are difficult to recognize or detect once released. A biological agent, for example cannot be seen or felt. As a result, it may be difficult to recognise or confirm exposure, with delays or difficulties in attribution, and in determining the type of agent involved or the extent of the adverse health effects in those exposed.

The main threat of CBRN weapons is their potential immediate and long-term health effects on those exposed. The effects range from mild irritation and sickness to severe illness or death. CBRN agents have four properties in common which influence a military and civilian response: toxicity, latency, persistency, and transmissibility. The impact on morale and public resolve should not be understated.

Conventional theory on use of CBRN weapons is that they are effective against less-well trained, less well-equipped military forces. They are horrifically effective against civilians who have no ability to 2 protect themselves at all. This opens the use of grey-zone warfare to undermine a nation’s will to support military operations. Equally, CBRN weapons delivering a similar operational effect to multiple conventional weapons, by creating timely tactical advantage could become a more popular option to our adversaries.

This paper will address the issue of taboo, some of the threats CBRN poses, examples of the measures being taken against the threat, and the reasons for stepping up counter-proliferation efforts and defensive countermeasures.


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