“Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous” – The challenges of the CBRNE environment

This article is sponsored by Battelle

There’s an acronym used by federal leaders in the business of preventing or responding to Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive attacks: VUCA. It stands for “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous,” it describes the CBRNE operational environment, and they agree that it’s only getting more apt.

“The nature of the threat is an abiding one,” said Maj. Gen. Richard Galant, commander of Joint Task Force Civil Support at U.S. Northern Command. “When the nuclear age started we had enough for two bombs. Now, with the civil nuclear fuel cycle, you have hundreds of metric tons around the world.”

That’s why he says it’s so important for various tiers of government, from federal down to local, to be coordinated and aligned when responding to such an attack. And government agencies also need to keep aware of private sector innovations in order to leverage the latest technologies.

And while Galant is working to ensure everything is in place in case of an attack, Jay Tilden, associate administrator and deputy undersecretary for counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration, is working just as hard to prevent one from happening in the first place.

“We try to play that far game to try to prevent,” he said. “We want to prevent nuclear material going loose, we want to prevent other people’s devices from getting out of control, and we want to prevent terrorist going after nuclear materials.”

They agree that threat streams are increasing, and have been for some time. The Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency added a chemical and biological defense division after the 2001 anthrax attacks. Jon Fischer, its director, says the division is constantly working to adapt defense technology to civilian use, because the military technology doesn’t always work in the civilian world.

For example, he said, a chemical detector could be set off by cleaning solvents.

“So there might be an enclosure where a janitor passes by with an open bottle of cleaning solvent, and it will set the detector off,” Fischer said. “And then you’re clearing out a metro station.”

Another key focus of Fischer’s is the time it takes between a detector sensing illicit materials to agency response.

“The point that a technology detects nuclear material, detects the release of something, if it’s a malevolent act, you’ve already missed it, and you’re already playing the catch-up game,” he said.

Meanwhile, CJ Johnson, assistant director of product acquisition and deployment directorate at the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office has another reason to want faster detection capabilities: trade. Much of his agency’s preventive detection takes place at ports of entry and land border crossing, and lengthy inspections can inhibit legal trade.

“So we want to try to keep the nation safe, but we don’t want to slow down licit streams of commerce,” he said. “So we want to be accurate … but at the same time you want to be fast. You want to be rapid and accurate in detecting something of concern.”