The past couple of weeks have seen two very different articles/papers come out on the future of CBRN devices. On the one hand is a paper by Seth Baum on ‘Winter-safe deterrence’ (here ) and on the other is an article by Hamish DeBretton Gordon on the attraction of using chlorine as a weapon against mass transit (here and here ). Let’s be clear up front, I appreciate that they are two VERY different pieces, one an academic think piece and the other is designed for a mainstream audience. The reason that I think that they are worth comparison is that they have, in their own way, caused some upset and discussion.

Seth Baum, in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists started a debate, and ruffled quite a few feathers, suggesting that a variety of other agents could be used for strategic deterrent in much the same that nuclear weapons are, but without quite such catastrophic results for non-combatant nations. It is a thought-provoking piece, and worth the read, but it has caused consternation amongst supporters of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, who see it as advocating the use of biological weapons under certain circumstances.

By comparison the 2 Paragraph piece, as well as The Daily Mail, USA Today, et al, article takes a lot of historical information, some current events and a certain amount of speculation, and welds it into a non-specific concern over sporting events and mass transit. CBRN, and especially law enforcement, operatives have not greeted this with delight, fearing that it encourages the use of chemical/TICs devices.

In a community as small as CBRN/C-WMD it is not surprising that such pieces cause strong debate, albeit from different ends of the spectrum (academic think piece vs tomorrow’s chip wrapper), because the community is so small. What worries me more is the lack of strong political/strategic support/outrage on either of them. NBC was often construed as ‘NoBody Cares’ and CBRN as ‘Can’t be Bothered Right Now,’ and neither of these pieces have gathered political momentum - there is neither a lobby case for stockpiles of bacillus anthracis or chlorine detectors on the underground (or to be trite, as per the Daily Mail article, emergency cloths pre-soaked in urine!). Neither of them have set an agenda.

Of the two I would be far more concerned about the findings of the Baum paper being taken up. Nuclear weapons have held a horrific fascination since 1945 and this is fixed in the mind of the population in a way that anthrax, or other potential methods, are not - it provides a deterrence effect from the lowliest to highest in the land. Without that deterrence we may see military leaders more tempted to put their finger on the button: that history might judge them ‘right’. That said I think the Baum paper raises an interesting debate, pokes at some Holy Cows and stops the academic world becoming reified. Unfortunately DeBretton Gordon’s piece is only going to encourage the attack that he claims he is most desperate to avoid. 

As a magazine dedicated to raising awareness and increasing understanding about CBRN devices, we have long struggled with the debate over what constitutes ‘useful debate.’ There is no clear line, and if senior leaders read The Daily Mail and decide that they need to fund CBRN defence better then it is a good thing (though one could argue that the Graham/Talent Report did much the same thing, with more class, and we still didn’t see an increase), alternately if it encourages Jihadi’s to pop into their local hardware store and buy gallons of chlorine then it is most decidedly a bad thing. It is worth not being too sensitive about articles like the Daily Mail, both Gary Ackerman’s Jihadists and WMD and Sternesen’s AQ’s Quest for WMD suggest, it takes a certain mentality to decide to use a CBR device, rather than a handgun or IED. With the 100 year anniversary of chlorine being used in conflict we should not be surprised that this type of piece emerged.

For me what makes an article on CBRN valuable is progressing the CBRN debate, adding something to the pot of knowledge that wasn’t there before. There will always be the need for news, coverage of something that has just happened, but, as we continually see in Syria, you need to be very careful about offering any analysis. I would suggest that the Baum article raises interesting points for debate, I could not say the same for the ‘chlorine on the underground’ piece.’

  • Follow us on Twitter
  • Subscribe to CBRNe news

View articles by date