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CRBN Operations and Industrial Scale Production/State Sponsored Programs

CRBN Operations and Industrial Scale Production/State Sponsored Programs

Inside the Isfahan, Iran Uranium Conversion Facility. Image Source: FARS News Agency.

The most difficult problem in evaluating state level programs and industrial scale production facilities is their sheer size and complexity. These programs require evaluation by accomplished engineers and other specialists with skills in production and process design. A common mistake in the CBRN community is to use "scientists" like chemists and biologists who have not worked in industry against these targets. That can lead to significant problems, especially as you scale processes up from the lab to production or state level programs. Lab trained scientists, or those from academia who lack the necessary industrial knowledge set, can make significant errors when confronted with advanced production facilities.

Instead, for chemical operations, chemists with experience in the petro-chemical industry are especially useful, especially if they worked in organo-phosphate production or other CW precursor or dual use related industries. For biological operations the range of individual skill sets varies depending on the target, but individuals with experience in the pharmaceutical industry, bio-tech. and bio-production (i.e. industries that grow or use bacteria in their process) are all useful, though virologists, epidemiologists, specialists in specific diseases, and medical researchers all have a role to play. Oddly enough, those with experience in breweries or with an understanding of brewing science can also be a helpful resource as the process of fermentation they study is applicable to some bio-weapons processes. 

Complicating matters beyond an expertise level, many chemical and biological production processes and facilities can be “dual use.” A plant can go from producing pre-cursor or agent, to producing commercial and dual use chemicals in the span of 24 hours. Likewise, biological facilities utilizing fermenters and driers can go from pharmaceutical production to bio-warfare and back again in relatively short order. Multiple sites may be involved in state sponsored program. Traditional intelligence means, including imagery collection, signals intelligence, cyber-espionage, and human intelligence are all useful in determining the size, scope, and scale of a state sponsored program, but it is extraordinarily difficult to prove something without hard evidence, which is usually not forthcoming.

Like laboratory exploitation, the most important information gathered on state sponsored programs is usually not CBRN material. Computer data, documents, blueprints, weapon designs, signal intercepts, interviews and debriefings, observations of deliveries and vehicle traffic, personnel rosters, and other comings and goings are much more important to gaining an understanding of process and answering similar questions to those in the small scale/lab scale targets. Here expertise is again key. Interviews and debriefings of individuals involved in a state run program require experts that can speak at the same professional level. The problem is that these kind of CRBN operations often assume things, instead of asking “What are they doing here?” They ask “Are they making (nuclear/sarin/anthrax) bombs?” The latter question is leading and problematic, a conundrum that will be addressed here, and in another post.

As discussed in previous posts, clandestine operations against these sites are not something I will cover here and the application of National Technical Means in support of such operations is self evident and well documented elsewhere. Overt collection by military or other government assets is rare for these programs. Only in post conflict scenarios, like post 1991 and 2003 in Iraq, or Germany in 1945 (Operation Paperclip), have such overt operations been performed. Overt operations in the form of inspections and verification are a key part of treaty verification by the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Warfare (OPCW) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the data they provide to member states is useful, as far as it goes. Taking apart an existing program that a state voluntarily terminates is something they are better at, and have experience in. The key problem for OPCW and IAEA inspections when dealing with a clandestine, state sponsored, offensive CBRN program is that they are limited to inspecting only what a country declares and allows them to inspect.  In addition, there are a number of states (for example Pakistan, North Korea) that are known proliferators and are not signatories to the Chemical Warfare Convention, Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, or both and are not therefore subject to inspections. There are also states that are treaty signatories, but that may also maintaining advanced, clandestine, offensive CBRN programs (Iran, China).

The number of programs that developed under the nose of inspections is a growing list, Iran being the most current. The Iranian example demonstrates the limitations of these treaty organizations in containing a state determined to develop offensive CBRN capabilities. Much of what the IAEA and the west knows about the Iranian enrichment program came not from Iranian declarations or inspections, but from the dissident group the National Council of Resistance of Iran,  that revealed key parts of the program over the years. These revelations, once confirmed, lead to IAEA and UN questions that forced Iran to declare or better hide parts of its programs after delaying and denying access to inspectors as long as it could. In addition, nothing that Iran has declared, to include its advanced enrichment program, specifically violates the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). While its actions are suspicious, particularly its enrichment above the 2-5% level, they are essentially building the necessary infrastructure to make nuclear weapons in the open, exposing the central hole in the middle of the NPT regime. When they have been observed or caught doing something that suggested a weapons program, they were quick to eliminate any further evidence, to include razing sites prior to allowing inspectors in.

Covert collection from state sponsored programs is a risky business, but not out of the question. For obvious reasons I won’t be getting into that either, other than to note that traditionally manned aircraft are used in air sampling for nuclear tests, a mission where I believe Unmanned Aerial Vehicles will likely see more, and broader use. Manned missions were more overt than covert and ran in international air space, UAVs open up new possibilities. In any case, the introduction of the worldwide monitoring system of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) adds an international layer to such collection operations, and makes many of the traditional nuclear detection platforms a secondary means of confirmation or platforms for additional information collection.

One of the final problems in state-level and industrial scale production of offensive CBRN, is the problem of attribution.  This is the effort to link an actor to a CBRN incident. For example, if a nuclear weapon was detonated by a terrorist organization, the likelihood is strong that they did not create that weapon and it came from a state actor, or was stolen from one. Linking the boom to the left of boom actor, is a key problem facing the CBRN community and the focus of much research and development. There are many worrisome offensive CBRN programs around the world (North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Egypt) where we cannot, or will not, do anything to stop them for a variety of reasons, from politics to the potential cost in blood and treasure.

Containment is not always effective either, because some of them are willing to share their material and knowledge with a variety of bad actors. For example, the Iraqi CW program likely evolved from assistance provided by the Syrians and Egyptians in the 1970s and 1980s. The Syrian CW program likely developed from the Egyptian program with Egypt helping Syria obtain their capability in the 1960s and 1970s. As perhaps the greatest example of "willful ignorance" discussed below, Egypt, since 1979, has had both an offensive CW program that it proliferated and has received billions of US dollars in military aid.  To add to the complications, the Egyptian CW program, and the Iraqi nuclear program, also had the assistance of German and French scientists!

Even though we may not act, that does not preclude gaining knowledge and insight about those programs, which can prove useful from an attribution standpoint. We see this playing out in Syria.  Whenever there is an incident involving chemicals (currently chlorine is popular) ISIS, al-Nusra, and the Free Syrian Army blame the Assad government, and the Assad government blames ISIS and al-Nusra.  Groups like the OPCW or intelligence operations might obtain information about the specific incident or the weapon used. Because chlorine is so prevalent however, it is impossible to attribute the act to one side or the other based on evidence like samples alone.

The same is true of any CBRN event where the actor behind it is not clear.  Such operations, combining information about the event with forensic data, are extraordinarily difficult, highly specialized, and may not succeed.  That does not mean, however, that a knowledge about a CBRN program might not be useful. The easiest comparison is the sort of C-IED information the BATFe and fusion cells in Iraq/Afghanistan collect to use in their forensic and attribution efforts. Certain device designs or impurity signatures may link an actor or a state to the weapon.

There are usually few PPE or decontamination requirements associated with exploitation and collection in state sponsored programs, except in post-conflict scenarios where there has been extensive damage or looting (where the same posture used in obvious missions applies), or in facility areas where workers typically adopt a Personal Protective Posture (and inspectors/collectors will copy it), so there is no point in addressing that area further.

For the average CRBN operator the likelihood of dealing with large-scale state sponsored programs is very low.  Iraq 2003-2004 showed the limitations of using existing government structures and assets to carry out such operations.  While new capabilities developed out of that experience, like the 20th Support Command and the Standing Joint Force HQ for Elimination (SJFHQ-E) , they remain relatively untested in this regard, and many of the lessons-learned in the days of the 75th Exploitation Task Force and Iraq Survey Group were lost or not shared. The history of those efforts was not sufficiently captured, a deficiency noted by MG Keith Dayton in January 2004 during a now declassified interview with the 9-11 Commission.

For those working in special units tasked with CBRN operations in counter-proliferation roles, or in a role with an international treaty organization, the real skill set is more about analysis and information collection than any kind of  CBRN Operation. The biggest problem with these missions is not the skill set of the operator/inspector, nor the limitations inherent to these sorts of operations. Rather, it is the extremely difficult problem of proving negatives.

Since 2004, there are no western politicians willing to risk being wrong about a CBRN program. That leads to a reluctance on the part of states to take action against would be proliferators (Iran and Syria being the current examples, along with North Korea).  More significant from the operations standpoint, it means having to prove conclusively something is happening, or that it is not. The first is less problematic if actual material evidence is available, i.e. clear chemical samples with a chain of custody or a nuclear test for example – though as noted in the previous posts,  in the case of the bombing in Sudan and Yellow Rain in Afghanistan, some of these can have provenance issues and are not always as conclusive as they appear.

There is also the problem of the “Big Lie,” as evidenced by the current situation in Ukraine.  “You have troops there!” “No, no Russian troops.” “But that guy is Russian.” “No, he is Ukrainian volunteer.” "He says he's from Moscow!" "He means Kiev." Another form of this kind of issue is the “see no evil” problem. That is what is currently playing out in Syria, where the use of chlorine by both sides goes unchallenged, even though it is a clear violation of the CWC, redlines, and whatever else you want to call it. Political expediency can lead to willful ignorance. Besides, there is no judge or jury to appeal to in international politics. Making a case, and doing something about it are two completely separate issues, and those problems are political not operational. Unfortunately, such political constraints seriously affect and constrain CBRN operations.

Proving the negative is almost impossible, especially if intelligence suggests otherwise. Unfortunately, the pressure on CBRN operators to do exactly that can be quite great. This was the key conundrum with Saddam. He wanted his neighbors in Iran and Saudi Arabia to think he still had a program, and the UN to think he didn’t.  Intelligence agencies around the world caught the signals Iraq was sending to its neighbors, in the form of IIS operations and shenanigans around the UN teams. Intelligence agencies across the world were convinced Saddam was up to something, they just differed on what to do about it. The shock of discovering that for the most part there was no significant CBRN program from 1992-2003, created a serious problem politically, but it also created a huge operational problem.

Proving the negative is impossible. There is always the possibility that something occurred and you missed it, and there are always those who are so committed to their analysis that they can’t see alternatives. They seek confirmation, not negation, and will “what-if” any contradictory evidence.

You can sum this problem up in the form of a short conversation:

“Did you find evidence of something happening?”


“Could something have happened?”

“Well, sure, I suppose, but we had no evidence of it.”

“So you can’t conclusively say nothing happened.”


“Aha, so something could have happened!”

“Yes, but we did not find any evidence of that.”

“But you can’t prove it didn’t.”

“No. But the evidence suggests –“

(You get the picture).

Breaking your way out of that convoluted bit of circular logic is the subject of our next post, so stay tuned!


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Duelfer, Charles. 2009. Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq. New York: Public Affairs.

Drielak, Steven C. 2004. Hot Zone Forensics: Chemical, Biological, and Radiological Evidence Collection. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

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Murch, Randall. 2012. Presentation: "Forensic Science Applied to CBRNE Evidence and Events," American Chemical Society. https://www.acs.org/content/dam/acsorg/policy/acsonthehill/briefings/forensics/murch-forensics-slides.pdf (accessed May 26, 2015).

Noah, Timothy. 2004. “Khartoum Revisited, Part 2” Slate. March 31. http://www.slate.com/ articles/news_and_politics/chatterbox/2004/03/khartoum_revisited_part_2.html (April 26, 2013).

Nuclear Threat Initiative. 2015. "Country Profile: Egypt: Chemical," http://www.nti.org/country-profiles/egypt/chemical/ (accessed May 27, 2015).

Shoham, Dany 1998. "ACPR Policy Paper No. 46, 1998, The Evolution of Chemical and Biological Weapons in Egypt," http://www.acpr.org.il/pp/pp046-shohame.pdf (accessed May 22, 2015)

Sidell, Frederick R., William C. Patrick III, Thomas R. Dashiell, Ken Alibek, Scott Layne. 2002. Jane’s Chem-Bio Handbook. 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: Jane’s Information Group.

Tucker, Jonathan B. 2001. “The ‘Yellow Rain’ Controversy: Lessons for Arms Control Compliance.” The Nonproliferation Review (Spring): 25-42.

Proving the Negative and Cleaned Sites

Proving the Negative and Cleaned Sites

Book Review: A Bridge Not Attacked: Chemical Warfare Civilian Research During World War II

Book Review: A Bridge Not Attacked: Chemical Warfare Civilian Research During World War II