CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear) Threats to NATO Populations, Territories and Forces

CBRN refers to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear substances, materials and/or agents that may pose a threat to NATO populations, territories or forces. These materials can be of natural or man-made origin, but they are classified as CBRN as they have the potential to cause significant disruption to society through harm, illness or even death.

There is a growing perception of the risk of CBRN terrorism, including CBRN(e) attacks. While the terrorist use of CBRN(e) materials is not a new phenomenon, there are emerging risks due to evolving technology, increased sophistication and greater availability. These include the use of a wider range of CBRN materials and methods to achieve a similar effect as those achieved by WMD, such as a “dirty bomb”.

A dirty bomb is an explosive device that contains chemicals, biological agents or radiological materials. It can be hidden in a normal everyday item like a suitcase or backpack and triggered by the movement of the item, or through other means such as radiological detonation or the opening of a door. A single attack could affect thousands of people, causing significant destruction, injury and sickness.

Depending on the type of material used, the signs and symptoms of an incident can vary significantly. For example, the inhalation of gases, vapours and aerosols can damage the respiratory system. Toxic substances may penetrate the skin as droplets or solid particles and be absorbed into the bloodstream. Radiological effects are typically confined to the area affected by the incident, but may spread beyond it.

Medical treatment for an incident of a CBRN event can depend on the type of agent, its persistence and whether it can be transmitted from one person to another. Similarly, the effectiveness of medical procedures depends on the level and duration of exposure.

The capacity of NATO and its Allies to respond to CBRN incidents – from identifying the presence of a CBRN threat, through incident response and recovery to post-incident forensics and verification – is a critical element of NATO’s deterrence and defence posture. NATO carries out substantial support to build and enhance national CBRN capabilities through training, exercises, planning and technical and scientific support, including through the Combined Joint CBRN Defence Task Force (CJ-CBRND-TF), a deployable military asset designed to perform the full range of CBRN defence missions in support of deployed NATO forces.

NATO also has a wide network of bilateral partnerships, with many participating in joint activities addressing WMD threats and sharing CBRN defence-related expertise. NATO’s regional partnership frameworks also play an important role, with CBRN defence often a key element of the work undertaken by the NATO Partnership for Peace, Istanbul Cooperation Initiative and Mediterranean Dialogue frameworks.

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