A new NATO CBRN Reachback capability

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NATO’s efforts to counter terrorism include projects to develop and enhance capabilities that fill critical shortfalls and meet NATO’s priorities. The requirement for NATO to have access to its own dedicated CBRN Reachback has long been highlighted in various documents, including the 2009 NATO Comprehensive Strategic-Level Policy for Preventing the Proliferation of WMD and Defending Against CBRN Threats. At the Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defence Centre of Excellence (JCBRN Defence COE) in Vyškov, Czech Republic, NATO’s CBRN Reachback Element (RBE) and Reachback Operations Room has been established as a unique, integrated CBRN Reachback capability in support of NATO crisis response operations and planning.

Full Operational Capability (FOC) for CBRN Reachback was declared to NATO on 1st January 2016.

On 1st January 2014, the JCBRN Defence COE Director declared the Initial Operational Capability (IOC) of the CBRN Reachback Element to the International Military Staff Director General. In the time since this declaration, one of the NATO’s most critical requirements has been successfully developed and implemented. The IOC declaration marked a successful end to a two year period of experimentation which began in September 2011. The purpose of the experimentation was to further develop the concept with a view to implementing a CBRN Reachback capability at the COE, although at that time this was only one of the available options. The argument for selecting this course of action was underpinned by the fact that the JCBRN Defence COE has a unique pool of CBRN experts drawn from across NATO. In September 2013, the JCBRN Defence COE Steering Committee approved the implementation of the Reachback capability in order to support the Alliance. The RBE represents a capability provided to NATO by the twelve JCBRN Defence COE Sponsoring Nations (SNs) and it is an excellent example of an international coordinated effort in support of NATO.

CBRN Reachback is defined as “a process by which commanders, their staffs and deployed forces may be provided with timely, coordinated and authoritative advice on Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear issues, drawing upon remote expert sources of information.” This means that the CBRN RBE ensures the availability of reliable products for designated NATO commanders at short notice and the timely delivery of all-source, fused CBRN expertise to support situational awareness, intelligence analysis, operational planning and operations. Additionally, the RBE will support the whole spectrum of NATO response to WMD proliferation, protection and recovery.

In order to facilitate this development, considerable structural changes were necessary within the COE. Extra posts, including technical and scientific specialists, were established to ensure that the COE can deliver an effective Reachback capability. This new structure has grouped together the COE’s Modelling and Simulation Section with a new Planning Support Section and a new CBRN Reachback Section (RBS), all of which are now part of the Operations Support Department (OSD).

Concurrently, considerable progress was also made towards delivering Full Operational Capability (FOC). The NATO CBRN RBE Concept of Operations (CONOPS) was developed and was approved by the Military Committee on 31 March 2015, thus establishing the RBE as a recognized standing NATO capability.

Within NATO, SHAPE has been identified as the RBE’s primary customer. Additionally, any designated subordinate headquarters or NATO entity can be authorized to receive Reachback support when required, including the NATO Response Force (NRF) Combined Joint CBRN Defence Task Force (CJ-CBRND-TF) and its CBRN Joint Assessment Team (CBRN JAT) when deployed. Whilst CBRN Reachback has been primarily developed to support NATO, it also provides support to the COE Sponsoring Nations.

Reflecting the importance given to countering WMD proliferation by the anti-terrorist community as a whole, NATO’s Defence against Terrorism (DAT) programme of work funding has been key to establishing the necessary material conditions for establishing the Reachback capability. Specifically, DAT provided the funding for a bespoke CBRN Reachback Operations Room which was formally opened on 14 November 2014.

To ensure that the right expertise is always available, supporting secondary and virtual networks have been developed to provide additional technical and scientific SME knowledge. The JCBRN Defence COE, through its Sponsoring Nations, devoted considerable time and effort to the creation of dedicated links to partners in the supporting secondary network and has developed a number of official bilateral agreements to enable this. A CBRN Knowledge Base and management system is a work in progress within the JCBRN Defence COE. This is part of the effort to improve information management which will be necessary to deliver the comprehensive CBRN Reachback capability that NATO requires.

Trident Juncture 2015, a major NATO exercise, served as the means for NATO to measure and evaluate the RBE‘s performance against a comprehensive FOC certification plan. During this exercise the RBE successfully supported the NRF CBRN JAT led by Poland and thus was also certified as part of the NRF 2016 operational package.

The NATO CBRN RBE is a capability that took time to develop in the conceptual sense, but the JCBRN Defence COE is now organized and able to deliver valuable specialist support to the planning and conduct of NATO operations. The complexity and uncertainty of the world’s situation requires flexible and adaptive solutions and the RBE capability is ready to meet those demands.

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Colonel Xavier Lefebvre has been working in the CBRN Defense expertise since 2002. He is a former Commanding Officer of the 2ème régiment de dragons (2008-2010) which is the unique French CBRN Defense Regiment. He has been working with NATO for 10 years, in CBRN defense doctrine and in conducting the 2008 and 2014 French commitments in the NRF CJ-CBRN Defense Task Force. From September 2013, as the Joint CBRN Defense COE’s Operations Support Director he is in charge of developing the CBRN operational support to NATO Allied Command Operations from the Joint CBRN Defense COE, including a unique NATO CBRN reachback Element and a planning capability.