On March 4, 2018, British authorities say Russian agents poisoned Sergei Skripal—a former Russian military intelligence officer and U.K. double agent—and his daughter using a Novichok nerve agent. The attack took place in Salisbury, England, a town of 50,000 people about 90 miles southwest of London. While it failed to kill Skripal, he remained unconscious for a month and hospitalized for more than two months. His daughter remained in critical condition for three weeks before she regained consciousness and was released from the hospital a month after the attack.
With the immediate attack area isolated and the cleanup underway, the nation was shocked once again when two British nationals were poisoned by the same nerve agent nearly three months later in the neighboring town of Amesbury. One of the two, Dawn Sturgess, fell ill within 15 minutes of contact with the agent and died just over a week later. The other fell ill but recovered. While not the intended targets of the attack, Sturgess’ death demonstrated the persistence and toxicity of the military-grade nerve agent.
The cleanup of the contaminated areas marked the longest deployment by the British Army in Great Britain in its history. In total, 190 members of the British Army and Royal Air Force, supplemented with contract specialists, decontaminated 12 Novichok-affected sites in Salisbury and Amesbury. In addition to the technical challenges of decontaminating urban spaces, the summer of 2018 was one of the hottest on record in the area, making the cleanup even more difficult. It forced short rotations as soldiers were limited to no more than 45 minutes in full protective gear to reduce the risk of heat casualties. Between that restriction and the time required to enter and exit the controlled site and for decontamination, cleanup progressed incrementally. It was a year before the attack areas were declared free of the nerve agent.
In the spirit of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers motto, Essayons (“Let us try”), the British engineers showed remarkable tenacity and ingenuity. Faced with unconventional tasks—like disassembling and reassembling a roof—while wearing a protective suit, they proceeded to solve these challenges so they could decontaminate the sites without destroying them. Doing so was key to returning the town to a state of normalcy—a vital accomplishment for Salisbury, since the attack and ensuing cleanup created a significant hit to its economy.
Despite all but four U.N. nations having ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997, which bans the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons, the threat of these weapons remains. Unfortunately, despite the intense media coverage the attack in Salisbury generated, it is not an isolated incident, and use of chemical weapons has been on the rise in recent years. The U.S. has accused Syria of using chemical weapons 50 times since 2012, and the U.N. has found Syria guilty of conducting attacks using sarin and chlorine at least five times.
Beyond Syria, other states also pose potential chemical weapons threats. Should a war with North Korea break out, for example, besides contending with its nuclear capability, North Korea significantly is one of the four nations that has refused to sign on to the Chemical Weapons Convention. It is also important to note that in addition to the Salisbury attack, Russia is suspected of conducting the 2006 radiological poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko—a former Russian agent of the KGB and its successor organization, the FSB—also in the U.K.
Nonstate actors also represent part of the chemical weapons threat landscape. Although they may not be able to manufacture military-grade nerve agents like Novichok, they have employed less sophisticated agents. Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese doomsday cult designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, killed 13 and sickened 6,000 in a sarin nerve agent attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. More recently, the U.N. determined the Islamic State group had used mustard gas in Syria at least twice.
These cases serve as a reminder that conventions and treaties may greatly reduce the use of certain types of weapons, but they will never eliminate them, and the U.S. Army must prepare.
The Army should not brush off Salisbury as an isolated incident; if it does, it places the force at serious risk of being undertrained and under-resourced in the event of an attack. The Army should glean particular lessons from the Salisbury attack:
- War games must include chemical attack scenarios. At the strategic level, the Army and its NATO allies must determine what constitutes a military attack. Given poisoning did not lead the U.K. government to formally declare it an “armed attack” and invoke NATO’s Article V collective-defense commitment, it’s not clear what level of chemical attack would trigger the article to be invoked. The nation should not wait for a domestic attack or an attack against a NATO ally to resolve this issue. If designed correctly, strategic war games can help answer these types of questions. Likewise, while exercises—especially involving the National Guard—often revolve around responding to events that can include chemical attacks, more operational-level war games involving a full spectrum of operations—not just disaster response—should include chemical weapons in their scenarios to improve Army readiness.
- Increase chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear training within the operational force. The Army wisely chose to minimize CBRN training during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan given U.S. adversaries lacked these unconventional weapons. Yet, as a result, the Army finds itself unprepared for a chemical environment. With expertise atrophied, the Army must refocus on conducting combat operations in a CBRN environment, to include decontamination training. As commander of a Special Forces detachment in the 1990s, I routinely conducted close-quarters battle training with live ammunition while wearing protective masks and, on occasion, full protective gear. That decision was driven more by not wanting to expose our lungs to unknown dust and debris within the old buildings in which we trained than the threat environment, but the training allowed us to overcome limited dexterity and impaired vision to perform almost as well wearing a suit as not. It is doubtful many units in today’s Army could make this claim. Only by training can individuals and units become proficient and identify readiness shortfalls.
- Ensure a sufficient stockpile of necessary equipment. In Salisbury, the stockpile of some sizes of protective gear ran low, limiting commanders to employ only soldiers of a certain size. Yet this deployment, while lengthy, involved only a small percentage of the active force. Returning to my experience as a detachment commander, we never stayed in the suits long enough to deal with something as simple as going to the bathroom—we simply broke the seal, relieved ourselves and returned to training. Likewise, British forces in Salisbury never had to deal with this problem as they remained in protective gear for no more than 45 minutes. Taking a timeout, unfortunately, is not an option in a true chemical environment. Under such an environment’s unique circumstances, even the most mundane tasks can pose severe challenges. It’s not clear the Army has put much thought into operating for an extended time in this type of environment or has addressed these types of challenges.
- Physical fitness still matters. The British Army found that physically fit soldiers could operate longer under the harsh environmental conditions in Salisbury, conducting strenuous labor while wearing a thick protective suit in the heat. Becoming a heat casualty is dangerous in itself; doing so in a contaminated environment brings even more risks. Beyond basic physical fitness, soldiers need to be acclimatized to operate in these conditions, which can only be accomplished through training.
Fortunately, instruments like the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Geneva Protocol and others have sought to reduce the possibility for a repeat of the horrors of World War I, when chemical weapons played a gruesome role. But while the danger has been reduced, it has not been eliminated, nor is it likely to be. Preparing for the future battlefield requires us to absorb lessons from a range of sources. And the Army would be well-served by looking to last year’s events in Salisbury as one of them.