IBC Threat Assessment

Authored by Berto Jongman,

CBRNe Consultant

This is the 40th issue of the new feature called the IBC Threat Assessment (IBC-TA) that was initiated in November 2014. It is intended to inform our readers about ongoing and emerging CRBNe-threats that need the attention of policymakers, experts and ordinary citizens. If left unattended these threats may result in grave consequences for different sectors of our societies and/or the security of ordinary citizens. As the threat environment is constantly changing existing regulations, crisis plans or security protocols are often insufficient and in need of adaptation or review. Every TA will cover a threat for each CBRNe category. The TA’s are based on open sources.

End date of collection: October 30, 2018

Topics covered

  • Technological developments allow states and non-state actors to aim their weapons more specifically at targets with specific genetic characteristics
  • Scorched earth tactics used in ongoing military operations have worsened the cholera and diphtheria epidemics and contributed to unprecedented levels of starvation in Yemen
  • Due to the high costs involved governments are unlikely to invest sufficiently in countering the effects of electromagnetic pulses (EMP) that can be the result of man-made or natural disturbances
  • Global Strategic Trends report indicates that the number of nuclear states and the risk of the use of nuclear weapons are likely to increase
  • Global Strategic Trends report indicates violent non-state actors could acquire weapons of mass affect but are more likely to stick to small arms, explosives, vehicles and knives depending on their resource base

Chemical

Summary

  • Some states and some non-state actors will continue to develop, stockpile and use biological and chemical weapons.


  • Developments in biology and chemistry could allow weapons to be developed that can be precisely targeted and are more lethal or possibly with specific non-lethal effects, making them more attractive to potential users.


  • Genetic engineering could allow bacteria and viruses to be developed that only target victims with selected genetic traits.


In October the British Ministry of Defense (MoD) published the 6th edition of the Global Strategic Trends that was prepared by the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC). Elements of the reports have also been used to develop the National Risk Assessment. By describing the six major drivers of change and their impact on 16 focus areas the authors have formulated a total of 40 strategic implications. One of the focus areas is the increasing proliferation of weapons of mass effect.


The GST report describes the new technological developments that may have an impact on the use of chemical and biological weapons and the targeting tactics by state and non-state actors. Three trends will determine the threat for the near future:


  • Some states and some non-state actors will continue to develop, stockpile and use biological and chemical weapons.


  • Developments in biology and chemistry could allow weapons to be developed that can be precisely targeted and are more lethal or possibly with specific non-lethal effects, making them more attractive to potential users.


  • Genetic engineering could allow bacteria and viruses to be developed that only target victims with selected genetic traits.

Assessment

The authors of the GST expect some states and non-state users to continue to develop, stockpile and use chemical and biological weapons in the near future. The trends described in the port indicate that new technological developments will allow future potential users to more specifically target victims based on genetic characteristics. Newly developed weapons with specific non-lethal effects could make some of these weapons more attractive for potential users. The cost of developing chemical and biological weapons is likely to reduce and advances in genetics and biological sciences have increased the risk of their use through new delivery mechanisms that will make detection hard. The GST report formulates as a strategic implication that the disempowerment of multilateral institutions prevents the development of international legal framework for new weapons, such as personalized biological weapons.


The GST report aims to alert readers to changes that are likely to become threats, but may if addressed promptly, provide opportunities. It also seeks to improve foresight and encourage better strategic choices. Finally it wants to build preparedness for alternative futures and create an organization that can adapt to an evolving future. It can be seen as an aid to thinking about the future. A central idea running through the report is that the rate of change and level of uncertainty may outpace good governance and unity.


Biological

Scorched earth tactics used in ongoing military operations have worsened the cholera and diphtheria epidemics and contributed to unprecedented levels of starvation in Yemen

Summary

Stepped up military operations in the Hodeidah region since last June have resulted in significant increases in the number of cases of cholera and diphteria.


  • The scorched earth tactics used by a Saudi-led coalition resulted in a total collapse of the health system reducing treatment capabilities and threatening the security of relief operations.

  • The ongoing conflict has resulted in the worst man-made health disaster in recent history, leading to starvation and death of an extremely vulnerable population.


Since 2015, a Saudi-led coalition has been involved in military operations in Yemen against the Houthi forces. The latest round of fighting began on June 13 and was focused on conquering the strategic Red Sea port of Hodeidah. The offensive is being carried out by a collection of forces consisting of the National Resistance, the Tihama Resistance and the Giant Brigade. Air operations are mainly carried out by Saudi Arabian air force and are logistically supported by the US. The coalition has carried out more than 16,000 attacks on Houthi held areas. The attacks have hit hospitals, water and electricity plants with devastating effect on the infrastructure and the health system. According to a recent estimate a total of 56,000 people have already died in the conflict.


The collapse of the health system and deteriorating food situation has resulted in a humanitarian disaster in which people die of starvation and in outbreaks of infectious diseases, including cholera and diphtheria. It is estimated that 8 million are near starvation. Since April 2017, the cholera has infected 1.2 million Yemenis, 30 percent of whom are children. In 2017, more than 50,000 children died of cholera and famine caused by the Saudi-led bombing campaign and naval blockade against the country. Since the last June military escalation in the Hodeidah region the number of cholera cases tripled. An ongoing vaccination campaign has already reached 306,000 people while the goal was set to reach at least 540,000 people across Yemen.


Since October 2017, Yemen is also experiencing an outbreak of diphtheria. The number of infections has increased to almost 2,600, including nearly 1,500 children. The collapsed health system contributes to the rapid spread of the disease. A large-scale vaccination campaign targeted 2.7 million children aged between 6 weeks and 15 years old in 11 provinces of Yemen. Due to the collapsed health system hospitals and clinics, especially in rural areas, are no longer capable to provide the straightforward treatment for patients. They also lack the important medicines to treat critical cases.

Assessment

Recent calls for a ceasefire have been short on details and lack a clear blue print for concrete action. Rhetorical Western support for ending the war has failed to articulate an actionable plan to alter the current circumstances. A 30-day deadline mentioned by the US was interpreted by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to intensify their bombing campaign in the hope to gain a bargaining chip for the upcoming talks scheduled for the end of November in Sweden.


The Saudi-led attempt to force the Houthi to the negotiate table by cutting off their main supply line has until now failed. Saudi Arabia’s lack of success in actually retaking territory from the Houthi forces seems only to have increased the brutality of the violence. Despite a worsening situation neither the Houthi nor the local Hodeidah residents show any signs of ceding control of Hodeidah.


While the October killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey sparked intense global news coverage and an international outcry, the US backed and Saudi manufactured humanitarian disaster and the images of starving children have yet to trigger an international response. In the mean time the worst man-made health disaster is expected to result in many more deaths due to starvation and disease. Even if the war ended immediately, its lag effects are likely to worsen the ongoing catastrophe for some time. Prospects for an international relief effort that could address even a fraction of the country’s needs are dismal.


Radiological

Summary

Due to the high costs involved governments are unlikely to invest sufficiently in countering the effects of electromagnetic pulses (EMP) that can be the result of man-made or natural disturbances.


  • Man-made or naturally caused disturbances of the magnetic field of the Earth can have crippling effects on the energy grid.


  • The odds of an X-class coronal mass ejection (CME) in the next decade are estimated at about 12 percent.


  • In 30 years space outposts will be equipped with electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons.


An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is defined as a brief surge of electromagnetic energy that can be the result of either man-made or natural disturbances. An EMP is a short, but very strong burst, of electromagnetic energy by rapid and intense increase in charged particles in the ionosphere. The acceleration of particles can occur as a result of a solar storm, a nuclear bomb, a dirty bomb or as a small scale, even due to a simple, yet strong, bolt of lightning. Once the ionosphere experiences a particle surge, a wave of electrical currents emerges and shorts all modern equipment that needs electricity to function. An EMP disturbance has the capability to not only destroy sensitive electronic equipment but can even burst power lines, down airplanes, and damage brick and mortar structures. An EMP caused by a nuclear bomb (lasting less than a micro-second) would be more devastating than a coronal mass ejection (CME) that can last only a few hours. Countries could deploy EMP satellites in low-earth orbit over the territory of their enemies. If detonated without warning they could cause millions of deaths within a year.


A CME is a huge burst of gas released from the Sun. This is the organic natural form of an EMP that can also fry electronics. It targets the power grid, blasts power plants and sends surges of electrical current along the lines, damaging household appliances and simple electronics that are plugged in, along with all sensitive high-tech devices.


EMPs are classified in three classes: E1, E2 and E3. The E1 class EMP is the most powerful and devastating. CMEs are classified in ten classes. An X-class Earth directed solar flare occurs about every 100 years. Space weather stations usually get 17 to 36 hours of warning that a cloud of dangerous particles is on its way to Earth from the Sun. On average, once a month power companies are alerted about dangerous incoming solar spinoffs, so that they can take mitigating measures. It is estimated that a CME rivaling the 1859 Carrington Event would cripple the modern energy grid. Rebuilding big power systems, in the case of the US, would cost more than $2 trillion in the first year of recovery.


In 2012, Earth narrowly escaped from such a crippling event. If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire. Other CME’s that did have significant effects on Earth occurred in 1989, 2003 and 2017.

The Sun’s activity is operating on an 11-year cyle of high to low activity. Right now we are at the lowest solar minimum in 100 years. The biggest geomagnetic storms usually occur when the sun is very weak. Scientists have estimated that the odds of a big Carrington-size CME in the next decade are about 12 percent.


A number of countries have developed legislation to mitigate the devastating effects of EMP and CME and have introduced action plans with preventive and mitigating measures. Problem is that the preventive measures are very costly and politicians usually have other priorities. In the US the SHIELD and GRID acts were developed but the bills did not get passed by the House and Senate. The EMP/CME threat is, however, used in arguments about changes in the nuclear posture. The threat is used by proponents of the building of a comprehensive national missile defense system, or proponents of the strengthening and/or expansion of the nuclear deterrent.


Existential EMP/CME threats in the upper ranges can have cascading effects, including economic collapse, dehydration, starvation, fires, looting and general lawlessness, violent civil unrest, homelessness and disease. According to some studies the sudden deprivation will mean the general populace will be thrown into a state of panic that will rapidly led to violent unrest and the breakdown of society. Fear of an EMP attack or CME event has triggered a growing prepper movement consisting of individuals who prepare themselves for such events by storing water, food, arms and equipment and creating capabilities to live off grid.

Assessment

Under the Obama-administration the Commission to Assess the Threat to the US from EMP was disbanded. Peter Pry, the former chief of staff of this commission, is currently the Executive Director of the EMP Task Force on National & Homeland Security and tries to keep the threat on the political agenda. It is not a popular issue and very few politicians are convinced that more investments have to be made to prepare society for the effects of EMP/CME events. Critics usually argue that the issue is used by the military industrial complex to raise funds for changes in the nuclear posture. As a result most countries are currently ill-prepared for the effects of high-class EMP/CME events. Research has shown that the cascading effects can be enormous. Large scale chaos and high fatality numbers would be the result. The prepper movement, a fringe phenomenon of a limited number of individuals, can only contribute to the survival of a limited number of people. Many people would suffer or die from the effects of a serious EMP/CME event especially in densely populated and urban areas.


Nuclear

Summary

  • The number of nuclear-armed states could rise and increasing investment in tactical nuclear weapons and electromagnetic pulse weapons will increase the risk that nuclear weapons are used.


  • Nuclear armed states are in the process of modernizing their arsenals and are focusing on building smaller, more accurate, faster missiles with multiple warheads.


  • It is probable that nuclear weapons are being developed for the specific purpose of delivering electromagnetic pulses to destroy electronic devices and networks across wide areas.


  • Space could develop as a theatre of war in the coming decades. Weapons that can destroy satellites and other home-made space objects are likely to be created, and it is even possible that armaments designed to be fired from space onto the Earth’s surface will be manufactured.


In October the British Ministry of Defense (MoD) published the 6th edition of the Global Strategic Trends that was prepared by the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC). Elements of the reports have also been used to develop the National Risk Assessment. By describing the six major drivers of change and their impact on 16 focus areas the authors have formulated a total of 40 strategic implications. One of the focus areas is the increasing proliferation of weapons of mass effect.

In the nuclear field the following trends can be seen as threats:


* The number of nuclear-armed states could rise and increasing investment in tactical nuclear weapons and electromagnetic pulse weapons will increase the risk that nuclear weapons will be used in the near future.


* Nuclear armed states are in the process of modernizing their arsenals and are focusing on building smaller, more accurate, faster missiles with multiple warheads.


* It is probable that nuclear weapons are being developed for the specific purpose of delivering electromagnetic pulses to destroy electronic devices and networks across wide areas.


* Space could develop as a theatre of war in the coming decades. Weapons that can destroy satellites and other home-made space objects are likely to be created, and it is even possible that armaments designed to be fired from space onto the Earth’s surface will be manufactured.

Assessment

In the nuclear field the GST authors describe a number of threats. They emphasize that the number of nuclear states may increase and this may cause an arms race in the Middle East. The ongoing modernization of nuclear weapons may result in a lowering of the threshold for their use. They specifically point at the threat of space becoming a theater of war in the coming decades. Space assets may target other objects in space or they may be used against targets on the surface of the Earth. As space assets may become less dependable some armies have begun preparing for wars without access to space and have begun training without GPS navigation.


Explosives

Global Strategic Trends report indicates violent non-state actors could acquire weapons of mass affect but are more likely to stick to small arms, explosives, vehicles and knives depending on their resource base

Summary

  • The likelihood of violent extremist organizations acquiring and using a nuclear weapon remains low but plausible, particularly for groups with sufficient funds to suborn those with legitimate access to such technology.


  • All known instances of planned or actual theft of nuclear or radiological material have been facilitated by insiders who stated their motivation was financial gain.


  • Terrorists could have a disproportionate disruptive (but non-lethal) effect by initiating a non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse outside a facility containing important electric equipment or data storage.


  • The majority of attacks by violent extremist organizations will probably continue to involve small arms and explosives when they can be obtained and vehicles and knives when they cannot.


Assessment

The GST report builds on conclusions of many other assessments that violent non-state actors have a tendency to stick to tactics that have proven to be effective. Only the most resourceful and strongly motivated groups will attempt to acquire weapons of mass effect. The majority, however, will stick to the traditional tactics of small arms and explosives. They will continue to depend on cheap, readily available equipment, and this could continue to provide an asymmetric advantage against a more technologically advanced foe. The Houthi in Yemen used low-cost drones to disable Patriot missile systems in Saudi Arabia. Violent non-state actors will continue to choose tactics that can cause heavy financial losses at a relatively low cost to themselves.

Berto Jongman began his academic career at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in Sweden. From 1982 to 1987 he worked as a researcher at the Polemological Institute of the University of Groningen where he participated in a project on early warning of armed conflict and political violence. In 1987 he moved to the University of Leiden where he acted as data-manager of the Project on Interdisciplinary Research on the Root Causes of Gross Human Rights Violations (PIOOM). In 2002 he moved from academia to government. From early 2002 to late 2012 he worked as a senior terrorism analyst for the Dutch Ministry of Defence. During this period he participated in a number of Advanced Research Working Groups of NATO, e.g. on radicalization, cyber crime/terrorism and the use of Internet by terrorist organizations. A large part of his work at the Ministry involved terrorist threat assessments, including the quarterly assessment of the terrorist threat to the Netherlands for the NCTV. He left the Ministry of Defense in late 2012 and is currently active as a consultant in the area of CBRNe.