Possible impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the CBRN Defence organisation in Europe

By COL. Henry Neumann, Former Commander, Bundeswehr CBRN Defence Command

Preparing the Decontamination (Photo Credit: Bundeswehr CBRN Defence Command)

Much has been written about the COVID-19 pandemic to date: political assessments, medical appraisals, scientific studies and other numerous publications. What can we assume today? The bottom line is that most countries weren't sufficiently prepared to defeat the disease outbreak. Many governments had a Pandemic Response Plan; no country however actually assumed that it would ever be affected by a pandemic.

In the last issue of this magazine Mr. Guy Roberts provided a helpful analysis of the reasons, why this pandemic ran out of control. He also highlighted the lack of international co-operation and support during the pandemic. Having worked half my military career in a multinational environment, I fully agree with his observations.

“Common funded and procured equipment stocks is the key for future success.”
CBRN Defence in hot climate zones (Photo Credit: Bundeswehr CBRN Defence Command)

Mutual supporting crisis response mechanisms exist in the EU, in NATO and other multinational organisations. In principle the mechanisms are similar in their approach: we assume a local or regional disaster, a nation is overwhelmed, and requests the support from an international organisation, like NATO’s EADRCC (Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre) or the EU’s ERCC (Emergency Response Coordination Centre). These co-ordination centres work on the assumption that scarce resources in one country will be made available by others. The underlying assumption is the crisis is locally or regionally confined and neighbouring countries will be able to support and share resources.

COVID 19 has proved this assumption wrong. With nations globally being challenged from the disease, mutual support systems were thrown overboard, and responses were based on national survival modes. Countries experienced a lack of preparedness and shortage of equipment – some nations more, some nations less. In this difficult situation, it was a real challenge for those governments still committed to solidarity to decide on how to support others. How can you politically maintain credibility when your electorate requires medical treatment, your stocks run short, and you found out to have helped others?

Contrary to all we have valued in the past, I learned that salesmen with briefcases full of cash “bought” protective equipment at the airport of SHANGHAI -although it was already sold to someone else. To me, this seems to be the worst of behaviours, and a sign of what could come if we give up on international cooperation. But we also experienced good examples of bi- and multilateral cooperation. Once the situation had stabilised there were national gestures of solidarity, cross-border cooperation in patient handling and treatment, and support with medical equipment were organised as well.

Could we have done better? Yes, as always. But what is the recipe for “doing better”? One answer is national preparedness – Mr Roberts elaborated on this issue in his article. But we also have to do better with regards to multinational preparedness, in order to increase resilience in the face of future disease outbreaks. As long as the EADRCC or ERCC for example do not hold and manage their own equipment stocks, these supporting mechanisms will not function in a future global crisis. Common funded and procured equipment stocks is the key for future success. If the lessons learned from the pandemic are taken seriously, the option to do nothing in this regard will not constitute a responsible approach to preparedness.

“This is the moment to refocus on the military CBRN Defence Forces.”
Soldiers in a lab environment (Photo credit: Bundeswehr CBRN Defence Command)

What can be done?

This is the moment to refocus on the military CBRN Defence Forces (CBRN DF). What role did these forces play in the fight against the pandemic? To be honest, not an important one. You might however interject, that all over the world the military has supported the civilian side significantly. This is true – but it was not support specific to CBRN Defence. The focus was on medical, logistical and other types of support. I see a chance to change things for the better in the future. As stated earlier, co-ordination mechanisms need their own stockpiles – but we currently do not see these organisations being given the means, knowledge, or capacities to plan, purchase, maintain, and operate a huge amount of equipment. The German Joint Support Command with its Bundeswehr CBRN Defence Command is currently working on a “multinational CBRN Defence Command (mnCBRNDefCom)”, which probably will operate under command and control of the NATO Joint Enabling and Support Command (JSEC), currently established in Germany. Both, JSEC and the mnCBRNDefCom could be the appropriate bodies to take over the responsibility for the “Multi-national Pandemic Equipment Stockpile”, in order to support NATO as well as the EU. If the stockpile would also contain medical equipment or even drugs, it is without saying, that the medical community must be involved – preferably the “Multinational Medical Coordination Centre” at Koblenz.

In addition to the stockpile, a further missed opportunity from my perspective is the support CBRN Defence Forces could have brought to testing and tracking. Since the establishment of the NATO Combined Joint CBRN Defence Task Force in 2001, NATO nations have made significant investments in equipping their forces with mobile or stationary bio labs and sampling teams, which could have been better used in a support role as part of the overall national efforts. Another capability, which I assume to be improved in Europe is the military capability to distinguish between natural and man-made diseases as part of the military advice to political decision makers. I know, these are new ideas – but I strongly believe it is worth further deliberations to enhance national and multinational CBRN preparedness. I stand ready for your views and look forward to further discussions as we work or way out of this crisis and hopefully draw the right conclusions for the future.