Interview with OR-7 Michal Belšán
31st CBRN Defence Regiment, Czech Republic
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your experience as a CBRN instructor?
I joined the Army when I was 20 years old and have served ever since, and I have been a CBRN instructor for approximately 15 years. I would say I moved from one specialization to another within the CBRN Defence branch, spending several years in each one. Once I felt that I had gathered enough knowledge and experience, I moved on to the next challenge. I would say that the most defining assignment in my career was working as a Warning and Reporting Operator. Thanks to my participation in numerous international operations, I managed to advance my skill set, gain more experience, and on top of this, the ability to “think big”- without being afraid to come up with new ideas and approaches. According to my experience, the crucial feature that characterizes an excellent instructor is readiness and flexibility to move from one level to another and convey the message correctly to your audience. At the end of the day, becoming an instructor means to have learned how to follow orders first before building the confidence and experience to lead.
Based on your 15 years of experience as a CBRN instructor, do you see an evolution in the way trainings and exercises are being conducted nowadays? How would you describe the current CBRNe capabilities of NATO’s member states?
I had the opportunity to experience moments of significant changes in my lifetime. Surely these changes were also damaging and painful for many people, but the greatest development and evolution is always achieved through conflict. The luck is to observe and, quite often, live through these changes, witnessing the process. Education and Training Activities, as well as military exercises, are constantly changing in order to reflect new threat landscapes. First of all, there is clearly a visible increase in cooperation between military and civilian sectors. Armies are looking for ways to cooperate and coordinate their actions with First responders and the Health Care sector much more closely than they used to in the past. The second, but still very important, and actual feature, is undoubtedly the rise of non-state actors as a global security threat. The Battlefield is changing dramatically, and military exercises do resonate and reflect those changes accordingly. Even in the CBRN Defence branch, the aim should be focused on training small teams or units in order to make quick, well-informed decisions on the spot, supported by accurately sorted intelligence data. This, of course, is feasible through technological development and communication achievements. All the aforementioned elements are changing the conditions of deployment and, thus, the training requirements. NATO member states are continuously investing in the development of systems and following the evolution of technology as well as training developments. CWAs that are being used in military context for military operations are not the primary interest anymore, in my view. Instead, toxic industrial materials are posing a threat, almost equal to that of WMDs. Additionally, poisoning attempts with CWAs have been added to the already volatile threat landscape. NATO members are analysing these new threats and taking the appropriate steps towards advancing their readiness not only in terms of reacting in time but also preventing and protecting their assets. However, the current state of capabilities is difficult to evaluate since a lot of the NATO Exercises had to be limited or cancelled in the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hence, it is not easy to evaluate the current state of capabilities. In my humble opinion, I would say that NATO member’s capabilities to deal with threats on a national level are good, and once the pandemic subsides, the main topic on the table will be interoperability in the post-COVID-19 world.
Past international conflicts raised the issue of non-conventional threats, but recent experiences proved that such threats could come from non-state actors as well. Where does CBRN threat primarily come from nowadays?
Now I am glad I mentioned non-state actors in my previous answer. I have to emphasize that my current position is very tactical, whereas the process of the evaluation of threats is more strategic. Nevertheless, my impression is that because of the existing industrial production facilities all around us and the overflow of data on how to manufacture a CWA in your garage; the threat may be coming from the most unexpected places. In order to avoid causing distress or paranoia, allow me to elaborate. The issue here is not the weapon itself, rather the user, much like challenges with arms control. Dangerous substances can be found in large quantities worldwide, posing a potential threat of accidental release. Furthermore, the fact that these substances are easily accessible means that there is potential for individuals to abuse this capability. State actors are usually the main suspects, but I think that the non-state actors pose a significant problem in today’s risk society, as they are not easy to monitor. A troubled pupil can get full access to information on how to build a pipe bomb or how to cook a dangerous chemical substance. Instead of punching a kid that’s bullying him in the face, that pupil could easily fill their school with poisonous gas. However, unintended accidents are also a part of the equation. Non-state actors are becoming increasingly more aggressive, and the potential damage these actors could inflict also increases. For me, the non-state actors have become the primary threat. I believe that regular prevention and education prior to a potential threat scenario/event should be the starting point. Instead of the method of deploying monitoring and controlling actions that do not provide timely warnings as these systems usually trigger the alarm only seconds before or at the time the incident.
Can you tell us about your international experience and more specifically about your participation in NATO exercises? Is there a significant NATO drill that you feel really made the difference in refining CBRN defense response and raising awareness? What would be, according to you, the main lessons learned from these exercises?
During NATO exercises, I contributed to various drills as a Warning and Reporting Operator. At first, I was only a training audience member, and during the last ten years, I am an operator within the Exercise Control (EXCON), usually working on CBRN scenarios scripting. Even if I believe I do not hold a high enough position to share facts about NATO exercises, I would still like to share two short stories that strongly affected my understanding of NATO drills. The first story took place at a time when I was a part of the Training Audience. I remember experiencing a situation when the sampling team and the decontamination site crew, both from different nations, were standing ten meters away from each other while looking at one another and waiting for any action from the opposite side. Later on, it appeared that the sampling team members were used to being undressed without touching any of their IPE, while the decon crew was trained to only control the machinery. The undressing and cleaning part was the responsibility of the decontaminated persons. That was the triggering action that got me to realize the importance of interoperability. International cooperation is about the compatibility of the equipment and procedures and the precise mastering of SOPs and SOIs. The latter defines how single procedures are carried out by several nations, aligned and interconnected, filling the possible knowledge gaps between them. The second story I would like to share is from the very beginning of my work as an EXCON member. The EXCON director assigned us to prepare a scenario with a dirty bomb explosion. You might say that this is “not a big deal.” However, we spent close to two days looking for ways through which the “bad guys” in the scenario could potentially obtain or forge radiological bulk material in a form that would allow them to be dispersed via explosion. Not an easy process, I have to say. The lack of possibilities forced us to change the scenario into a completely different type of radiological event, I.e., local people being exposed to a single radiological source hidden at a public place. I mention this because scenarios including dirty bombs are still considered to be a nightmare to urban areas. Although the probability of creating a dirty bomb affecting more than few tens of meters is pretty low, considering all the facts. My work in EXCON revealed the importance of realistic targeting and precise evaluation of possible threats on an operational level which is one the most crucial elements for our staff and Commander leadership while considering CBRN Defence prior, during, and after the event.
Could you tell us about your work in the Framework Nations Concept CBRN Protection Cluster, as a member of the Education and Training Sub-Cluster Coordination Team? What is the mission and objective of this CBRN Protection Cluster?
The Framework Nations Concept was introduced by Germany in 2013 and it encompasses international cooperation through the development of military specialisations and interoperability. The CBRN Protection Cluster was formed in order to support the development of such capabilities, improving the defence readiness against Weapons of Mass Destruction and other events, including contamination by dangerous substances, such as Hazardous Materials. I am currently one of the two administrators of a Sub-Cluster which is aiming at Education and Training (EaT) activities that can improve the preparation of individuals for their participation in multinational Forces, such as eNRF or VJTF. One of our main tasks is to analyse the coverage of required capabilities with available EaT activities and if a gap is identified, we make recommendations to the CBRN Protection Cluster community on how to close it. Our Sub-Cluster has no capacity to provide courses, however, there is a great deal of military as well as civilian educational and training institutions that cooperate with the Cluster actively. EaT Sub-Cluster is collecting, processing, storing and disseminating information considering EaT activities that are provided and requested by the Cluster Participating Nations.
Lastly, you recently joined our NCT Virtual events, but also participated in 2019 to our in-person NCT Europe 2019 event that took place in Vienna, Austria. How would you describe your experience in these NCT events and what would be the main benefits of this platform of knowledge exchange?
I was simply thrilled to have the opportunity to participate. NCT events have tremendous potential for networking and connecting with companies and even other users from the military as well as the civilian sector. I can get brochures, watch videos or see and try the equipment at NCT PRO Trainings. Additionally, everyone says, “do not hesitate to write or call me if you need anything in the future.” It is a dream come true for somebody in my position. Although NCT Virtual was getting close to the in-person event, at the level of networking, still, I am looking forward to Rieti this autumn. I also hope that the COVID-19 situation will allow us to send a team for the training session. The NCT PRO Trainings event has the highest value of experience for teams and units at a tactical level, specifically in terms of gaining experience by training on new equipment and cooperating with teams from around the world.
OR-7 Michal Belšán (born in 1979) is a member of the Analysis and Informational Support Department, established in 2018 as a supplement to the 31st CBRN Defence Regiment staff. The 31st CBRN Defence Regiment, located in Liberec, The Czech Republic, is the main branch in the Army of The Czech Republic, dedicated to the development and fulfilment of capabilities related to CBRN Defence and HAZMAT challenges. The Analysis and Informational Support Department coordinates and manages development projects on a national level in cooperation with the Ministry of Defence and Land and the Air Corps HQs. Regarding the department’s activities abroad, they are aimed at developing awareness of the worldwide trends in technology related to CBRN Defence and HAZMAT. OR-7 Belšán is also the administrator of the Coordination Team into Education and Training, a Sub-Cluster in the Framework Nations Concept (FNC), CBRN Protection Cluster. With more than 20 years of professional experience, OR-7 Belšán has served as a specialist and instructor in many positions, from CBRN RECCE to decontamination to Warning and Reporting system, including participation in the ENDURING FREEDOM Operation (Kuwait, 2002) and ISAF (Afghanistan, 2011).