Malaysian Force Protection: Fighting Against COVID-19 Pandemic In OP PENAWAR

By Brig. Gen. Ir Abdul Hamid bin Mohd Isa, Royal Engineer Regiment

The Novel Coronavirus initially strikes our lives at the end of 2019, and by early 2020 COVID-19 is declared a pandemic by the WHO.

Force protection or survivability is a concept consisting of preventive measures taken to mitigate hostile actions and the ability to remain as a mission-capable force during an operation. Based on The Army, its ability to survive in the battlespace is a crucial factor. Maximum efforts and attention must be awarded to employ force protection of deployed combat, combat support, and combat service support forces, including their command, control, communications, and logistics installations. Above all, the Army’s ability to survive and strike will be highly dependent on force protection and comprehensive communication systems. Therefore, the Field Engineer is the major contributing force to the mobility and survivability of the operating system at the Corps level. The survivability aspects include the chemical reconnaissance, decontamination, and smoke elements. Based on our doctrine, the Royal Engineer Regiment (RER) role in survivability and sustainability tasks are to provide engineer services such as water supply, temporary accommodation, camp structures, and decontamination facilities. Therefore, it is predominantly crucial in ensuring the sustainment of the force for the continuity of any operation without any hindrance.

The Malaysian Government initiated the Movement Control Order (MCO) on 18 March 2020 in order to cope with COVID-19. The main aim of MCO is to break the chain of infection and to protect all citizens, thus as responsible leaders in MAF; we offer our service and contribution to the nation.

Malaysian Army Role In MCO

The MCO is a special operation, the first of its kind in our country. We, the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF), have been tasked to assist the Royal Malaysia Police (PDRM) in the management of this operation, in the so-called OPERATION PENAWAR, that started on 22 March 2020, according to the Section 5 Act 342 of our constitutional law. This type of operation has never been conducted before in any other the scope of Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW). We are facing a new kind of threat; A biological one that we must combat. The Army Field Command West (PMBTD) has been given the Operational Command in the deployment of Army troops and assets in Peninsular Malaysia. Its task is to assist PDRM in upholding MCO in the Peninsular region to help the government to contain the COVID-19 virus. The primary task is to assist in conducting roadblocks (SJR), mobile patrol vehicles (MPV), and area control for Enhanced MCO (EMCO) at various designated locations around the country. This is to control people’s movement and to stop the virus from further spreading. This was based on what was done in China, where entire cities were placed in lockdown and schools and work suspended. These drastic actions have given positive results, which were even credited by the WHO and hence used as an example by other affected countries around the world. For us at the operational level, we can’t afford to lay off any units.

The West Royal Engineer Regiment Head Quarters (MK RAJD PMBTD) was tasked to provide monitory and advisory roles on Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) matter to the PMBTD Commander. Last year’ chemical incident at Sungai Kim Kim, Pasir Gudang has brought real experience and expertise to the MK RAJD PMBTD r. Although last years’ incident was at the district and state level, the response and action taken were similar. The main difference lays at the federal level. The West Field Engineer Commander (KJMB), as the Subject Matter Expert (SME) in engineering matters, provides direct advisory assistance to the PMBTD Commander regarding the troop’s survivability and protection during the operation. MK RAJD PMBTD has the capability to deal with CBRN environments thanks to the expertise of one specific CBRNe engineer squadron, which monitors and advises all the units involved in Op PENAWAR. As a matter of fact, this unit is the only combat engineering squadron trained and equipped to deal with a situation involving a CBRNe threat. The task of this unit is to provide training and ensure readiness of forces and public authorities. This unit has been frequently involved in exercises and trainings regarding CBRN weapons and agents in both military and public spheres. Hence, being involved in real operations such as OP PENAWAR is a great opportunity to further enhance the expertise of this squad.

Significance Of Having A Special Cbrne Engineer Squadron

Being able to defend against CBRN agents and to conduct combat operations in CBRN environments requires properly trained and equipped forces. Therefore, this unit is always prepared to conduct operations in CBRN environments with minimal degradation. One of the recent examples of its deployment was the Toxic Industrial Chemical (TIC) pollution incident in the Sungai Kim Kim that affected over 6,000 people in Pasir Gudang, Johor on March 7, 2019. The Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR) operation named Operasi Bantuan Kemanusiaan TD Sungai Kim Kim was conducted. During this operation, the unit was deployed for 12 days and successfully conducted chemical detection, identification, marking, reporting and decontamination. Their success was mainly due to the training they received over the years.

OP PENAWAR: Force Protection

Concept. The CBRN threats and hazards are constantly present and have potential effects on operations. By employing specific policies and procedures in CBRN operations, we can minimize or negate these threats. Thus, the operations may require the use of strategic and operational capabilities. During the PENAWAR operation, as stated by the TD CBRNE Defense Concept, we focused on the protection capability at the unit level. The capability to improve survivability in a CBRN environment depends on the self-aid and first aid ability and skill of every personnel and of the unit itself. For a full effective protection, the CBRN defense system also depends on individual and collective protection, warning, detection system, disinfection procedure, therapeutic action, and continuous training. PPE. For individual protection, all personnel were equipped with complete personal protection equipment (PPE), whether for field or disinfection duties. During OP PENAWAR, in order to protect themselves, the soldiers are wearing a minimum level of PPE, which consists of a 3-ply surgical mask, rubber glove and together with their combat camouflage uniform and carry a hand sanitizer.

Decontamination. Personnel decontamination is vital so that our soldiers can safely head back to their barrack or family after completing their mission of the day. A guideline explaining the decontamination process was therefore issued to all the units involved. With the cleaning process properly done, the soldier is more confident to continue performing his tasks. A high code of conduct must be upheld to maintain the moral state of our soldiers. Another key element to be considered in a biological threat environment is that if over five personnel in a unit are infected, consequently, the whole unit will be temporarily withdrawn. This is something the Army cannot afford.

Contamination control is vital to prevent such disasters from happening to the operating units. Therefore, decontamination stations must be established accordingly, and preventive measures must be taken to avoid cross-contamination and secondary airborne contamination. The appropriate and safe use of disinfectant solutions is also to be considered during this operation. As the advisor to the PMBTD for all CBRN matters, the MK RAJD PMBTD has produced a guideline for the decontamination process of the troops after operations, based on the procedure already established in CBRNE Environment doctrine. The guideline has been distributed to all the units, including in East Malaysia to ensure that all units adhere to the decontamination guidelines and the solution used for disinfection.

Monitoring. Apart from producing the guidelines, the CBRNe unit has also been asked to establish monitoring teams to monitor and observe the decontamination stations at designated camps and locations within the West Command. They will give advice and conduct training on the appropriate decontamination process and methods. Since the commencement of OP PENAWAR, over 25 decontamination stations and sites in various Army camps and Police stations have been monitored and observed. Although the first phase of MCO saw a lack of coordination in the decontamination process, the monitoring teams’ report shows that units gradually understood the process and endorsed the strict safety procedures in place for dealing with biohazard. This has been a good training platform for all operating units to conduct the decontamination process in a CBRN environment. The evidence of the effectiveness of this measure has been provided by the numbers: no direct COVID-19 related case has been detected among our men conducting operation even in the Red Zone or in EMCO areas.

Training. A survey conducted by the MK PMBTD with 6,200 correspondents shows that our soldiers who are involved in OP PENAWAR are well prepared mentally and in a good psychological state of mind (Lt Col Looi Chin Beng, 2020). The training in the Army is meant to train physically, but also mentally, to always be prepared for the worst-case scenario.

Disinfection Teams

Continuous survivability or force protection plays a significant part during any operation, and it is amongst Army Engineers’ main role and task to safeguard and provide such duties. Apart from establishing decontamination monitoring teams, MK RAJD PMBTD has also formed disinfection teams that can be deployed in all areas of Operation (AO). The focus is on the Army camps and family quarters (RKAT) to protect the personnel but also their families.

The disinfection teams are provided with sufficient training by the CBRNe unit, particularly during the bilateral exercises mentioned earlier. They are also being provided with PPE, sprayer pumps, and disinfectant solutions such as bleach and anolyte (hypochlorous acid), which are used in this operation (the United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2020). However, the types of PPE used vary on the level of threat or condition.

The teams consist of combat engineers with minimum one officer and four other ranks per team. The main focus of the deployment is to disinfect facilities or areas where a COVID 19 case was confirmed. As the situation in the country related to COVID-19 starts to ease a bit, the government introduced Recovery MCO (RMCO), a phase in which the teams collaborated with KKD to advise, train and monitor other brigades and units of the HQ to facilitate the sanitization and disinfection operations of their own camps and facilities. This so-called OP SANITASI PMBTD is the step taken to ensure things to return to normal and avoid new infection within the military communities.

CBRN Logistic

Continuous logistics support in CBRN environments is a key element to ensure the success of operations. Logistics are particularly vulnerable in CBRN incidents. Movement of supplies and maintenance of equipment slowdown in CBRN environments. The resources needed to recover from CBRN incidents can severely strain the logistic system and cause unanticipated effects on combat operations. As we are talking about a pandemic, countries all over the world experience the same logistics setback. Logistical challenges could arise in the following cases: increased water requirements for personnel and equipment decontamination operations, large amounts of contaminated waste to dispose of, or inventory shortages of low-density CBRN protective equipment such as PPE.

As this was a never-before-seen operation, we should take this opportunity to look back at our logistics methods and planning. The priority in this pandemic concerned the PPE, as it became clear that this resource would quickly fall into short supply due to the high global demand. As PPE was becoming a scarce resource, it became essential to diligently plan the use of PPE and to consider the duration of procurement operation, which was, in this case, a continuous 14-day operation per phase of procurement. The disinfectant solutions were also important elements to consider in our CBRN logistical planning.

Way Forward In Force Protection

As we start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel from this COVID-19 pandemic, our men now developed real capabilities and understanding to deal with this type of incident, this due of course to the ability of our men to quicly adapt. This operation also gave the opportunity for all units other than RER to understand the theatre of a CBRN incident. This operation-cum-training opens new perspective for the Army to conduct future operations in that type of environment. We may not know what’s in store in the coming years in terms of CBRN threats. The best way is always to be prepared with the proper personnel, equipment, knowledge, and skill. Other foreign Army Engineer around the world were deliberately engaged during this pandemic. The US Army Corps of Engineers converted a New York convention centre into a temporary field hospital with 1,000 beds in the space of a week. The Taiwan Chemical Corps Division has also been involved in several disinfection tasks and took charge of preventative disinfection work in military bases around the country. These are just some examples of the deployment of engineers from the largest to the smaller country. We all should learn and take good note of other countries’ experience.

Review Of CBRN Doctrines

As mentioned by PTD, it is essential that the Malaysian Army reviews and re-evaluates its doctrine of training after COVID-19 (Bernama, 2020). Itis important to look back at our preparedness and capability. The new guidelines should also be updated regularly and must be based on the guidelines given by WHO, KKM, and our KKD.

The current doctrine outlining the procedure to be followed in a CBRN environment only focuses on the wartime environment and refers to biological attacks involving bombs, artillery, missile, and mines. Thus, it is time to revise either the current CBRN doctrine or update the MOOTW HADR doctrine to include unintentional biological hazards and non-military threats as well. This means revising the deployment, mobilization, logistics, force protection, and our training concept so that the Army can be prepared if such disaster reoccurs. It is time for the nation to look at CBRN scenarios as one of the main threats in terms of defense of our country and be prepared to face it.


CBRN threats are always present, especially biological ones which cannot be easily countered. COVID-19 demonstrated how societies at large are still lacking in pandemic preparedness and response. The ongoing pandemic gave a whole new perspective to force protection, due to the “invisible” enemy. All military operations must include detailed planning, appreciation, and thorough risk assessment. In parallel, doctrinal review and logistic procurement must also be considered due to the ever-growing demand of the fast-paced/ever-changing dynamics of future operations. The action taken, after all risks have been weighed, will always be based upon force protection.

That is why force protection or the survivability of a soldier embarking on such duties will be looked into from every possible angle, in order to ensure that their life is not in danger. Maintaining high morale of the soldiers and their families is of utmost importance. This ensures that all of our men are mentally and physically ready for the task at hand.

The general public’s view towards the MAF’s role and tasks has changed for the positive. RER’s role, with regards to force protection to maintain operational troops in its capacity for continuous operation, is relevant. This is why MK RAJD PMBTD and its CBRNe squadron unit play a significant role in terms of planning, maintaining, and executing the force protection activities in the operation.

Author: Brig. Gen. Abdul Hamid

Brig. Gen. Abdul Hamid serves as the Field Engineer Commander at the West Command Malaysian Army since 2018. He commands CBRNe unit and other combat engineer units in the Malaysian Army. He served the Army for almost 40 years. He received basic CBRN training as a young officer at School of Military Engineering, Royal Australian Engineer Sydney in 1989. Upon completion of the training he had the opportunity to expose himself as a Staff Officer (Training) and Instructor at The Field Engineer Institute Malaysian Army resposible for CBRNe Training and Combat Engineering deployment. He participated in a bilateral exercise known as MANTIS between Malaysian Army and CANSOFCOM of the Canadian Defense Forces in 2019, 2020 and 2021. He assumed the roles as The Exercise Director in the exercise. He had the priviledge to participate in Live Agent Training at Counter Terrorism Training Centre, Alberta, Canada. In November 2019, he was invited by USARINDOPAC to participate in Force Protection Seminar in Hawaii. He also cooperated with the CBRNe Society during NCT Asia 2019 that took place in Kuala Lumpur, by performing a live demonstration with his CBRNe unit.