CBRNe Capabilities and Strategy: the Case of Canada


During the last decade, Canada has heavily advanced the level of its armed forces. The state of preparedness and awareness of the country is steadily developing in order to manage the 21st century’s security challenges, in light of the 9/11 attacks. Canada’s main security concerns are mainly focusing on issues of violent extremism and terrorism. Nevertheless, the risk caused by the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) is considered a priority. This includes CBRNe threats and the risk of proliferation of ballistic missile technology. Another major concern is the advanced activity in the Arctic which is expected to introduce new security demands, especially related to search and rescue as well natural disasters. This country profile will address Canada’s current CBRNe Capabilities and its approach to CBRNe threats.

CBRN Strategy and Capabilities

CBRN threats have been on Canada’s security agenda for years. However, there is still a major lack in the country’s preparedness measures. The reasons being financial constraints but also because a large portion of the population was ignorant of the dangers posed by CBRNe threats. Following the terrorist attacks in the US after 9/11, and the overall extension of the Canadian presence in military operations abroad, officials acknowledged the vulnerability of the country to terrorism. For this reason, the potential acquisition of CBRNe material by non-state actors could not be overlooked any longer This is why Canada is being committed against the proliferation of WMDs, being a signatory of the Biological-Toxic Weapons Convention; Chemical Weapons Convention; Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material; and a strong supporter of the Code of Conduct on Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources. Canada has formed a cohesive CBRNe Resilience Strategy and developed their capabilities in the field under the Emergency Management Act (EMA) which is the cornerstone of this effort. Back in 2002, a milestone against the Weapons of Mass Destruction has been achieved through the Global Partnership (GP) against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction (WMD) Program which was launched at the G8 Summit in Kananaskis, Canada. This program was introduced in order to address the upcoming risks of both non-state and state actors as far as proliferation and acquisition of WMD and related materials is concerned. Since 2012, the program has received approval for approximately $367 million (2013-2014 to 2017-2018) for initiatives in various parts of the world in Asia, the Americas, the Middle East, and Africa. The aim is to address updated priority areas in the field of e.g., nuclear, biological and radiological security along with better scientific engagement. A few years later, in 2005, a Strategy, outlining the guidelines in case of an attack on CBRNe threats was established. The focus has been on interoperability and cooperation between different actors, in different levels of government, which has oftentimes proved very challenging. This is because most emergencies are local, and they are supposed to be managed at municipal/territorial level. In 2008, a sub-working group was created with the aim to develop a new CBRNe National Resilience Strategy with specific strategic objectives in order to increase efficiency. Emergency Management Offices also exist in the provinces with specific mandates under EMA while the Ministry of Public Safety remains as the leading agency. The new CBRNe Resilience strategy of 2011 focused on clarifying leadership roles and advance coordination between actors. It is imperative until today that different levels of government advance the development of their relations in order to increase efficacy in times of a crisis. Additionally, the decision-making process was shifted in order to adopt an all-hazards risk management approach. That means that CBRNe threats must be treated in a general context and not being separately distinguished in a modern, complex world of multiple threat sources. Lastly, the objectives of the new strategy were focusing on creating an effective workforce between actors and develop an effective information and knowledge management. Hence, until today, the official policy of Canada recognizes that the country is a potential target of CBRN terrorism and is willing to enhance readiness in order to deal with potential attacks or accidents. The CBRN Strategy is part of the country’s National Emergency Plan and National Security Policy. Regarding the Emergency Plan, the main responsibility in case a CBRN incident takes place, falls into the provincial/territorial authorities at a first level. Assistance can be given by the Federal Government as well, if required. This is the reason why a Federal/Provincial/Territorial (F/P/T) CBRN Working Group is in place and along with the Committee of Senior Officials Responsible for Emergency Management (SOREM), they act together as the main coordinating bodies, linking effectively the federal and provincial/territorial governments. In coordination with each other, they develop and implement programs in order to support the country’s CBRN Strategy. In case of a crisis, the response takes place through the National Emergency Response System with the Minister for Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness having the lead.

The need to invest in CBRND capabilities is evident through the expected allocated budget in this sector, along with major investments. In the years to come and under the current modernization plan which Canada is following, the Canadian Army is aiming at modernizing the fleet of “Improvised Explosive Device Detection and Defeat capabilities.” In the meantime, they want to combine this advancement with similar improvements in modernized communication systems, water purification systems and specific equipment targeting austere environments. The Joint Capabilities directorate is equally planning to increase the detection/response capabilities on CBRNe issues in the Canadian Armed Forces in general, which opens a large spectrum of business opportunities in the sector. For instance, the country is currently procuring more than 77.000 Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear General Service Respirators among other investments. At the same time, Canada is planning to enhance the roles of the Reserve Force with new assignments in the CRBND field. It must also be noted that the main CBRNe actors in Canada are under the responsibility of various agencies. First, the Canadian Army has an Immediate Response Unit at its ranks that can be called in the event of disasters. Approximately 600 individuals of its personnel are trained in CBRNe detection and decontamination. The larger CBRNe dedicated unit is also under Army’s jurisdiction and specifically under the Special Forces Command (CANSOFCOM). Thus, the main CBRN Operators are Technical Special Operations experts under this Special Forces Specialist Unit also known as the Canadian Joint Incident Response Unit (CJIRU) based in Trenton, Ontario. Regarding the capabilities of the latter, the government is aiming at investing heavily in the next 20 years, especially in infrastructure. More than $440 million are estimated to be spent over the next 20 years for three relevant projects, including the construction of new buildings for the expanded Canadian Armed Forces Joint Incident Response Unit. The focus of this investment is to ensure that CJIRU will be able to provide efficient CBRND support. Another team is the National CBRNe Response Team under the lead of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). They are also divided in six different regional units, and they do possess a full spectrum of CBRNe capabilities. It must be noted here that in general municipal and local law enforcement agencies have comparatively limited CBRNe capabilities and are very often lacking PPEs and training. Equally, firefighters have slightly better response capabilities and are better equipped, but a lot of investment is still needed. Additionally, specialized HAZMAT and EOD units are located in the major population centers possessing better detection and response capabilities. Lastly, the Navy possess trained units aboard its major war ships and specialized Nuclear Emergency Response Teams for identification of radiological threats. The Air Force’s capabilities are rather limited and inefficient without specialized units but with a basic force protection capability. These inefficiencies are also deriving from the lack of a standardized training process of CBRNe responders besides the existence of contractors that provide training and response planning to the Canadian first responders. Hence, there is a lot of room for improvement regarding training and education.

Chemical/Biological Threats Canada is taking arising threats in the chemical and biological sphere very seriously as relevant material can easily be stolen, ending up in hands of malicious actors. The use of Toxic Industrial Chemicals (TICs) for instance, can cause threats to national security. They are widely used in industry, next to major Canadian cities, and are very often transported between industrial facilities for storage/transfer purposes. Mobile chemical laboratories are also in place and ready to be deployed in times of a potential incident. They possess the capability to identify chemical substances including explosives. Equally disturbing are considered threats deriving from biological agents, mainly endemic diseases, natural toxins, or controlled pathogens. Toxins can come from a vast range of sources while bacterial threats happen naturally in the environment and with the proper skillset, one can use them adequately and in large quantities. Controlled pathogens can also cause severe problems if secure facilities are breached. Specifically, regarding Canada’s approach to biological warfare and security, the national risk management and oversight is under the main jurisdiction of the Public Health Agency of the country. The main oversight program was gradually developed throughout the years and kickstarted with the Laboratory Biosafety Guidelines in 1990. In 2009, another milestone was achieved, expanding the country’s preparedness, through the Human Pathogens and Toxins Act. The main aim was to deal with risks caused by acquired human pathogens and toxins, and at the same time improve the security clearance program for individuals involved with sensitive bio agents. Canada’s National Microbiological Laboratory (NML) is also a big part of the process. All samples related to potential biological agents are transferred there and it is supposed to be the leader of all relevant centers in the country equipped with laboratories in a wide range of hazard levels (from biosafety level 2 to 4 – in practice, being able to treat the most hazardous infectious organisms). In general, Canada’s biosecurity program is focusing on important principles such as physical security, incident emergency response and material control.

Radiological/Nuclear Threats

Nuclear devices used by terrorists, specifically in the form of Improvised Nuclear Devices (IND) attacks, can cause massive consequences. It is generally acknowledged however, that chances are small to be used in the territory but besides that, the country has adopted a Federal Nuclear Emergency Plan. The focus of the plan has been on physical protection security; illicit nuclear trafficking prevention; capacity/capability building in order to address these challenges in the points of entry; and advance security measures and physical protection at nuclear reactors. On the other hand, accidents from radiological sources are relatively given more attention. Regularly missing radiological material have been reported stolen or missing through the years. Between 2005 and 2012, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, reported more than 90 radiological sources missing with 11 of them classified as very-high risk ones. Radiological material can be an easy and viable option for potential terrorists, in order to carry out a successful small-scale CBRNe attack. The nature of these materials, that are also very highly distributed and trafficked globally, multiplies the potential threats and risks. The Federal Radiological Assessment Team (FRAT) is also contributing to this effort. It possesses the capability to deploy mobile nuclear laboratories in order to identify in time radiological substances.

EOD/C-IED/Demining After the experience in the war in Afghanistan, Canada recognized the major threat that improvised explosive devices cause to civilians and military operators in the field. Since then, the Canadian Army decided to expand its capabilities in this sector introducing new EOD tools and heavily armored expedient route opening capability vehicles (EROX). At the same time, a new project which is known as Advanced Improvised Explosive Device Detect and Defeat program (AIEDDD) was initiated. Its aim is to update and modernize EOD tools, including operator suits, robots and standoff detect and defeat systems. Regarding EOD robotic systems, the country currently utilizes three main systems. The first one, which is the largest, is a German manufactured one, the Telerob Explosive Ordnance Disposal and Observation Robot (Teodor). It is estimated to be replaced around 2029. The other two are smaller in size. The first mid-sized one is the Vanguard Mark III and the second smaller one is Cobra from ECA Group. Both of them are planned to be upgraded in 2025. Similarly, the Army is aiming at procuring EOD unmanned aerial systems in order to assist operators with situational awareness on site. The main Canadian manufacturer of EOD/SWAT robotics is ICOR Technology. In terms of responsibilities, the Joint Operations Command (CJOC) has the main jurisdiction over the conduct of EOD inside the country. The DND and CAF have the main responsibility over the disposal of IEDs specifically on defense establishments. The same applies regarding investigation issues of criminal use of explosives on the latter. Similarly, the Federal Ministry of Natural Resources of Canada is responsible for the disposal of non-defense explosives and the Canadian Law Enforcement Agencies are equally treating non-defense explosive ordnance outside defense establishments including cases of criminal use. Hence, various actors inside Canada’s system are engaging in EOD/C-IED activities with the main ones being the Army’s bomb disposal / EOD units but also RCMP’s H Division Explosives Disposal and CBRN Unit along with local police disposal units (such as the Victoria’s Police EDU). In the meantime, Canada is supporting foreign countries with EOD equipment and training. A few years ago, the country has provided Ukraine with bomb disposal robots and organized sessions with Canadian EOD specialists in order to train the local ones. CBRNE Trainings and Exercises All the above units are regularly training together along with teams from abroad in the EOD sector, e.g., the Ardent Defender exercise (joint exercise with USA, UK, Sweden) and the annual Taz Runner Exercise which focuses on IED training scenarios. In the CBRN field, Canada is hosting every year the Exercise PRECISE RESPONSE in Alberta. Canada is also organizing CBRNE exercises with other countries around the globe. For instance, the Eager Lion exercise took place in Jordan in 2014, focusing on chemical detection and training on sampling equipment. The trainings are usually conducted by Canada’s Special Operations Forces in support of Canada’s Global Partnership Program. Regular joint exercises are also being conducted in cooperation with the US Army. One example is the CBRN survival skills course that took place in 2019 at the Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake, hosting the US Marine Corps. Lastly, the annual exercise MAPLE RESOLVE is Canada’s largest one improving capabilities in numerous combat operations including CBRNe threats.

Related CBRNe Agencies

Numerous Agencies and Departments are responsible for implementing the CBRN Defense strategy of Canada through cooperation and joint action plans. As mentioned above, the Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness (PSEPC) has the main responsibility to implement the Security Policy coordinating with CBRNe related Government agencies. These agencies include the Canadian Border Services Agency, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (which is implementing law enforcement operations in order to prevent and respond to CBRN terrorist incidents) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Services. Another responsible department is, of course, the Department of National Defense along with the Canadian Forces. They are responsible for supporting all domestic operations that require CBRN military expertise, intelligence and scientific support. The Canadian Forces are also supporting the effort through its Special Forces and Joint Operations Commands that possess under their jurisdiction, the related CBRNe Units. The aforementioned are cooperating closely with the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) which provides foreign intelligence related to CBRN threats and capabilities. Other CBRN related departments are the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and Health Canada (HC) along with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). The first two organizations are providing awareness and the response capabilities in case of a CBRN incident. They can also contribute through advising to the federal government through their medical experts. The third one, the CNCS, is by definition related to the regulation of the production, usage and possession of nuclear substances. Under their responsibilities, CNCS provides support and advice for any incidents involving nuclear substances and leads the creation and implementation of emergency planning regarding nuclear facilities. Lastly, the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) along with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, both possess responsibilities in the CBRN field. AAFC needs to provide “scientific expertise and advice regarding detection, measurement, evaluation or projection of CBRN related material effects on crops, soils and livestock.” It also ensures that appropriate measures are in place as far as to containment or elimination of long-term risks is concerned. Both agencies work closely with provinces, territories and the private sector in order to develop systems and solutions that can prevent the impacts of CBRN incidents.