Tactical CBRN Intelligence Analysis – A Specialised DisciplineBy PTE S., CAPT C., and CPL J November 22, 2021
An intelligence analyst is a crucial asset in any operation, and they fulfil an important and informative command-support function even during the day-to-day routine of barracks life within Defence. But what they do exactly is often misunderstood by those outside of the discipline, especially by those who do not have frequent exposure to their outputs or see their work. This article will first seek to expand upon the broader function of the military intelligence capability, and then describe one particular subset of the tactical analytical discipline: CBRN Intelligence.
But first, it is important to clarify some assumptions about intelligence: Intelligence analysts do more than attempt to know what the enemy is going to do (and this is itself not necessarily possible to the extent often portrayed in fiction and popular media). The role of an intelligence analyst at all levels is to digest information collected by assets and convert this into a succinct product, inclusive of an assessment, which should aid the commander in their decision-making processes. Basically, they seek to sift, compile, and value-add to information in order to ‘make sense’ of it and reduce uncertainty. In one simplified sense, this is a service that enables a commander to outsource an element of their ‘critical thinking’ to enable them to make faster and better decisions with more confidence.
In practice, this could be achieved by assessing an enemy’s position and what subsequent actions they will take; or making a threat assessment by analysing their capabilities and intent; or by running a counter-intelligence operation to protect the force and Australian military assets. Intelligence analysts work towards reducing levels of uncertainty in complex circumstances. But the quality of these outputs is often a function of the quality of the information inputs in the first place.
Foundation analytical processes and techniques are taught at the Defence School of Intelligence (DSI), but this is only just the beginning. Like many other roles within Army and wider Defence, improving upon your trade skills and knowledge as an analyst is a never-ending process. This does not necessarily mean remembering more facts about military hardware, or another nation’s weapons and tactics, as these can be researched for the most up-to-date information at any given time when needed. Instead it means refining the analytical tradecraft, processes, and intellectual skills needed to critically arrive at an informed, well considered, and supportable assessment which will not come undone under reasonable questioning or scrutiny. Developing skill as an intelligence analyst is as much about improving your way of thinking as it is increasing your knowledge base.
At the start of a career as a military intelligence analyst your first posting will be important for setting the foundation for your subsequent experiences and development. There are the three broad levels where intelligence personnel might work: tactical, operational, and strategic level intelligence.
Most Army intelligence is tactical, which means that it predominantly focuses on the combat intelligence function of analysing an enemy’s combat operating systems and anticipating the manoeuvre tactics with which it will be employed. However, there is one niche area of the tactical intelligence role that is often over-looked. This area is Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear (CBRN) intelligence.
Tactical CBRN Intelligence
The essence of the task for an intelligence analyst supporting a CBRN unit remains the same as that of an analyst supporting a conventional unit; being to support the commander by reducing uncertainty and aiding in their decision-making processes. The difference comes in how this is approached due to the wide-ranging nature of the CBRN threat.
A CBRN analyst’s job is to know and understand an enemy’s CBRN capabilities and their intent to employ them. In the hands of a threat military force, weaponised CBRN agents are generally likely to be retained as operational or strategic assets that might only ever achieve tactical military effects (in terms of their functional impact on combat manoeuvre forces), but which simultaneously generate strategic IO effects far beyond the combat capabilities of those military forces on their own. The mere threat or uncertainty surrounding an adversary’s willingness to employ CBRN effects is a deterrent and force-multiplier that significantly escalates the stakes for any conventional engagement with those military forces in a ‘traditional’ combat role.
In the non-conventional setting, such as counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism, understanding a CBRN-enabled threat becomes vastly more complex, especially where questions concern that threat group’s desire to use CBRN agents and their expectation of success in employing such capabilities, regardless of their level technical ability to do so. This could range from a lone actor seeking to synthesise microbiological or plant-based bio-toxins, to a group seeking to co-opt commercial industrial infrastructure to develop sophisticated chemical warfare agents.
CBRN intelligence analysis seeks answers to different types of information requirements compared to those of the conventional combat intelligence focus. It is less concerned with traditional kinetic weapons systems and more focused on the wide array of deliberate and improvised systems that can deliver a CBRN threat agent, as well as the potency and specific mechanisms of those CBRN agents themselves.
CBRN agents might be deliberately produced specifically for warfare purposes (such as chemical nerve agents and the carrier munitions that deliver them) or improvised and adapted for small scale employment (such as an environmentally cultured biological pathogen). Thus the type of the CBRN agent (warfare agent or dual-use agent), its delivery mechanism (deliberate or improvised), the dispersal, spread, and persistence of the agent, target-matching options, and its mechanism of action upon humans (or animals or plants, or materiel) all add up to vast array of complex possibilities for the CBRN intelligence analyst to consider. A comprehensive intermediate level of knowledge of inter-disciplinary science is essential!
The first question a CBRN analyst might look to answer is the threat entity’s capability to either obtain or produce a CBRN agent itself. Are they a militia (with access to some small quantities of a toxic commercial chemical?), a terrorist organisation (with access to biotechnology, synthesis, or dual-use industrial infrastructure), a near-peer or peer adversary (with access to military-grade CBRN weapons)? Or any combination of the above working directly or indirectly for a major global adversary? Consider that a small isolated terrorist cell might seek to produce a gas-forming reaction (GFR) using a chemical dispersal device. Although it may not achieve the production of the exact chemical agent it wanted, even with an inexact understanding of what it is attempting, and by following a terrorist ‘recipe’ style set of instructions, it could still produce something that is almost certainly toxic and/or lethal to some degree.
This is only the beginning, and it is here where the required knowledge base of a CBRN intelligence analyst accelerates away from that of the generalist combat intelligence analyst. An intermediate understanding of the separate CBRN scientific fields behind these different threat streams is an essential requirement. It is not just sufficient to know what chemical precursors, glassware, and tooling might be required for that terrorist cell to create a GFR chemical dispersal device (and the numerous different ways this could be done); because what if that group wants to use a dirty bomb instead? The same CBRN analyst must also know what kind of radiological material would be suitable (i.e. how does this material decay? alpha, beta, or gamma-emitter, etc., and what elemental isotopes produce these?), how is this obtainable (and where from – what industries or products use these sources and how?), and how these substances interact with the explosives and blast mechanics of the device (is the greater danger from the blast, the dust, the debris, or from the fragmentation, etc.).
Specialist knowledge greatly aids the CBRN intelligence analyst’s ability (and credibility) to narrow down onto very nuanced aspects of the CBRN threat in order to generate an informed intelligence assessment. Not only will the commander want to know precisely what they are dealing with and how it could affect their forces (force protection measures and detection capabilities), but this CBRN threat assessment will also be crucial to other supporting elements – such as medics and doctors – allowing them to produce an effective medical support plan and issue Medical Counter Measures (MCMs) in the event of personnel exposed to these threats; or the logistic support element to help forecast the consumption of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) used by the force element operating in a contaminated area.
One resource a CBRN intelligence analyst may have available to them are Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) technicians and/or senior Royal Australian Engineers (RAE) personnel trained as CBRN advisors within the unit. Their in-depth knowledge on most ‘traditional’ CBRN warfare threats will greatly aid the new CBRN intelligence analyst. Other specialists and technical scientific support staff, including Defence scientists, also play a crucial role in linking the analytical intelligence staff with deeply immersed experts in the field that help intelligence appropriately inform command. By combining the analytical skills of the CBRN analyst – with their access to classified intelligence reporting – and the practical knowledge of RAE Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) with expert scientific knowledge, this enables the CBRN analyst to produce a well-rounded and fact-checked assessment that supports advanced decision-making about CBRN threats.
Another important resource frequently utilised by a CBRN analyst are the specialist geospatial technicians who have received additional specific training for CBRN operations, planning and projections. These geospatial technicians are responsible for the modelling and mapping of any and all CBRN threats on a target. This is done through the creation of a digital plume model using a specialist software shared by Australia and the United States. The plume can be representative of any CBRN threat nature to show the spread of the initial release cloud in conjunction with live meteorological data. This allows all parties involved to visualise the potential damage and risk posed not only military members, but the local civilian population in the immediate area.
Whilst this article has predominately focused on the tactical aspect of military CBRN intelligence, it is important to acknowledge that this field also reaches up into the strategic domain of a truly global intelligence arena. This is especially so when we consider counter-proliferation challenges and new emerging technologies with a dual-use application as a weapon of mass effect. Thus, within the field of CBRN intelligence the whole world is an intelligence ‘Area of Interest.’ Where dual-use and emerging technologies intersect with ‘traditional’ CBRN threats (actual or potential), this creates new threat proliferation possibilities that need to be analysed and understood by the tactically-focused CBRN intelligence analyst in order to be properly informed about possible future threats or trends. Moreover, understanding the underlying geopolitical trends and strategic intent of CBRN-enabled global threat actors becomes a critical point for understanding the thresholds for the employment of these weapons in the tactical domain.
In conclusion, even though the tactical CBRN intelligence analyst’s role is a niche specialisation within the combat intelligence discipline, it requires a very detailed and sophisticated level of specialist knowledge beyond that which is taught to the generalist combat intelligence analyst through basic military intelligence training. This specialist knowledge not only requires scientific and intellectual aptitude, but it also takes a very long time to acquire and accumulate to the level required to produce a credible degree of analytical skill. But this also means that the sub-discipline of CBRN intelligence analysis is a truly rewarding and exciting field in which to ply or ground one’s basic military intelligence training.