The Russia/Ukraine conflict has sparked discussion about potential major chemical weapons events, and how an army can prepare for them. Despite multiple attempts to prevent the availability and potential use of such weapons, they unfortunately still pose a threat to public safety.
This is largely because chemical substances are relatively low-cost and fairly easy to use as means of aggression. When this occurs, the physiological, psychological and geo-political effects are profound.
Proper preparation and training for major chemical weapons events is critical for reducing the scope and effect of these incidents. In this article, we will cover some commonly used chemical agents, the methods army personnel use to detect them, the training methods and devices for such events, and how simulators might fit within this realm.
Commonly Seen Chemical Weapons Agents (CWAs)
Lately, one of the more commonly seen chemical weapons has been the nerve agent Sarin. Originally developed in Germany as a pesticide, it can evaporate into a gas and spread into the environment. Resulting injuries can be minor or fatal, depending on the level of exposure.
Mustard agents have also remained since their introduction in World War I. Exposure to their liquid form can cause burns, whilst breathing their vapour can lead to chronic respiratory conditions. Like Sarin, mustard agents can be fatal.
More localised chemical weapons agents include chlorine, which has been used in Middle Eastern regions by means of weaponising an industrial–use chemical delivery tanker. There has also been a recent use of the nerve agent Novichok, developed in Soviet Russia, which resulted in a significant, although localised, UK military response.
Methods and Devices Used to Detect CWAs
There are a variety of ways to detect chemical weapons agents. This creates a situation in which no one technology tends to fit all, resulting in military personnel collecting and utilising a wide variety of detection equipment.
That said, there are some relatively more commonly used methods to detect CWAs. This includes detector paper, which detects contamination by means of contact. It’s typically attached to an outer garment, footwear and/or the end of a stick used to probe surfaces.
An additional option is sophisticated technical instrumentation based upon flame photometry, ion mobility spectrometry, or even mass spectrometry. Each has its merits and typically the more capable the higher the price.
When handling chemical weapons events, the main approach is one of contamination avoidance. As this does not eliminate the possibility of being subjected to chemical vapours, appropriate respiratory protection is necessary.
Most Common Practices For Army Training Against Chemical Weapons Events
While training can be delivered in many ways, including in person classroom activity at a CBRNe school, more recently, these sessions have been delivered by online means or via a specialised app.
While online training approaches cover important concepts regarding theory, practical training is still necessary. This is because hands-on learning reinforces knowledge (including muscle memory) and gives instructors and commanders confidence in both the operators’ abilities and the equipment itself.
It can be a challenge, however, to implement practical training in terms of cost and practicality. Budgets, resources, and timescales all need to be taken into account, which can potentially limit the scope and effectiveness of the training.
Most Commonly Used Instruments For Chemical Weapons Army Training
With the aforementioned resourcing and time limitations, many instructors opt for actual detectors and the traditional index (or inject) card method, with the instructor calling out pretend detector readings “triggered” by a suitable chemical simulant. This, however, lacks the realism necessary to significantly increase expertise.
Another possible option is live agent training in specialist indoor or outdoor environments. While live CWA agent training is arguably the best option in terms of effectiveness, its expense may not always justify the use, especially when there may be more cost-effective training methods available. However, where possible, live CWA agent training can be useful for reinforcing correct equipment use, confidence in the equipment and operational procedures.
However, when regulatory, geographical, and budgetary constraints make live CWA agent training difficult, simulated detection equipment, or an embedded training capability, can also provide practical training.
This equipment is available in various forms, including app-based simulators operating on a PDA, virtual reality implementations, and physical replica instruments.
Some chemical warfare agent detectors also incorporate an embedded training capability, but these are relatively limited, with basic scenario options and no means of after-action-review or integration with other training simulators.
Utilising Real Experience Training Simulators Against Chemical Weapons Agents
As chemical weapons events are a significant concern for the safety of the public at large, it’s critical that army training incorporates techniques and devices which will instil the practical knowledge and muscle memory necessary for appropriate operational response.
Real experience training simulators can be the answer when live agent training is not practical. In some cases, these simulators can be more useful than live agent exercises, as they allow for more variability, control, and variety of scenarios. Also importantly, these scenarios are consistent, repeatable and can take place almost anywhere and with minimal preparation.
A well designed simulation platform also supports larger area exercises, including those based upon PlumeSIM or the Area Weapons Effect Training Systems which are used for collective training. Exercises can easily be implemented in any environment, indoors or outdoors, with minimal health, safety, regulatory or geographic restrictions.
Real experience training simulators can also incorporate a variety of different detector technologies, with the capability to monitor and record student performance for After Action Review (AAR) and provide third parties with evidence of competence.
Simulators can also be an ideal budgetary choice. They can reduce the whole life cost of ownership of actual detectors, as these will not be damaged during training use. Additionally, after effective training resulting in increased user proficiency, the probability of incorrect detector use causing damage to the instrument is reduced.
As the conflict in Ukraine has highlighted, army preparation for chemical weapons events remains key. Knowing which types of agents may be used and preparing for any potential threats requires a high level of practical training.
While live agent training is extremely effective, real experience training simulators can be more manageable in terms of budget, regulatory requirements, time constraints, training location options and meteorological conditions.
To read more about how real experience training with simulators can be effective for army and CBRNe response scenarios, including example training scenarios, download our ebook: Chemical Warfare Agent Training Using Simulators.