Militaries around the world are being challenged with new threats. The theater of aviation and airport security is also being influenced by various nontraditional threats. The guardians of our skies, the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), have been gearing up to mitigate these new challenges thrust upon them. Over the past decade, the term CBRNE has gained much attention within the international military arena. CBRNE stands for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive. The latter can be purposely combined with one of the first four dangerous elements to magnify the outcome of a calculated terrorist attack. It is in this backdrop that the Air Force initially trained a small batch of men way back in 2008. By 2016 there was a paradigm shift and the CBRNE Wing blossomed as a fully-trained and response-ready squadron with its headquarters at the Katunayake Air Force Base.
In order to understand the operational capacity of this wing, I met up with Commanding Officer Wing Commander Nilendra Perera. He explained, “We perform a unique role as first responders to CBRNE threats. Our wing consists of expert officers and airmen who combine various military skills. About 70 percent of the team consists of EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) staff. The other specialists are armament crews who are very familiar with explosives, aircraft technicians who can quickly identify aircraft parts, Special Forces, crews specialised in DG (dangerous cargo), supply branch staff and firemen. Firemen play a crucial role in the decontamination process, when dealing with victims who have been exposed especially to a chemical/radiation incident scenario. All team members have been systematically trained for two and a half years. They follow basic and advance level courses. We are the first military unit to have females (officers and airwomen) working in a CBRNE response team.”
There are many stakeholders in the CBRNE counter response system globally. One of these is the OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons). The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is a key partner along with the Atomic Energy Regulatory Council. The US-based Department of Energy (DOE) is a significant partner in this global initiative. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the local Health Ministry are also part of the collective response effort, especially when dealing with a biological incident.
The Wing Commander further elaborated on the risks that can arise from industrial level accidents or sabotage to a terrorist attack on military targets. In the past few years, we have seen this in foreign nations. The sarin gas attack in a Tokyo subway (1995) and the burning of a massive chemical storage silo (holding ammonium nitrate) in Lebanon (August 2020) are two dark reminders. The subtle killing of a VIP using a VX agent highlights the dormant danger of such silent and rapid threats. These threats can be unleashed as nerve agents, choking agents and induced into the bloodstream.
The SLAF has an array of high tech gadgets to pick up traces of dangerous radiation-emitting substances including PRDs (handheld personal radiation detectors), RIDs (radiation identification detectors) and a vehicle-mounted detection system known as Mona. The CBRNE response crews also use patrol packs when on duty. Commenting on the role of the SLAF during the COVID-19 pandemic, Wing Commander Perera said, “We were involved in the first biological operation in Sri Lanka. We prepared our team for the mercy mission that brought a group of people from Wuhan (China) in February 2020. We got ready on January 27. On February 1, the flight touched down at Mattala International Airport. We decontaminated the passengers and handed them over to the Army for further quarantine. We also disinfected the entire aircraft using regulated chemicals. To date, we have been able to help over 50,000 passengers who came to our airports (including transit flights). The Air Force CBRNE crews did a commendable task by disinfecting many areas from Beruwela to Kalutara and also from Ragama to Puttalam. In the recent past, when schools were to be reopened, an SLAF team prepared the disinfectant solution to sanitize 400 schools. This was a colossal task.”
Dealing with radiological threats is loaded with risks. There are some basic level substances that come into Sri Lanka for industrial and medical-grade requirements. These include substances such as Cobalt 60 and Iodine. If alerted of a radiation leak or calculated attacks the CBRNE response teams can be mobilized within minutes, using the airborne capacity to their advantage. The crew wears a specialized hazmat protective suit. The suit is worn with a radio communication set and oxygen cylinder. It takes practice and patience to work wearing this special suit. A three-man team will do a preliminary reconnaissance of the suspected site. The aim is to identify and neutralise the threat. Once completed, any casualties will be taken for a decontamination process. The teams demarcate the areas as hot zone, warm zone and cold zone. Even the water that is used to decontaminate the victims must be checked (pH levels) before being released into the environment. Finally, in this process, the CBRNE response crews themselves must be decontaminated.
The CBRNE Wing Chief further added, “Our Air Force crews have been able to follow training courses in South Korea, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Czech Republic, Slovakia (live chemical exercise drills), Switzerland, Singapore, Japan and the USA. We have also been trained to respond to airborne threats from drones. We want to thank all SLAF commanders since 2016. We appreciate the great support from incumbent Air Force Commander Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana, Air Vice Marshal U. Rajapakse (Katunayake Base Commander), Air Vice Marshal Labrooy (Director Ground Operations), Air Vice Marshal Andrew Wijesuriya (Director Aeronautical Engineering) and Air Vice Marshal Thuyacontha. In addition, we also thank Dr. Anil Ranjith, Dr. S. Perera (WHO) and Dr. Rohan Perera of the OPCW for their guidance and support in enhancing the capability of this wing.” The SLAF remains primed and ready to respond to any CBRNE threats.