Progress on EU Surveillance Capabilities against CBRN Threats

Progress on EU Surveillance Capabilities against CBRN Threats

Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear (CBRN) agents present an extremely challenging Operational Environment (OE) for current and future commanders overseeing joint land operations. Besides traditional chemical agents, ground troops will likely be forced to adapt to an increasingly restrictive OE given that the emergence of non-traditional, improvised agents could enable enemy forces to disrupt ongoing defensive and offensive operations. During large-scale operations for instance, CBRN could be deployed by an adversary to deny freedom of movement and hinder the operation. 

The EU’s quest to ensure that joint military operations are well-equipped and prepared to deal with the implication, nature and subtleties of CBRN threats is reflected in its 2018 Capability Development Priorities, which emphasises the need to develop enhanced CBRN protection capabilities based on emerging technology such as unmanned systems. In November 2018, the Austrian-led (in cooperation with Croatia, France, Hungary and Slovenia) “CBRN Surveillance as a Service” Program (CBRN SaaS) was added to the first round of projects under the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) framework. Most recently, visible progress was made a year later, on November 12, 2019, when the European Defense Agency (EDA) was selected to support the project as an Agency Initiative. For 2019-2020, the project is eligible for funding from the European Defense Industrial Development Program.

CBRN SaaS seeks to strengthen the EU member states’ surveillance and incident management capabilities against traditional and non-traditional CBRN agents to support the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and NATO military missions. The project aims to develop networks of unmanned sensors consisting of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) and Unmanned Ground Systems (UGS) that could be mounted on existing and legacy platforms in order to provide the operational commander with a more comprehensive operational picture referred to as the ‘Recognised CBRN Picture’ (See Figure 1). The project is reportedly slated to run until 2022 and according to a 2018 concept paper, is expected to provide the following key deliverables: a system prototype demonstrating initial operational capability (OIC); a Cooperation Roadmap which identifies what future modules could be developed in what format and with whom; and a concept for operations and service availability.

Figure 1 – Source: The Recognized CBRN Picture (Borchert, 2019)

It is worthwhile to reference the U.S. Army’s FM 3-11 Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Operations when highlighting the specific functions through which CBRN SaaS could enable EU militaries to fulfil their missions in a restrictive OE. These include threat assessments, force protection in and against a CBRN environment and mitigation of CBRN incidents. 

Assessment. At the tactical level, sensors enable operators to detect, locate, and report hazardous materials that bolster reconnaissance, surveillance, security, and intelligence operations. CBRN SaaS’s goal to provide real-time access to sensor data would provide the operational commander with the necessary information about the CBRN environment. This would help answer the commander’s critical information requirements (CCIR) to support joint EU or NATO operations.      

Protection. The integration of unmanned aerial and ground sensors provides a beyond line of sight capability that is not only crucial for maximising the duration of a specific mission, but also for the effectiveness and the survivability of mission-related military and non-military personnel and other critical assets. For instance, human operators would be able to work at safe ranges by remotely controlling unmanned assets in taking and analysing samples from hazardous sites. 

Mitigation. Access to a comprehensive CBRN operational picture supports contingency planning and actions taken to prepare for and respond to CBRN incidents that might disrupt ongoing military operations. Moreover, CBRN SaaS complements several other PESCO projects, such as the European Medical Command (EMC) that seeks to establish a multinational medical task force with a rapidly deployable capability for basic primary care. Real-time information obtained from sensor data would provide EMC other similar special-purpose forces with a basis with which to craft a scalable response to CBRN incidents.  

CBRN SaaS represents an important step in promoting interoperability among EU militaries with the intent of streamlining CBRN operations to support unified land operations. The project stands to benefit from the EDA’s experience and insights gained from its CBRN Joint Investment Program that was launched in 2010 (set to end in 2020) that addressed shortfalls in sensor networking and samples handling. Nevertheless, much remains to be seen given that detailed information about plans, budgets, and timelines on key deliverables have been rather vaguely defined. In addition, it is also worth elaborating on some of the potential challenges that the project might encounter in the long run, notably funding. The project would need to secure funding from the post-2021 European Defense Fund to ensure that the prototype will be able to achieve Full Operational Capability (FOC) so that the armed forces and their expertise could be properly integrated into the product development process. 

Written by Chonlawit Sirikupt, European Defence Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre


Béraud-Sudreau, Lucie, Yvonni-Stefania Efstathiou, and Conor Hannigan. “Keeping the momentum in European defence collaboration: an early assessment of PESCO projects.” The International Institute for Strategic Studies. May 14, 2019.

Borchert, Heiko. “CBRN Surveillance as a Service.” 2018.

Council of the European Union. Defence cooperation: Council launches 17 new PESCO projects. November 19, 2018.

European Commission. European Defense Fund. March 19, 2019.

European Defense Agency. “Capability Development Plan.” June 28, 2018.

——. CBRN Joint Investment Programme. August 7, 2019.

——. “EDA to take forward PESCO project on CBRN surveillance.” European Defense Agency. November 12, 2019.

——. “The EU Capability Development Priorities.” 2018.

US Army. “FM 3-11 Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Operations.” May 2019.

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