Out in the wilds of Kandahar province, the average Canadian infantryman looks at a bomb disposal expert the same way most people look at motorcycle racers or surfers who swim with sharks—it’s a narrow-eyed sideways glance, full of frank appraisal and containing one central question: is the guy crazy? Who in their right mind would want to creep up on live explosives and disarm them?
It’s a good question. But still, somebody has to do the job.
And while sneaking up on bombs is not a game for the faint-hearted, walking serenely into a cloud of chemical weapons, or towards a live nuke, is something else yet again. But somebody has to do that job, too. This story is a glimpse inside a secretive unit trained to do exactly that task.
Just how important a job they have sort of defies explanation. Imagine if that live nuke was found in downtown Toronto or if terrorists with a radiological dirty-bomb stormed the Parliament Buildings. It would be up to these guys to stop the attack.
At most, all the public would probably ever see are long-range images of operators dressed sort of like ninja spacemen darting across open ground.
They inhabit a very secret—and kind of scary—world, and so this is the first-ever in-depth story about the Canadian Joint Incident Response Unit (CJIRU), a rarely heard from component of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command and a unit which is literally Canada’s last line of defence against attack by Chemical, Biological, Radiological or Nuclear weapons (CBRN).
Where Others Fear To Tread
Based at CFB Trenton, these soldiers have one of the least talked about but potentially most crucial jobs in the entire Canadian Forces. With the possibility of millions of lives hanging in the balance, they spend every second preparing not to blink in a crisis. “Once tasked with a mission, we will figure it out and solve it. We are a no-fail unit. I will expend any and all resources to solve the problem. That means all of us,” says the unit’s commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Steve Nash. “If someone is going to launch a terrorist nuclear attack against Canada, most Canadians would expect that somewhere, someone is going to be this dedicated to preventing it. We are. We’re not going to stop, no matter what.
“I have the lawful authority to order all my people to their death,” he added, glancing down.
Back in a time before modern cartography, in a world where evil beasts still roamed the imagination, there were places where the map of the earth stopped and terra incognita began. These were places beyond understanding, foreboding and often fatally perilous, they were marked on the map with the Latin inscription Hic sunt dracones: Here be dragons.
Not incidentally, it is for exactly this reason that the dragon is CJIRU’s symbol—and the symbol of many, if not most, allied CBRN units, in fact—because they are tasked time and again with going into the unknown, where others fear to tread, to disarm, disable or render inert the most fiendish weapons it’s possible to devise. They don’t just go into terra incognita, they go hunting for dragons.
Inside The Unit
CJIRU’s role breaks down in three main ways: they, along with the RCMP, constitute Canada’s national Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and explosives (CBRNe) response team. The RCMP takes the lead, and the Public Health Agency plays a role as well.
Secondly, alongside other Canadian Special Operations Forces Command elements, such as Joint Task Force 2, they comprise the Immediate Response Task Force, which would be called out for domestic counter-terrorism situations like the live nuke or the attack on Parliament Hill.
Thirdly, they contribute to overseas operations along various lines but particularly to the Special Operations Task Force deployed in Afghanistan. CJIRU is also on the very front end of any deployment—Theatre Activations Teams, Roto 0s—checking out the new place to make sure it’s safe.
While the size of the unit is classified, it’s not super huge, and it’s filled with big-brained specialists of all stripe and types, more than 30 trades in all, from meteorologists to medics to hardened veterans of the special operations forces community.
CJIRU emerged directly from the Joint Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence Company that also once resided in Trenton. The unit was adopted by Canadian Special Operations Forces Command in 2006 and the name change and increased capabilities came along shortly after.
The unit, according to Nash, is like sitting down at an intergalactic bar on the set of Star Wars, it is a wildly diverse and sometimes boisterous menagerie. Nash himself, in many respects, leads the pack in that regard. A former infantry officer with a history degree, Nash is a soldier in the mode of former Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier; he is equal parts leader and joker, halfway between Jay Leno and Chuck Norris. For example, he likes to joke that the JTF2 commander introduces him at briefings by saying ‘if JTF2 needed to recruit from high schools, we’d go to the football team, but CJIRU goes to the chess club or Star Trek club.’
It may not be all that much of a joke, actually. Indeed, many if not most of the CJIRU operators are given college-level courses in the science behind CBRN and listening to Nash describe the unit’s operating environment makes it clear they face some pretty unique challenges. “We train to think through problems that have never occurred in the world before. But anything we’re thinking about is probably not where the threat will be. And even as we [watch for] something we think might occur, we may miss something else that’s actually occurring.”
Getting into the unit is not so easy, either. First there is a three-and-a-half day screening period for phobia testing and other testing meant to reveal various psychological traits. If the candidate gets past that, then they get loaded onto the Special Operations CBRN course. This four-month course gives them a full introduction to the unit and ends with live-agent training, wherein the candidates are required to do complex tasks in a real-life hot zone.
After all this, for every three who apply, only one gets in.
To understand why the unit is so selective, consider the terms Nash used during one fairly brief interview: Sarin gas. Polonium 210. Anthrax. Chlorine. Mustard. Ebola. Avian Flu. Swine Flu. SARS.
There’s an emotional response to these terms wholly beyond and outside their relative lethality. And that’s not surprising, really, because they are creeping, often invisible and they kill and injure in horrible, unmentionable ways.
To get a sense of their psychological effect, Nash points out that during the Second World War, gas attacks killed relatively few soldiers compared to machine-guns, and yet all soldiers now still carry gas masks religiously and meanwhile they still charge machine-guns, which was and is comparatively way more dangerous.
Into The Hot Zone
In order to counter the threat of these weapons, CJIRU is broken into three main troops, basically along operational lines. The SIBCRA (Sampling and Identification of Biological, Radiological and Chemical Agents) Troop are usually the first operators into a potential hot zone. They scope the situation and get samples to bring back so that, in the words of one of the operators, “the guys with big brains can identify it.”
The Surveillance Troop do all sorts of sneaking, spying and scoping tasks, but mainly they operate the remote control, sensor-laden vehicles that gather basic information about a potential hot zone.
Lastly, the Decontamination Troop is set up to get CJIRU personnel—and maybe a very few select others like RCMP and crucial VIPs—out of a hot zone safely using a multi-stage process of cleansing and inspection.
Master Corporal T., whose full name can’t be published for security reasons, is one of the guys you may glimpse on TV sprinting across open ground dressed like a ninja spaceman in the event of a terrorist CBRN event on Parliament Hill. He’s in the SIBCRA troop and he’s prepared to spend many, many hours behind that blackened mask, inside an intensely uncomfortable protective suit, under mortal threat and possibly in combat.
Life inside one of these suits is nasty, harsh and potentially short. It’s one gasp after another, never enough air, with bad visibility, poor hearing, and little chance to communicate well. It’s like waging chemical warfare with a fish tank on your head, wearing a portable sauna suit. That said, it is all very high-tech. “We stay linked in with science to keep ahead. In WW I you were peeing into a rag,” said the laconic and somewhat fierce squadron commander. “We’re ahead of that.”
In addition to their suits, the SIBRCA operators lug a massive range of heavy sensors and equipment into the hot zone. They carry hand-held chemical detectors that suck particles inside and then use open flame to break them down and give a rough identification. They also carry radiation probes. “Biological agents worry me the most because we have no detection capability until we start seeing symptoms,” said the operator, before adding, rather stoically, “But we just keep going until there’s no one left.”
In addition to sampling, the SIBRCA guys also do judicial-quality forensics like fingerprinting and photography, and they have to do it to a very high level because their evidence may be used in federal court cases.
Corporal S. is a Surveillance Troop member, a former infantryman who’s been in CJIRU for two years. “This turned out to be the best thing ever. I get to play with robots all day, which is something different than digging holes.”
The main tool of his trade is the remote-control multi-agent tactical sentry (MATS). It has a GPS, cameras and a radiological and chemical detector. It is essentially a fancy robotic golf cart and it is often the first thing that goes downrange. The surveillance operator got so skilled at using the device that he recently went to the United States for a remote control robot skills competition against similarly employed members of the U.S. Armed Forces, and, happily, he won.
He was the only Canadian there. They all played in combat uniforms; he played in his civilian clothes. “They knew enough to know I was not regular army, they knew enough to know not to ask,” he said.
Master Corporal M. is one of the decontamination specialists. Her boss introduces her as the first female operator in Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, but for this two-year veteran of the unit, labels of any kind aren’t really to her taste. “At the beginning of my career, I would have never thought that I’d get here,” she said. “But it’s been amazing.”
The female operator and the rest of her squad specialize in getting people out of the hot zone alive and clean of any contaminants that can possibly be removed from their bodies. The process is quite simple. The operators drop their kit, undress completely, get sprayed down and then shower wearing a gas mask. Only then are they inspected and possibly allowed past the cleanline. “If we don’t do this right, then all of our operators are single use,” said Nash. “This inglorious part here, of scrubbing naked humans down, is what allows us to keep going.”
And inglorious it is. There’s nothing to make a reporter re-evaluate career choices quite like standing mostly naked in front of several dozen soldiers, getting inspected by a serious man with a beta-gamma probe.
Furthermore, there are no separate facilities here. It’s all the same. “The first time was frustrating,” said the female operator, referring to the decontamination process which requires semi-public nudity, “but it’s not that bad. It’s professional, they respect your dignity,” she says, before adding with faint mischief in her eye: “also, there are more guys than there are women.”
The Decontamination Troop also has medical extraction teams to go in and stabilize the injured before putting them through the decontamination process. But the whole thing is wickedly difficult, because the wounded person has to be brought to a certain level of health so that, as one terse operator put it, “they aren’t currently dying.” If they aren’t decontaminated then they won’t make it in any case, as no hospital will accept a ‘dirty’ patient.”
“CBRN is like robbing a bank: getting in is easy, getting out is the hard part,” said Nash. “If someone gets shot, that’s bad. If someone gets shot and exposed to Sarin gas, that’s super bad.”
How They Roll
CJIRU is based just off the airfield at Trenton, inside a new building tucked away into a corner of the base and protected by multiple lines of security checkpoints. A large part of the building is given over to chain-link lockers, all stuffed full, which hold the operators’ ‘go-bags’ should they get the call to deploy on a moment’s notice. “Since it’s unlikely a terrorist attack will happen in this building,” said the squadron CO, “the very first problem we have to solve is a strategic time and space problem—we have to get there.”
The whole unit is largely air transportable, and they’ll ship out on pretty much any plane in the CF fleet, including the Challenger jet. The first step in any potential crisis is to send a liaison team; they head out carrying anything from just a jacket to pelican cases stuffed with equipment, depending on the situation. The liaison teams go out often, and they have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. “I don’t have many majors to send out on these things,” said Nash. “I send junior ranks, but they have to be able to interact with general officers or directors of federal departments.”
The liaison teams investigate the situation and, if necessary, call out the heavy hitters—the response teams and command and control nodes. The response teams can be anywhere from a dozen guys to, well, pretty much the whole unit. “They are scalable, task tailored and include logistics elements,” added Nash. “They have to be able to deal with the full spectrum, from firefighters in a gunfight to cops in a fire.
“It’s difficult to prepare for the full spectrum because you rarely, if ever, stumble upon what is about to happen in the future. The thing we’re most worried about is the thing we’re not thinking about, so our group is designed to react and orient to a situation very quickly.”
The unit is busy, somewhat scarily busy. They’ve had around two dozen operational events since June 2008, and only three were ‘forecast’ in the sense that they were major national events—like U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit, it could be assumed—that were known about in advance.
These operational events relate to a wide range of situations; everything from open, transparent stuff to completely covert operations of the kind that remain secret for a very long time.
The only time the Department of National Defence has the lead role in Canada is for sovereign defence of the nation or an act of war. The rest of the time, the RCMP are the lead on pretty much everything and CJIRU is bolted onto them as a kind of high-tech, high capability assistance force. It’s for that reason that CJIRU is fully capable of rolling out to a mission almost completely without military markings.
The blue fleet, as they call it, has Ontario provincial licence plates, not military plates. It’s designed to blend in, not so much for security but more because in an actual CBRN event, the last thing anyone would want is to create panic by having a dozen mil-spec CF vehicles pull up in downtown Ottawa. “The blue suit is for working with the national team, so as not to draw attention,” said an operator.
“If you can just look like RCMP, there’s less stress for everybody,” added Nash. “You don’t want to inadvertently cause the wrong effect.”
While the RCMP, according to a CANSOFCOM officer, does indeed have some capabilities above and beyond CJIRU’s, there is another very particular, and kind of gruesome, reason that the organizations are partners. “We do things they [RCMP] can’t handle,” said Nash. “That’s why they call us in.”
Another senior member of CJIRU phrased it less delicately. “We have unlimited liability,” said an officer with the unit, referring to the concept that military soldiers can be ordered to their deaths. “They’re not going to send RCMP into some hot zone if they’re dropping like flies. Whereas us? That’s why we’re there. Our main support role is to keep the RCMP guys alive,” added the officer. “They have the most manpower to stop further attacks.”
Special Ops: The Invisible Hand
As for the other two roles, the Immediate Response Task Force and the overseas work, not a lot can be said about that without risking security. “We have to have the skills to be interoperable with other SOF,” said the squadron commander, mentioning fast-roping from helicopters, urban assaulting, etc. “But if we’re in a gunfight, something’s gone wrong.”
“There’s a select bunch of us qualified to do certain stuff with [JTF2], and that is a very surgical capability,” said the SIBRCA operator. “We are not gunfighters, gunslingers, but we do have that too if things go bad.”
As with any Special Operations Forces unit, the operators are at all times quite concerned with maintaining their personal security. It’s hard to say where the bad guys will strike and within the unit hushed stories abound of domestic terrorists, deranged lone wolves and others who would possibly want to target them. “In my neighbourhood they all think I drive armoured vehicles on and off airplanes,” said the SIBRCA operator, who came to the unit from a tank regiment. “And if anyone on my base asks, I just tell them I’m on the DART (Disaster Assistance Response Team).
“When I leave, no one knows. The pager goes off, and off we go,” said the SIBRCA operator. “We’re only going to get called if things have gone to hell, so we keep our shit wired tight.”
Imagine going off to hunt dragons and not being able to tell anyone you went. “Yeah, I can’t tell anyone about it,” he says with a wry smile, “but maybe it’s something I can tell my grandkids about.”
The Quotable Commander
Related thoughts and musings from Lieutenant-Colonel Steve Nash, who, by the time you read this, will likely be on his way to becoming a high school history teacher.
“When the government pulls that string attached to my leg, I can never say ‘I’m not ready.’”
“You can’t fail or you’re about to become unglued as a nation. The real cost to us is maintaining folks who, when you push the button, are willing to run in and do dangerous things.”
“Just staying the same will mean that the bad guys are getting ahead. Most organizations change after they’ve had a failure. We can’t allow that.”
“Biological weapons are alive. They mutate. They want to live. And they could extinguish all life on the planet.”
“What’s the needle in the haystack that we have to pay attention to? Bad guys only have to be lucky once, we have to be lucky all the time.”
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but there’s a good chance that whatever it is will be a surprise. If it isn’t a surprise, we probably would have prevented it.”
“We might hide some things, but I have to be able to defend everything in a court of law, to my boss, or on national TV.”
Email the writer at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Email a letter to the editor at: email@example.com