The U.K. is to invest £48 million ($67 million) in a new Chemical Weapons Defence Centre to maintain the country’s “cutting edge in chemical analysis and defence,” Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said.
The new centre will be located at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory site at Porton Down near Salisbury, the U.K. government chemical and biological weapons research facility where scientists identified the Novichok nerve agent used to attack ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on March 4.
In the 1950s, scientists at Porton Down developed CS gas – better known as tear gas – as well as the deadly nerve agent VX.
Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday accused Russia of being “culpable” for the attack and said that 23 Russian diplomats would be expelled from the U.K. along with other measures in response to the use of a military-grade nerve agent in Salisbury. Moscow has denied involvement and threatened to retaliate against the measures.
Williamson on Thursday said the government was “investing £48 million in a new Chemical Weapons Defence Centre to maintain our cutting edge in chemical analysis and defence.”
“We’ve brought together Defence’s world-renowned explosive ordnance expertise with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialists,” he said, adding that the U.K. continues to “invest and explore new ways and new capabilities to deal with this threat.”
According to a MoD release, construction on the new centre is to begin next month.
Williamson said there was “no doubt” the Salisbury attack “came from Russia,” the BBC reported.
“If we doubted the threat Russia poses to our citizens, we only have to look at the shocking example of their reckless attack in Salisbury,” Williamson said. “We know the chemical threat doesn’t just come from Russia but from other actors so we’re evolving the capability to meet that danger.”
New facility could allow military and commercial research
The new facility cannotproduce weapons because the U.K. is a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, but Dr Michelle Bentley, a Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Director of the Centre of International Public Policy at Royal Holloway, University of London told The Defense Post that the Convention allows signatories to develop defences against attack.
“The new centre will have access to all the chemical agents used in weapons – like sarin or the Novichok nerve agent used against Skipral – so scientists can develop defence mechanisms such as vaccines. Laboratories can effectively do what they like as long as they don’t weaponise the agent,” Bentley said. “Scientists are allowed to work with chemical agents, as long as it is for peaceful, commercial, or defensive purposes.”
Vaccines can prevent the effects of chemical weapons, Bentley said, adding that researchers could also look at “any medical intervention that stops the symptoms of a chemical attack – just like you would stop an allergy attack.”
Citing the government advice to people in in Salisbury who were told to wash their clothes and possessions if they were near the attack site, Bentley said that basic decontamination – like taking a shower – may be enough to mitigate risk after an incident.
Threat from non-state actors
Chemical weapons have always been a major threat, but Bentley said it would be wrong to single out Russia, suggesting that non-state actors may also pose a significant danger.
“The biggest chemical weapons problem is currently in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad is slaughtering rebels and civilians with chemical weapons,” Bentley said. “Islamic State is using chlorine and sarin in Iraq – mainly against the Kurdish fighters there, but there were rumours that the terror organisation also used them against US troops stationed outside Mosul in 2016.”
Bentley said that while it is good to see the chemical weapon threat gain more attention, Williamson did not address the real risk that they could be used in a terrorist attack.
“This is an important issue, but you can’t cherry-pick your threats like that,” she said.
Commenting on the timing of the speech, Bentley noted that it was “extremely coincidental” that the announcement was made today, saying the government may have wanted the facility to remain a military secret but publicising it could be a “show of military strength against Russia.”
“Perhaps the government thought they couldn’t justify spending £48 million on defence in a time of supposed austerity in the U.K. – especially as there wasn’t an obvious chemical weapons threat in this country before Skipral was poisoned,” she added.
Troops to be vaccinated against anthrax
Williamson also announced that British troops held at high-readiness will be offered anthrax vaccinations.
The voluntary measure is reportedly a precaution in case they are deployed to areas where there is a risk of infection from the bacteria which was used in a number of terror attacks in the United States in 2001.
However, Bentley told The Defense Post that the vaccination plan may be more about public relations than operational planning.
“I would need to see more evidence that vaccinating troops against anthrax should be a priority,” Bentley said. “At the moment, I can’t see what this would achieve beyond operational prudence and a PR trick to make it look like the U.K. government is taking action on chemical warfare.”
“Sarin and nerve agents are the most popular weapons at the moment,” she added.
With reporting from AFP