By: Helen Mearns

U.S. Army Photo/SSG Ian Kummer

The possibility that an adversary will use chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons or materials against the United States and its allies makes it increasingly important for a mission-critical system (MCS) to be able to survive such attacks. By definition, an MCS is a system (primary, auxiliary, or supporting) whose operational effectiveness and operational suitability are essential to successful mission completion or to aggregate residual combat capability. If this system fails, the mission likely will not be completed. A CBRN MCS is an MCS with operational concepts requiring employment and survivability in chemical, biological, and radiological (CBR) or nuclear environments. Accordingly, the primary objective of CBRN survivability is to enhance the protection of military systems, equipment, and facilities against CBRN threat environments and related weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to ensure that materiel used on the battlefield will survive a CBRN environment and that these systems and equipment can be operated by personnel in a protective posture.


The issue of CBRN survivability is not new. In September 2008, the Department of Defense (DoD) issued DoD Instruction (DoDI) 3150.09, the CBRN Survivability Policy [1]. The policy, which was the culminating response to a series of reports and directives [2–6], defined CBRN MCSs and described how they are to be identified and reviewed to ensure their survivability in CBRN environments. The policy focused on the requirement that these systems be CBRN survivable in accordance with their capabilities documents’ survivability requirements.

In April 2015, DoDI 3150.09 was reissued with an expanded scope to include deterrence. The policy now states that,

The force will be equipped to survive and operate in chemical, biological, and radiological (CBR) or nuclear environments as a deterrent to adversary use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States, its allies, and its interests.

This distinction underlines the importance of CBRN survivability as an adversary deterrent, not just an acquisition mandate.


CBRN survivability is the capability of a system to avoid, withstand, or operate during and after exposure to a CBRN environment (and decontamination process) without losing the ability to accomplish the assigned mission. Contamination here includes fallout and initial nuclear weapon effects, including blast, electromagnetic pulse (EMP), and other initial radiation and shockwave effects. All Acquisition Category 1 programs expected to operate in a CBR or nuclear environment are designated CBRN MCS and must be CBRN survivable in accordance with the applicable key performance parameters (KPPs).

CBRN survivability consists of two main aspects: CBR contamination survivability and nuclear survivability. CBR contamination survivability is the capability of a system and its crew to withstand a CBR-contaminated environment, including decontamination, without losing the ability to accomplish the assigned mission. Therefore, systems will probably maintain some functionality after being contaminated, but they may be severely degraded due to the deleterious effects of CBR substances, decontaminants, and decontamination processes if these are not considered in the design of the system. Additionally, protective equipment will need to be worn by the crew to operate the contaminated system, which will slow operations.

Nuclear survivability is the capability of a system or infrastructure to withstand exposure to nuclear environments without suffering the loss of ability to accomplish its designated mission throughout its life cycle.

As directed by the Defense Acquisition Board, each CBRN MCS under development as a DoD acquisition program must include in the Systems Engineering Plan how the design incorporates the CBRN survivability requirements and how progress toward these requirements is tracked and documented over the acquisition life cycle. Additionally, a legacy CBRN MCS undergoing requirements document review must also include CBRN threats, the CBRN mission-critical designation, and CBRN survivability in the requirements documents.

Achieving CBR contamination survivability is predicated on three principles: hardness, decontaminability, and compatibility.

CBR hardness is the capability of materiel or a system to withstand the damaging effects of CBR contamination and any decontaminants and procedures required to decontaminate it.

CBR decontaminability is the ability of a system to be rapidly and effectively decontaminated using standard decontaminants and procedures available in the field. Understandably, hardness and decontaminability are closely related. Achieving requirements in these areas is enhanced by using materials that do not absorb CBR contaminants and that facilitate their rapid removal and also by designing systems in such a way as to minimize or prevent the accumulation of CBR contaminants.

CBR compatibility refers to the ability of a system to be operated, maintained, and resupplied by personnel wearing the full individual protective equipment. Compatibility can be facilitated by designing systems that enable the ease of manipulation of controls when dexterity is hindered by wearing gloves.

Nuclear survivability may be accomplished by hardening, timely resupply, redundancy, mitigation techniques (including operational techniques), or any combination thereof and includes EMP survivability.

  • Nuclear hardening is a design and manufacturing technique that allows the system to resist malfunction (temporary or permanent) and degraded performance induced by nuclear weapons effects. If the system is not protected, it will not function after a nuclear yield. Further, hardness maintenance and hardness surveillance procedures are required to ensure that the hardness built into a system is retained throughout its life cycle and not degraded through operational use, logistic support, or maintenance actions.
  • Timely resupply is the fielding and positioning of extra systems or spares used for replacement of equipment lost to nuclear weapons effects.
  • Redundancy is the incorporation of extra components into a system or the provision of alternate methods to accomplish a function so that if one fails, another is available.
  • Mitigation techniques are used to reduce the vulnerability of a system to nuclear weapons effects through avoidance (to eliminate detection and attack), active defense (e.g., radar-jamming), and deception.


Offices under the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (USD(AT&L)), the Secretaries of the Military Departments, the Joint Staff, and the Combatant Commanders have key roles with regard to the implementation of DoDI 3150.09. One aspect of these roles includes the preparation and review of the CBRN mission-critical reports (MCRs). The reports are used for managing CBRN survivability of programs and to enable senior-level oversight of the CBRN survivability posture across the DoD.

The Secretaries of the Military Departments and the Director of the Missile Defense Agency are responsible for submitting their respective CBRN MCRs and assessing the current survivability status of their CBRN MCS. Review and discussion of the CBRN MCR occurs at the CBRN Survivability Oversight Group meetings, which may be called by the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs; the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense (DASD(CBD)); or the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters (DASD(NM)).

Additionally, the Joint CBRN Defense Program Analysis and Integration Office (PAIO), under the auspices of the office of the DASD(CBD), collaborates with the office of the DASD(NM) to review DoD CBRN Survivability Policy goals and progress in achieving those goals; monitor CBRN survivability research, development, test, and evaluation activities; and make recommendations to the USD(AT&L) or others as appropriate.

Based on lessons learned through implementation of DoDI 3150.09, the Joint CBRN Defense PAIO partnered with the Deputy Director, Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E)/Live Fire Test & Evaluation (LFT&E); the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) Combat Survivability Division; the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA); and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) to co-sponsor one-day workshops for the aircraft community. In May 2014, a one-day workshop was presented on high-altitude EMP survivability of aircraft, followed in April 2015 by a one-day workshop on aircraft CBR contamination survivability. Each workshop provided a forum to address the CBRN threat posed to aircraft and, as a result, identified the need for more educational opportunities across the DoD.

Subsequently, the Joint CBRN Defense PAIO worked jointly with the offices of the DASD(CBD) and DASD(NM) to conduct a two-day DoD-sponsored CBRN Survivability Conference in November 2016. The conference, which was attended by approximately 100 participants, provided an opportunity for interaction between CBRN survivability subject-matter experts and those program executive offices and project managers who have a requirement for a system to be CBRN survivable but have little experience in the subject area. The conference included briefings by DoD organizations such as DTRA, the Joint Requirements Office, and the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense, as well as the Army, Navy, Air Force, U.S. Special Operations Command, and Maneuver Support Center of Excellence.

Conference topics included the following:

  • An Introduction to DoDI 3150.09
  • Operation Tomodachi
  • Operational Perspective
  • The Role of the Joint Combat Developer
  • Support to Major Defense Acquisition Programs
  • Service-Specific Briefs.

Two main themes emerged from the conference: requirements and training. The importance of integrating CBRN survivability requirements at the beginning of system development cannot be overemphasized. Additionally, as the DoD moves forward with implementing DoDI 3150.09, providing training to combat developers and materiel developers will be integral to successful implementation of the policy. Drs. David “Chris” Hassell (DASD(CBD)) and Vahid Majidi (DASD(NM)) also pressed the deterrent aspect of CBRN survivability. Survivability directly supports the U.S. approach to deterrence, a central concept to the nation’s national security strategy.


The 2014 “Department of Defense Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction” sums up the increasingly dangerous environment the United States faces when it comes to WMDs [7]:

Potential adversaries of the United States continue to pursue weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to enhance their international influence and achieve greater strategic leverage against U.S. advantages. Increased access to expertise, materials, and technologies heightens the risk that these adversaries will seek, acquire, proliferate, and employ WMD. Furthermore, instability in states pursuing or possessing WMD or related capabilities could lead to dangerous WMD crises.

Accordingly, improving CBRN survivability of MCS is a key issue with profound implications for overall combat effectiveness of U.S. military forces. To be sure, the DoD has made great strides in, and focused much attention on, CBRN survivability, but there is still much work to be done.


Ms. Helen Mearns is currently the Deputy Director for the Chemical Security Analysis Center at the Department of Homeland Security. She has more than 25 years of experience in CBR contamination survivability. Previously, she worked for the Joint CBRN Defense PAIO, where she was responsible for oversight of technology objectives, engineering design standards, and test standards, supporting all aspects of research, development, test, and evaluation of CBRN defense equipment. She also served as the Principal Advisor to the DASD(CBD) on matters of CBRN survivability and managed the DoD CBRN Survivability Program in coordination with the office of the DASD(NM).

[1] U.S. Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics. “The Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) Survivability Policy.” DoDI 3150.09, September 2008 (reissued in April 2015). [2] Government Accountability Office. “Chemical and Biological Defense: Sustained Leadership Attention Needed to Resolve Operational and System Survivability Concerns.” GAO-03-325C, 30 May 2003. [3] “Ronald W. Reagan National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2005,” October 2004. [4] U.S. Department of Defense. “United States Nuclear Weapons Command and Control, Safety and Security.” DoD Directive S-5210.81, August 2005. [5] Government Accountability Office. “Chemical and Biological Defense: DOD Needs Consistent Policies and Clear Processes to Address the Survivability of Weapon Systems Against Chemical and Biological Threats.” GAO-06-592, April 2006. [6] President George W. Bush. National Security Presidential Directive-51/Homeland Security Presidential Directive-20, National Continuity Policy, May 2007. [7] U.S. Department of Defense. “Department of Defense Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction.” June 2014.