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Tough to ‘weaponise’ coronavirus, but can’t rule out attacks: Armed Forces Medical Chief

Lt Gen. Anup Banerji says until a vaccine or treatment for coronavirus is found, the armed forces will stay vigilant.

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New Delhi: The possibility of adversaries weaponising or using the coronavirus against the Indian armed forces is remote, but they remain susceptible to such attacks until a vaccine or preventative medical therapy is found, Lt Gen. Anup Banerji, Director General of the Armed Forces Medical Services (AFMS) told ThePrint.

The DG is the head of the AFMS and is responsible for the overall medical policy of the armed forces.

The senior military officer further said that the virus is not a “lucrative” biological agent, and although highly contagious, has “very low mortality” in the young and those with no co-morbidities.

“In fact, most of those infected remain asymptomatic,” he said.

“However, in the absence of an effective vaccine or a proven chemoprophylaxis, we will remain susceptible to such attacks,” the officer added.

Chemoprophylaxis refers to the use of medicine to treat diseases.

Lt Gen. Banerji’s comments come days after the Army’s 15th Corps Commander, Lt Gen. B.S. Raju, had told the BBC that the Army has received intelligence inputs that Pakistan is pushing a lot of coronavirus cases into Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir.

Lt Gen. Raju had said that India is “conscious that Pakistan is taking risk of putting gullible people training as terrorists into small, enclosed spaces in their launch pads”, and these people coming from across the Line of Control could be carriers of the virus.

Also read: Global lockdown and Covid crisis haven’t stopped Pakistan from its anti-India agenda

Preparing for bio-threats not a new plan 

On India’s current policies to prevent such threats, senior Army officers explained that while the pandemic has brought the aspect of such bio-threats into prominence lately, the Army has always considered chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) warfare as a critical part of its operational planning.

“Accordingly, a comprehensive policy is in place for defence against CBRN attacks, from which is derived our CBRN equipment policy,” a senior officer, who has specifically dealt with the subject, told ThePrint.

The Army has in place the Faculty of CBRN Protection (FCBRNP), nodal training institute that deals with defensive CBRN warfare, and is responsible for inculcating basic and advanced training.

On the status of availability of adequate protective gear on the ground to deal with such attacks, the officer said the Army is adequately prepared to ensure “both individual and collective protection for its troops during a bio-threat in operations or a bio-emergency at home in peace”.

“Exhaustive protocols are in place to ensure adequate protection for troops in sync with the guidelines being issued by the Government of India, without adversely affecting our security apparatus,” the officer added, and said that events which require mass movement of personnel such as training courses, exercises, conferences, postings, move of units etc., have been suspended to conform to the lockdown.

Also read: Covid blurs distinction between war and peace as soldiers worldwide fight the third army

Policy in place and debate for change

Given the speculation of how Covid-19 could be used as a bio-weapon since it is highly virulent, a second senior Army officer said that a doctrinal change is needed under which population protection and survivability of soldiers needs to be incorporated.

“It needs to be implemented to ensure that the necessary equipment is available to frontline troops,” the second officer said.

However, the first officer quoted said the detailed curriculum available focuses on all aspects of CBRN warfare and exposes combatants to the nuances of ‘On Job Training’ on the equipment held in the inventory.

“Experience from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is being suitably factored into the training philosophy. Since a virulent pathogen does not differentiate between a civilian or military personnel, no major doctrinal change as such is warranted,” the officer said.

The Navy has the Nuclear Biological Chemical Damage control (NBCD) school where all personnel compulsorily undergo basic, refresher and specialised training from ab initio, i.e., from entry to senior levels.

Naval sources said every operational unit is trained and equipped to meet contingencies of nuclear radiation, chemical attack and biological attack in addition to fighting fires and flooding on ships, and personnel are sensitised to these various forms of warfare and counteracting the same.

“Modern ships are designed to pass through contaminated areas that are mainly radioactive but could also include airborne attacks with chemical or biological weapons,” said a senior Naval officer said.

“The entire ship is closed down to an external environment and made airtight. The ventilation and filtration systems are recycled internally for habitation and continuation of operations,” the officer added.

“Personnel are cleansed through cleansing stations before entering the citadel spaces. A citadel is a group of interconnected compartments which are maintained sterile from the environment for personnel to operate from. There are other systems too that endeavour to protect an entire ship passing through contamination zones,” the officer said.

Apart from the Navy and Army, the Indian Air Force also has a dedicated institute on nuclear, biological, chemical protection, and has placed quick response teams with manpower trained for CBRN across the IAF bases in the country.

Also read: Indian Army, Air Force and Navy must work out a joint media policy for information warfare


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