Defence Evaluation and Research Agency

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Group.png Defence Science and Technology Laboratory   Powerbase WebsiteRdf-icon.png
Porton Down.jpg
Formation2 July 2001
LeaderGary Aitkenhead
Type• commercial
• military

The Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) was a part of the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) until 2 July 2001. At the time it was the United Kingdom's largest science and technology organisation. DERA was split into two organisations: short-lived transition bodies known as PDERA ("privatised" DERA) which became a commercial firm, QinetiQ, and "RDERA" (meaning "retained" in Government DERA) which became the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl).

At the split, QinetiQ was formed from the majority (about 3/4 of the staff and most of the facilities) of DERA, with Dstl assuming responsibility for those aspects which were best done in government. A few examples of the work undertaken by Dstl include nuclear, chemical, and biological research. In the time since the split both organisations have undergone significant change programmes. QinetiQ has increased its focus on overseas research with a number of US and other foreign acquisitions, whereas Dstl has a major rationalisation programme aimed at changing many aspects of its operations.[1]

Origins

DERA was formed in April 1995 as an amalgamation of the following organisations:

  • Defence Research Agency (DRA) which was set up in April 1991 and comprised the Royal Aerospace Establishment (RAE); Admiralty Research Establishment (ARE); Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment (RARDE); and, Royal Signals and Radar Establishment (RSRE)
  • Defence Test and Evaluation Organisation (DTEO)
  • Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment (CBDE at Porton Down), which became part of the Protection and Life Sciences Division (PLSD)
  • Centre for Defence Analysis (CDA).

The chief executive throughout DERA's existence was John Chisholm. DERA's staffing level was around 9000 scientists, technologists and support staff.

Flotation

In 2001, when Defence Minister Lewis Moonie announced the creation of QinetiQ, he said that it would remain a British company based in the UK. The Ministry of Defence would keep a 'special share' in the company, and safeguards would be in place to prevent conflicts of interest. In February 2003, the U.S. private equity firm the Carlyle Group acquired a 31% share for £42m. Prior to stock market flotation, ownership was split between the MoD (56%), Carlyle Group (31%) and staff (13%). The Carlyle Group was expected to invest for three to five years, after which a stock exchange float would take place. From 2002 to 2005, former chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee Pauline Neville-Jones was non-executive chairman of QinetiQ.

On 12 January 2006, following financial press speculation concerning a stock exchange float, an announcement was made in parliament by Dr John Reid, Secretary of State for Defence. He said that the Carlyle Group 'will continue to retain a significant stake in the company', and that the government would continue to hold a 'Golden Share' to protect the UK's security and defence interests.

QinetiQ was floated on the London Stock Exchange in February 2006. The company had been valued at between £1.1bn and £1.3bn, with the MoD holding estimated to be worth £616m – £728m, the Carlyle Group's holding £341m – £403m, and staff/management's holding worth £143m – £169m. The Carlyle Group and senior managers made a lot of money from this, with figures of over £20m suggested in the media for John Chisholm.[2]

Expansion

On 15 March 2018, after the attack on Sergei Skripal, UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced a £48 million "new chemical warfare defence centre at its Porton Down military research laboratory".[3]

Testing nerve agents at Porton

The group of chemicals known as nerve agents were first developed as weapons by the Nazis before and during the Second World War. German scientists discovered the potency of these organophosphorous compounds which, in tiny quantities, disrupt a key element of the nervous system.

Human muscles contract when a chemical, acetylcholine, is released from the nerve endings. Muscles do not exist in a permanent form of contraction because acetylecholine is destroyed in a split second by an enzyme (acetylcholinesterase), thus allowing the muscle to relax again. Nerve gases inactivate this important enzyme, and since it is prevented from working, the muscle goes into a state of spasm from which it cannot be relaxed. Victims die because the most important muscles in the body - those of the heart and the rib cage, which control the emptying and filling of the lungs - are paralysed. They suffocate swiftly in a horrifying death.

The nerve gases are more deadly than any other chemical weapon, but during the World War II, only the Germans had spotted their full potential and produced an arsenal of the munitions. As one Porton official has commented, the British and their allies were "caught with our pants down".

As the Third Reich was collapsing in April 1945, the British discovered stocks of the gas in Germany. Within two weeks, Porton had tested the new gas on batches of human subjects, even though they did not know what the unknown compound was or how it harmed the body.

The discovery of the new weapons instantly transformed Porton, as all its previous work on other chemicals, such as mustard gas, was downgraded. Porton scientists quickly had to find out how nerve gases attacked the human body.

One of the early tests established just how little one of the nerve gases, Sarin, was needed to trigger a reaction in humans. Fifty-six men were sent into gas chambers and exposed to "low concentrations" of gas. The scientists watching recorded that after 20 minutes, the men started to suffer miosis (constriction of the pupil), one of the first symptoms of nerve gas poisoning. Their vision was blurred and darkened, in some cases for up to five days.

Fourteen men were exposed to repeated doses of Sarin, some when they were still experiencing the effects of the previous poisoning. Porton scientists observed: :"Repeated exposures produced, after the third or fourth occasion, an aggravation of effects ..."

By 1950, Porton had begun to test "considerable higher doses" of Sarin on 133 men, and catalogued the severity of symptoms, such as runny noses, headaches, vomiting and eye pain.

Within two years, Porton had moved on to look at other aspects. In one study, in 1952, it wanted to see how Sarin would impair the mental performance and intellectual ability of humans.

Twenty airmen were exposed to Sarin and then measured to see how they performed in intelligence and aptitude tests. From this experiment, Porton inferred that after exposure, the men's visual co-ordination was worse, but their reasoning and intellectual capability had not deteriorated. Another 12 men were exposed to stronger doses of Sarin - Porton found that the men appeared "behaviourally much less disturbed than the increased concentration (of Sarin) would lead one to expect".[4]

Q and A at the Embassy

On 11 July 2018, the Russian Embassy Press Officer replied to a media question concerning the activity of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down:

Q: As early as in April the Russian Embassy requested assistance of the British side in arranging a meeting with Chief Executive of the Porton Down Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) Gary Aitkenhead and his colleagues. Have you managed to ascertain whether this secret lab had produced A-234 type agents that were allegedly used against the Skripals?

A: Sadly, the FCO has ignored our query, which brings us to the conclusion that the British authorities wish to prevent us from communicating with experts who might have some information that is inconvenient for the Conservative government. In his interview to Sky News in April, Mr Aitkenhead himself did not deny the fact that his laboratory had produced and stockpiled nerve agents, including the so-called “Novichok”. He added that they “would not be allowed to operate if we had lack of control that could result in anything leaving the four walls of our facility”.[5]

The fact that the Dstl does have something that might “leave the four walls of the facility” is well-known. The lab has been developing and researching military-grade poisons since the First World War, and is located near Salisbury and Amesbury where both incidents have taken place. The fact that the British experts have been able to identify the poison type in no time and provided advice to the doctors who treated the victims, means that Porton Down has indeed researched and stockpiled such a chemical agent and the respective antidotes. As you might recall, Boris Johnson, the then Foreign Secretary, hinted at this fact in his interview to Deutche Welle in March.

The fact that this facility possesses such type of toxic agents and that the two incidents have happened as close as 6 miles from it, makes all allegations by the British government and the media that Russian responsibility is the only plausible explanation to the Skripals’ poisoning, ridiculous.

We intend to demand that the British authorities reveal their existing chemical weapons programme, including development of “Novichok” – a new type of nerve agents researched in the West. Publication of such information would serve the interests of all those who wish to establish the truth in the Salisbury case.[6]

 

Related Quotation

PageQuoteAuthorDate
Craig Murray“We have a programme, the Integrity Initiative, whose entire purpose is to pump out covert disinformation against Russia, through social media and news stories secretly paid for by the British government. And we have the Skripals’ MI6 handler, the BBC, Porton Down, the FCO, the MOD and the US Embassy, working together in a group under the auspices of the Integrity Initiative. The Skripal Case happened to occur shortly after a massive increase in the Integrity Initiative’s budget and activity, which itself was a small part of a British Government decision to ramp up a major information war against Russia. I find that very interesting indeed.”Craig Murray21 December 2018

 

Related Documents

TitleTypePublication dateAuthor(s)Description
Document:Novichok Part Deux: A Fusion of Media, Government & MilitaryArticle10 July 2018Kenny CoyleBBC diplomatic and defence correspondent Mark Urban revealed this week that he had in fact been meeting secretly with Sergei Skripal over a year ago.
Document:Salisbury Incident - Skripal Case Investigators Could Learn From The Lockerbie AffairArticle24 September 2018Ludwig De BraeckeleerPorton Down has been renamed many times: RARDE, DERA, Dstl, but it's still the same damn place.


References

External links