Backgrounder:
Twenty-First Century Germ Warfare

At least three Middle East countries are developing their potential for biological or germ warfare. In this enlightening article, ROBERT KADLEC, a lieutenant-colonel in the US Airforce, takes a hard look at these monstrous instruments of war. They are cheap, easily manufactured, and can pose a greater danger than chemical, or even nuclear, weapons.

MANY technical barriers which once limited the effective use of biological warfare (BW) are gone. A country or group with modest pharmaceutical expertise can develop BW for terrorist or military use. As the United States prepares itself for the national security challenges of the 21st century, it must grasp the implications of this silent revolution.

Biological warfare offers an adversary unique and significant advantages because of its ease of production, potential impact of use, and the ability to exploit US vulnerabilities. It is the only weapon of mass destruction which has utility across the spectrum of conflict. Using biological weapons under the cover of an endemic or natural disease occurrence provides an attacker the potential for plausible denial. In this context, biological weapons offer greater possibilities for use than do nuclear weapons.

Biological agents are many times deadlier, pound-for pound, than chemical agents. Ten grams of anthrax spores could kill as many people as a ton of the nerve agent Sarin.

The relative coverage of 1,000 kilograms of nerve agent Sarin is 7,8 square kilometres under ideal meteorological conditions [at night, with favourable mild to moderate winds]. Attacking a major metropolitan city like Washington, DC, would result in an estimated 3 000 to 8 000 deaths. A similar attack using 100 kilograms of anthrax under the same conditions would cover 300 square kilometers and result in one to three million deaths. Anthrax, under favourable meteorological conditions, could kill as many people as a comparably-sized nuclear device.

A recently published Office of Technology Assessment document, Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: Assessing the Risks, had three major findings:

  1. The states most actively working to develop weapons of mass destruction, although limited in number, are for the most part located in unstable parts of the world the Middle East, South Asia, and the on Korean Peninsula;
  2. Weapons of mass destruction proliferation poses dangers to all nations;
  3. The breakup of the Soviet Union presents immediate threats to the global non-proliferation regimes.
The proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and ballistic missiles creates a pall over the potential achievement of a stable global environment. It also raises the risks of escalation of regional conflicts. Proliferants understand the value of these weapons for deterrence, coercion, and war.

The consequences of chemical warfare have unfortunately been recorded in recent history. The television images of dead Kurdish villagers and incapacitated Iranian soldiers during the Iran-Iraq War reveal the grisly and inhuman effects of chemical weaponry. The psychological impact of Iran's Scud missile attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia was enormous.

Nowhere in recent history, however, has the use of BW been similarly documented.

Desert Storm solidified the perception in the United States, in the Congress, and among our military leadership that biological weapons were something that third world nations considered a potential equaliser. Developing and producing BW is much simpler and cheaper than developing nuclear weapons. Biotechnology allows small facilities to be capable of producing large amounts of biological agents. Ten million dollars allows a proliferant to produce a large arsenal. The scientific and technological knowledge needed to develop and produce offensive agents in significant quantities is readily available and relatively unsophisticated. The equipment required is widely available and is dual-use, having legitimate commercial applications. Finally, and probably most importantly, the use of BW could be difficult to prove in some cases, since outbreaks of endemic or naturally occurring disease happen.

DIPLOMATIC efforts to prevent or control BW proliferation will [be limited]. States which are parties to the Biological Weapons Convention, but are committed eventually to developing secret offensive biological weapons capabilities, can do serious BW research and development legally for a time within the current treaty framework.

Nations which are not signatories can refuse entry and pursue offensive programmes as well.

While diplomacy alone can do little to prevent BW proliferation, diplomatic and economic pressure can serve a useful purpose in inhibiting a proliferant's activities by invoking sanctions, export controls, or publicly disclosing violations. Invoking these measures depends on timely and accurate intelligence. Diplomatic measures which try to control proliferation may, in the short run, delay a proliferant's efforts. In the long term, they may motivate determined proliferants to conceal or deceive their true intent and activities.

Expectations for preventing BW proliferation must be grounded in reality. The likelihood of preventing or deterring a determined proliferant from obtaining biological weapons is relatively small. The outlook is discouraging.

"Brain drain" from the former Soviet Union may create volatile opportunities for breakthrough proliferants.

The problem of biological warfare cannot be narrowly focused on its ability to kill or render people ill. Biological warfare's potential to create significant economic loss and subsequent political instability with plausible denial exceeds any other known weapon.

(Excerpts from an article published in 1996 by the United States Air Force's Air University)

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