Biological Weapons: Toward a Threat Reduction Strategy

Article excerpt

Overview

A decade ago, the U.S. military and its allies had a close call with biological weapons (BW) in the war to expel Iraq from Kuwait. Iraqi BW could have inflicted horrific casualties on coalition forces, but the war stopped short of the contingency for which Iraq had prepared, predeployed, and preauthorized the use of such weapons: a march on Baghdad to remove the regime. A decade later, the United States is again poised for war against Iraq--this time for the explicit purpose of regime removal. Moreover, it is engaged in a war on terrorism against adversaries who evidently are strongly interested in BW. But the close call of a decade ago, and the concern it generated among senior Gulf War military leaders, do not appear to have translated into substantial improvements to the operational capability of current U.S. military forces to project power and prevail against BW-armed adversaries. Despite the efforts of many committed individuals, large vulnerabilities in the U.S. BW defense posture remain. Technology remains in the pipeline and not on the battlefield. Operational concepts seem founded on the assumption that an adversary would not dare use these weapons or, if he did, that U.S. forces could simply operate around them, as if they were chemical weapons.

The present scare seems to have generated even broader high-level concern than did the potential exposure to Iraqi BW 10 years ago. How can this concern be translated into an action agenda that will succeed at reducing present and future threats?

How should we understand the risks of BW while the Al Qaeda leadership and anthrax mailer remain at large--and as the prospect of another war against Saddam Husayn looms on the horizon? Our focus here is on the threat of biological weapons to military forces and operations; where appropriate, we sketch out some connections to the BW homeland security challenge.

Why So Little Progress?

The chronic gap between requirements and preparedness apparently is rooted in a set of myths, widely held among U.S. defense planners, about biological weapons (BW).

Myth One: States Lack Interest in Biological Weapons

Conventional wisdom holds that biological weapons historically have been of hardly any interest to nations. Defense planners commonly hold that because BW have never been used, they should focus their time, energy, and resources on more evident problems. What is wrong with this view?

The record of BW use appears to be fairly slim, although allegations of use are in fact quite numerous. Most incidents remain subjects of dispute, not least because the evidence to prove that such weapons have been used is extremely unlikely to fall into the hands of investigators. These difficult-to-prove allegations include the Yellow Rain attacks by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. Also, many in Asia believe that the United States used biological weapons in the 1950s in Korea and China--allegations that are unproven and for which considerable contrary evidence exists.

However slim the record of actual use, the record of interest in and work on biological warfare by states is significant. In World War II, all major powers undertook BW preparations. Those who were defeated were compelled to abandon their BW ambitions, but the victors continued their efforts. During the Cold War, East and West pursued BW techniques. In the 1960s, Britain and France, and then the United States, unilaterally renounced biological warfare and destroyed stockpiles of weapons. The U.S. arsenal at the time consisted of weaponized anthrax and a substantial quantity of nonlethal agents, primarily for the attack of agricultural targets in the Soviet Union and China. The Nixon administration abandoned offensive BW in part to sustain the momentum of detente and asked the Soviet Union to follow suit. The bilateral U.S.-Soviet agreement fostered the multilateral Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which entered into force in 1975. …