Biological Weapons: Toward a Threat Reduction Strategy
Roberts, Brad, Moodie, Michael, Defense Horizons
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. Even before the outbreak of anthrax in Sverdlovsk in 1979, however, American experts were convinced that the Soviet Union was violating its treaty undertakings, a view that the outbreak only reinforced.
The past decade has witnessed numerous alarming revelations about the scale, scope, content, and sophistication of BW programs in a number of countries. The first is Iraq, which was compelled to admit (after 4 years of denial) to the United Nations (UN) that it had weaponized three different agents in both missiles and bombs. The nature of Iraqi revelations and the subsequent ejection of UN inspectors have fueled speculation that the admissions were incomplete and that there may be much more to the Iraqi program than is currently known. To date, Saddam Husayn has foregone over $100 billion in oil revenue to protect this BW program.
Another country that has raised BW concerns is South Africa. As hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission revealed, during apartheid the state pursued a covert chemical and biological warfare program with rather novel applications. Chemical and biological weapon techniques were exploited in the hope of altering demographic birth and death rates. Allegedly South Africa also provided BW to those opposing independence movements in neighboring states.
But the revelations about the Soviet/Russian program were the most alarming. In 1992, Russian president Boris Yeltsin confirmed the existence of a long-running illicit BW program. The Soviets apparently had at least four distinct BW development programs. Biopreparat, described in vivid detail by its former deputy director, Ken Alibek, sought to exploit genetic engineering techniques to field weapons that would rain on Western cities after nuclear war to slow national recovery (the purpose of the bioengineering was to reduce the susceptibility of the ensuing diseases to antibiotic treatment). By way of comparison for scale of effort, Biopreparat alone employed more people than the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.
Also over the last decade, senior intelligence officials have regularly testified in Congressional hearings that biological weapons development programs can be found in all of the states deemed rogues by Washington, including Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Those officials also regularly express concerns about biological warfare activities in other countries, including China, where the evidence is more ambiguous whether interest and potential translate into extant capability. Further, intelligence officials are careful to point out that, given the extreme difficulty of identifying covert BW research and development (R&D) and storage facilities, the number of states with a BW capability may well be larger.
The prevailing American view that history proves that states are not much interested in BW is sharply at odds with these realities. Perhaps it is simply that America's own abandonment of BW, in combination with the central place of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, have given us a view of biological weapons that others do not share.
Myth Two: Biological Weapons Have No …
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Publication information: Article title: Biological Weapons: Toward a Threat Reduction Strategy. Contributors: Roberts, Brad - Author, Moodie, Michael - Author. Journal title: Defense Horizons. Issue: 15 Publication date: July 2002. Page number: 1. © 2001 National Defense University. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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