The Looming Biological Warfare Storm: Misconceptions and Probable Scenarios

Article excerpt

Editorial Abstract: The several anthrax incidents that occurred in Florida, New York, and Washington, D.C., during the fall of 2001 did not provide convincing evidence that a mass-casualty biological warfare attack is likely. Colonel Davis systematically unravels six prevailing myths that, in his view, blind US decision makers to the possibility of bioattacks against agriculture, troops, and population centers. In Davis's opinion, our persistent denial of the realities that characterize our adversaries' biological warfare capabilities could result in catastrophic consequences.

Yet, this is still a dangerous world, a less certain, a less predictable one. . . . Many have chemical and biological weapons. Most troubling of all, the list of these countries includes some of the world's least-responsible states.

-President George W. Bush

National Defense University, 1 May 2001

THE LIKELIHOOD THAT biological weapons will be used against our nation continues to rise. Many in the recent past have considered the talk of such horrific weapons as only hype to justify funding for certain programs for DOD, other governmental agencies, or government contractors. The stark reality of 11 September 2001-when hijacked airliners were used as missiles, and anthrax attacks followed-has changed that perception for many. However, since we have not yet suffered a mass-casualty biological warfare (BW) event, there are others that still dismiss the scenario as highly unlikely. If this view is persuasive to US decision makers, it will impede the nation's ability to prepare for or prevent such an event. Until very recently, the lack of focus on this subject had resulted in a lack of appropriate funding and accountability. There are six important myths that have caused some senior civilian and military government leaders to develop an inappropriate view of this threat.

It would be valuable to those who recognize the nation's vulnerability to BW to know the most likely scenarios we should expect to encounter. Such informed speculations and visualization allow us to prepare before the event or possibly even to prevent it. This article describes six common myths about BW and three of the most likely future BW scenarios we may face.

Why Postulate?

Thomas C. Schelling observes that "the tendency in our planning is to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable. The contingency we have not considered seriously looks strange; what looks strange is thought improbable; what is improbable need not be considered seriously."1

The United States has limited funds to spend on social and military programs. The military budget is currently 3 percent of the US gross national product (GNP) as compared to 6 percent of the GNP during the late 1980s.2 The most devastating terrorist attack ever perpetrated against the United States occurred on 11 September 2001 and not only cost many lives, but the associated economic impact exceeded hundreds of billions of dollars in direct replacement costs, lost revenues, and costly response efforts. Yet, the human impact and economic impact of 11 September 2001 will be dwarfed if adversaries are able to effectively deploy mass-casualty biological weapons against the United States. Unless we focus appropriate dollars and develop a coherent national plan to prepare for and prevent such actions, the United States will likely suffer an enormous economic loss that could even lead to our demise as a superpower.

Will There Really Be an Attack?

A belief in one or more of at least six false assumptions or myths helps explain why individuals, including senior civilian and military leaders, do not believe that a mass-casualty BW attack will occur.

Myth One: There Never Really Has Been a Significant BW Attack

This contention is counter to historical fact. Even before the fall 2001 anthrax terrorism in the United States, incidents of BW and bio-terrorism have occurred on multiple occasions. …