Academic journal article Defense Horizons

Biology and the Battlefield

Academic journal article Defense Horizons

Biology and the Battlefield

Article excerpt


The military and the life sciences have been intertwined throughout history. Biology has often been a source of offensive weapons, ranging from the hurling of plague victims over the walls of Kaffa (which probably started the 14th-century Black Death) to the anthrax attacks of fall 2001.

The military-biology relationship also has a humane side. Over the years, medical advances have saved countless soldiers and contributed to the overall well being of society. From the smallpox inoculation of Continental Army recruits in 1777--nearly 20 years before Edward Jenner's smallpox vaccination--to the development of modern vaccines, military physicians have a lengthy and impressive record of achievements.

Biology has a new military role in the 21st century. Using the tools of biotechnology, the emphasis is now on increasing warfighting capabilities by improving materiel and enhancing warrior performance. Potential new tools range from small electronic devices based on bacterial proteins to foods that contain vaccines. The possibilities range from warriors functioning without difficulty in extreme environments to unmanned aerial vehicles flying in autonomous swarms.

For the military to benefit fully from the advances of 21st-century biology, a new organization is needed within the Department of Defense (DOD) that addresses the ethical, legal, and regulatory implications of biotechnology. This entity also must ensure that DOD biotechnology spending is increased and that the majority of the funds are directed to warfighting issues rather than the longstanding biological concerns of medical and defensive measures.

A Brief History of Biology and the Battlefield

There was a time when mention of the words biology and military in the same sentence conjured images of biological warfare agents laying waste to soldiers and civilians alike. Some medical historians suggest that the plague pandemic of the 14th century was due to military actions in 1346, when the dead bodies of plague victims were thrown over the walls of the besieged Black Sea port of Kaffa. The Russians employed a similar strategy in 1710, provoking an epidemic among their Swedish enemies. By 1767, the agent of choice had shifted to smallpox. Some historians say that during the French and Indian War, English General Lord Jeffrey Amherst supplied smallpox-infected blankets to Indians loyal to the French. The resulting epidemic played a significant role in Amherst's capture of Fort Carillon, which he renamed Fort Ticonderoga. (1)

By the beginning of the 20th century, the germ theory of disease was well established, and potential victims extended beyond the human population. During World War I, at least two instances are well documented of German agents trying to infect horses destined for use by U.S. troops in Europe. Operating in the United States, German agents unsuccessfully inoculated horses with glanders disease--a fatal bacterial disease that can also infect humans--prior to their shipment to Europe. (2) In January 1917, Baron Otto Karl von Rosen was apprehended in Norway on suspicion of espionage and sabotage. His luggage contained a sealed glass tube, later determined to hold anthrax. His plan was to put the bacteria on sugar cubes and feed it to horses carrying supplies to the Allies. (3)

During World War II, the infamous Japanese Unit 731 conducted experiments with a broad range of agents, including anthrax, tularemia, plague, botulism, smallpox, glanders, typhoid, and typhus. Prisoners were used as subjects in many of the experiments, and reports show that about 1,000 autopsies were performed on anthrax victims. In 1940, the Japanese succeeded in causing a plague epidemic in China and Manchuria. They airdropped bags filled with plague-infected fleas and grain. The grain attracted rats, which then carried the infected fleas to humans. (4)

During the 1970s and early 1980s, the Soviets were suspected of various biological misdeeds in the pursuit of their national interests. …

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