Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Biological Warfare: A Nation at Risk-A Time to Act

Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Biological Warfare: A Nation at Risk-A Time to Act

Article excerpt


There is a regrettable tendency to think about defense against biological warfare either as unnecessary or as "too hard." Unfortunately, the danger of biological warfare did not dissipate with the dismantling of our own offensive program in 1969, the signing of the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the threat of nuclear retaliation against Saddam in 1991. Only by planning and preparing will we be able to diminish the likelihood that biological weapons will be used, and reduce the risks if they are. Fortunately, substantial improvements can be made in our biological defensive capabilities at relatively small levels of investment.

Why Think About Biological Warfare?

There are three compelling reasons why the national security establishment ought to be thinking more about, and investing more in, defenses against biological warfare (BW).

1. Our future enemies' strategies. To assess our vulnerabilities, it is useful to put ourselves in the shoes of our potential opponents. The overwhelming conventional military superiority the United States displayed in the Kuwaiti desert will make potential aggressors less likely to confront us directly. Concomitantly, those who wish to challenge our resolve will be tempted to do so indirectly and unconventionally. Additionally, the perception that America is reluctant to accept high mortality rates in combat will make high casualty weapons, such as biological agents, especially attractive to our enemies.

2. Our future enemies' resources. While a nuclear arsenal requires massive investments and a sophisticated and capable military infrastructure to support it, an opponent does not need to be a superpower to have a biological warfare capability. Biological weapons are inexpensive and accessible. A small pharmaceutical industry or even moderately sophisticated university or medical research laboratory can generate a significant offensive capability. Delivery can be by warheads on missiles, but also by means as simple as a crop sprayer.

Some sense of why biological weapons are the "poor man's nuclear bomb" is suggested by a United Nations expert's 1969 estimate that the costs of producing mass casualties per square kilometer are as follows: biological-$1/km2; chemical (nerve agent)-$600/km2; nuclear-$800/km2; conventional-$2000/km2. While these figures are outdated, the relative orders of magnitude they suggest are still quite valid.

3. Our blind spots. Our current vulnerabilities to BW are substantial. Many of these blind spots are beyond our immediate control; they result from the inherent nature of the biological weapons, such as their relative ease of production and concealment. Many, however, are self-inflicted--they are a result of our underinvestment and lack of attention. In short, by our neglect, we are ourselves creating an incentive to use BW.

The history of the absorption of technology into the operational and warfighting capabilities of the Department of Defense suggests one reason for this blind spot. Professor Alan Beyerchin of Ohio State University has suggested that we might think about WWI as a conflict that forced chemists and warfighters to talk with one another; WWII as a conflict that brought physicists and warfighters together; the Cold War as a history of Pentagon investments in computers, electronics, and telecommunication skills. But, as Prof. Beyerchin notes, this framework does not include events that led to the development and integration of biologists with the Pentagon. Today, the number of biologists employed by DOD is orders of magnitude less than the number of scientists and engineers employed in other areas.

Taken together, these factors suggest that it is important to think about biological warfare because it is an area of weaknesses, because our opponents are likely to perceive this, and because they will have the resources to exploit it. …

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