Introduction to Biological Weapons

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Introduction to Biological Weapons

Biological weapons, also called bioweapons, are nearly as old as war. In Roman times, wells were poisoned. Two hundred years ago in North America, the British Army attacked Native Americans by using smallpox-infected blankets. In World War II, the Japanese Army used bioweapons on a large scale in China. As disturbing as these cases are, on the other hand, the history of biowarfare (see graphic) can also be interpreted as history of the non-use. Few large scale deployments in wartime have happened.

A major reason is the obvious technical difficulty and the "boomerang effect" that bioweapons can have . Handling and using contagious diseases poses a threat of infection to an aggressor´s own soldiers and population. It is also technically challenging to develop biowarfare agents for large scale use. A relatively sophisticated microbiology is needed to isolate and grow microbes in a reliable manner, and to develop the special means of delivery, such as aerosol techniques, that must be available.

After World War II and through the 1960s, only a few countries - including the UK and the USA - maintained major offensive biowarfare programs and generated the knowledge and the technical means to produce and use biological weapons. When these countries decided to stop their programs, it paved the way for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) of 1972, which bans the development or production of biological agents for non-peaceful purposes.

The biotechnology revolution increased the biowarfare threat in the past decades. Genetically engineered bioweapons sound like science fiction, but are already a deadly reality: lethal microbes, with no cure, invisible to detection systems, and able to overcome vaccines have been reported in scientific publications. In "defensive" programs, researchers in the USA, UK, Russia, Germany and other countries have genetically engineered biological weapons agents, building new deadly strains. For example, the German Army experimented with tularemia bacteria – a standard bioweapon agent – which was genetically engineered to resist antibiotic treatment.

Biotechnology also allows to build completely new types of biological weapons. Since the end of the Cold War, types of conflicts and military interventions have changed. Ethnic conflicts have flared, as have conflicts between the West and "rogue states". Some peacekeeping missions, claims of extraterritorial jurisdiction and, above all, the Drug War, have blurred the line between law enforcement and military action. In response to these newly prominent types of conflicts, new types of armaments have been developed or proposed, including biological weapons.

Recently, US military officials have called for a renegotiation of the Biological and Toxin Weapons

Convention to enable the development of gas-guzzling bacteria to curtail an enemy's mobility. Material-degrading microorganisms are already under development, again in "defensive" mode. One of the most advanced threats to the global consensus against biological weapons is the attempt to deploy biological agents in forced drug eradication ("Agent Green"). Fungi that attack drug-producing plants have been developed to use against coca, cannabis and opium poppy.

These agents are lowering the political threshold for use of biological weapons and are likely to have tremendous environmental and health impacts. Pursuit of crop-killing fungi or materiel-degrading microbes as weapons would be a step down a slippery slope, that, following the same logic, could easily lead to the use of other plant pathogens, animal pathogens, or even non-lethal biological weapons against humans.

Verification of the BTWC is especially difficult because bioweapons research is beset with the problem of dual-use technology. Nearly all the know-how and equipment necessary for an offensive biological warfare program has applicability to civilian medical or biological research. A very thin line separates offense and defense bioweapons research. Also biodefense research can be problematic as in many cases defensive work generates an offensive capability. To test a cure for smallpox, mice and primates must be infected with virulent strains of smallpox.

While the BTWC is very broad and unambiguous in its prohibition of all biological weapons, it lacks any provisions to verify the countries are in compliance. At the beginning of the 1990s, it became apparent that the former Soviet Union, Iraq (information on Iraq's program from FAS) and the former Apartheid regime in South Africa engaged in offensive warfare programs.

These revelations were instrumental in triggering negotiations for a legally binding Protocol to strengthen the Convention. The Protocol would provide for verification measures such as laboratory inspections and export notifications. The goal was to complete the negotiations before the 5th Review Conference of the BTWC convenes in Geneva in November 2001, but the new US Administration does not support the protocol, casting doubt on its future.

ENMOD: An international treaty that could be more supportive of the BTWC is the "Convention on the Prohibition of Military or any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques" (ENMOD). It overlaps with the BTWC, since some BW-applications will automatically result in a widespread environmental modification, like the use of fungi in drug eradication that are likely to attack wild relatives of the drug producing plants in their natural ecosystems.

The following links are available here:

BW agents
Parties to the BTWC
GE with BW
Agent Green
Iraq (page maintained by the Federation of American Scientists)