Agents of Death 

Unchecked proliferation of modern chemical and biological weapons may radically alter the terms of warfare.


Since the end of World War II, the debate over proliferation of weapons of mass destruction has been dominated by discussions of nuclear weapons. The last several years, however, have seen growing concern about chemical and biological weapons. In the years ahead, chemical and biological weapons may, in fact, overshadow nuclear weapons as the primary proliferation issue. Chemical weapons are poisons that incapacitate, injure, or kill through their toxic effect on the human body. They are generally classified as blister, blood, choking, incapacitating, or nerve agents, depending on which part of the body they are designed to affect. Some chemical agents can be lethal when vaporized and inhaled in amounts as small as a few milligrams.

Biological weapons are living organisms or the byproducts of living organisms used as instruments for waging conflict. In essence, biological warfare is the deliberate spread of disease. Biological weapons generally are categorized as bacteria, viruses, rickettsia, and toxins. As lethal as chemical weapons can be, biological weapons can be many times deadlier pound-for-pound. Laboratory tests on animals, for example, indicated that, if effectively disseminated and inhaled,10 grams of anthrax spores could produce as many casualties as a ton of chemical nerve agent.1

Chemical and biological weapons are easy and cheap to produce in comparison with nuclear weapons. Illicit chemical and biological weapons programs are difficult to detect since the technology, which is also used for legitimate commercial, medical, agricultural, and other purposes, is readily available. Chemical and biological weapons could also have great strategic impact; for example, an effectively disseminated biological weapon can produce levels of casualties comparable to those of a small nuclear weapon.2

Chemical and biological weapons could become the weapons of mass destruction of choice in the decades ahead, particularly for actors looking for major, but relatively cheap, leverage in pursuit of ambitious goals. Chemical and biological weapons could be very attractive to countries with regional designs against neighbors with limited military capabilities. But they could also be valuable to such states in a confrontation with a major power like the United States. These weapons would allow even small nations to avoid contesting U. S. conventional military power directly by using an asymmetric strategy that seeks to exploit U. S. vulnerabilities. The emergence of terrorist groups or fanatical individuals with motivations and world views far different from those of traditional political terrorists increases the risk that non-state actors— that is, those operating on their own without government support— might consider these weapons as a contingency. Indeed, some people contend that bio terrorism is "the single most dangerous threat to our national security in the foreseeable future."3

Ancient Arts of War 

The use of chemicals as a weapon of war dates far back in time. Historians noted the use of toxic
fumes in conflicts in India as far back as 2000 BC. In 1591, Germans burned combinations of shredded hooves and horns with a fetid gum resin to produce noxious clouds to disrupt enemy forces. Even modern chemical weapons have been around a long time. The British chemist Sir Humphrey Davy prepared the respiratory irritant phosgene in 1811, and the chemical today known as mustard was synthesized in 1854. The most lethal chemical agents, the nerve gases, were initially developed from German research into organophosphorous pesticides in the 1930s.

Biological weapons also have a long history. An early example of biological warfare can be dated to 1346 at Kaffa— now Fedossia, Ukraine— where plague-ridden corpses of Tar-tar soldiers were catapulted over the walls of the besieged city. In another historical incident, British commander Sir Jeffrey Amherst provided smallpox-infested blankets to native Americans around Fort Pitt during the French and Indian Wars.5 Development of modern biological weapons dates to the early decades of the 20th century. Some people contend biological agents were used during World War I. And every major combatant— including the United States, Canada, Britain, France, the Soviet Union, Germany, and Japan— had a biological weapons program during World War II. Japan, however, was the only nation that actually used biological weapons such as anthrax, plague, and cholera during that conflict.6

After World War II, many countries sponsored chemical or biological weapons programs, or both. The United States developed and produced chemical weapons, eventually amassing a stockpile of about 30,000 tons of chemical agent, the second largest program in the world after that of the Soviet Union. The United States also continued research and development on both offensive and defensive aspects of biological warfare until President Nixon unilaterally terminated the U. S. offensive program in 1969. Following this decision, the United States and other countries negotiated the Biological Weapons Convention, which prohibits the development, production, and stockpiling of biological weapons. The treaty was concluded in 1972 and ratified by the United States in 1975. Chemical arms control initiatives would not arrive until many years later. After almost two decades of negotiations, the Chemical Weapons Convention was concluded in 1992, and entered into force in 1997.

Cold War Chill  

During the Cold War, attention to chemical and biological weapons was mostly, but not completely,
overshadowed by concerns over nuclear weapons. The major chemical weapons programs of the Soviet Union and the United States were driven by the NATO-Warsaw Pact standoff in central Europe. At the time, the United States and its allies perceived a need to pursue a chemical weapons program to deter the use of chemical weapons by other states through threatened retaliation in kind. When an opponent can deliver huge quantities of the right types of chemical agents with precision delivery systems, and continue to do so for long periods of time and sustain lethal concentrations, it is impossible to control the battlefield. The United States believed that the Warsaw Pact, and particularly Soviet forces, had the right mix of military capabilities along with the mobility and skill to exploit chemical weapons tactically.

If the Eastern bloc could fight a one-sided chemical war, knowing when and where contamination
would occur, its soldiers would have been freed of the burden of wearing cumbersome protective gear that seriously inhibits soldiers' performance. Thus, in the absence of a Western chemical weapons pro-gram, the Warsaw Pact was poised to control the battlefield and ultimately win a war with NATO. NATO's chemical weapons stock-pile and its inherent threat of retaliation in kind was thought to deprive the Pact of this advantage. Although chemical weapons were never used in post-war Europe, a few known and suspected cases occurred in other parts of the world following World War II. Egypt is generally believed to have used chemical weapons in the civil war in Yemen in the 1960s, and there is evidence Libya did so in Chad in the 1980s. Allegations of Soviet chemical weapons use in Afghanistan remain controversial. We are absolutely certain of one major post-war use of chemical weapons: both Iraq and Iran, but especially Iraq, deployed chemical weapons in their war in the 1980s.

During the Cold War, biological weapons, unlike chemical weapons, were not necessarily considered good battlefield weapons. Rather, their role was seen more in strategic terms, as possible weapons against cities or economic infrastructure. The Soviet Union also apparently took a similar view.7 For the United States, however, with its growing nuclear capabilities, biological weapons were considered redundant.

This was one reason President Nixon decided to end the U. S. offensive biological weapons program in 1969. Some have argued President Nixon thought biological weapons were useless, but that is not the case. Rather, as British expert Gradon Carter has argued, the effectiveness of biological weapons was firmly established. Political, not strategic, considerations drove the decision to abandon the offensive biological weapons program. 8

Seeking to improve relations with the Soviet Union, President Nixon determined that "biological agents were marginal, if not irrelevant, to a United States equipped with other conventional and nuclear assets and not confronting an imminent military threat."9 As a result, he used the decision to abandon the offensive program as leverage in his push for an arms control agreement with Moscow. 

Despite significant research and development efforts by some countries during the Cold War, there are no documented cases of biological weapons use by states in conflict. But there have been unsubstantiated— some would say discredited— allegations that the United States used biological weapons during the Korean War. Cuba also accused the United States of attacking it with biological weapons in the mid-1990s, a questionable allegation for which Havana has not offered convincing evidence. Use of chemical and biological agents by non-state actors is also historically rare, and has been limited to attempts at mass poisonings and assassinations. With the significant exception of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, no non-state actor has conducted a major attack with a chemical or biological weapon that produced large numbers of fatalities. However, law enforcement officials in the United States and in other countries have occasionally captured groups or individuals in possession of such agents.

Illicit Threats 

If chemical and biological weapons have been so rarely used in the past— either by states or non-state actors— why is there such concern about these weapons today? Recent events highlight the evolving dimensions of the challenge these weapons present. For many countries, the Gulf War transformed what was essentially a theoretical issue into a concrete security problem. For the first
time, the countries of the coalition against Iraq, including the United States, confronted an adversary
known to have a chemical weapons arsenal and suspected of developing biological weapons. In addition, Iraq had demonstrated a willingnessto use such weapons. Following the Gulf War, the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) made alarming discoveries about the scope and sophistication of the Iraqi chemical and bio-logical weapons program. Iraqi re-searchers were working on a wide range of chemical and biological agents. The program had progressed to the point that anthrax and botulinum toxin had been loaded intogravity bombs, artillery shells, rockets, and ballistic missiles. The CIA revealed that Iraq could resume production of biological weapons "virtually overnight at facilities that currently produce legitimate items, such as vaccines."10 

Although it would take longer for Iraq to reconstitute its chemical weapons programthan its biological weapons program, Saddam Hussein has not relinquished his pursuit of chemical weapons despite UNSCOM and international sanctions. Russian President Boris Yeltsin acknowledged in 1992 that the U. S. S. R. ran an illicit and secret offensive biological weapons program for two decades after Moscow signed the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. The Soviet program represented the most ambitious biological weapons program the world has ever seen, involving dozens of facilities, scores of thousands of people, and billions of rubles. Russian defectors have reported on the program's advanced work in genetic engineering to make agents more resistant to antibiotics, research on nontraditional agents such as Ebola, and large-scale production of small-pox. Media reports on the defectors' revelations fuel lingering U. S. and British concerns that biological weapons programs in Russia have not been completely shut down. In March 1995, the cult Aum Shinrikyo attacked the Tokyo subway with sarin gas, killing 12 people and injuring more than 500, and the fear of terrorists using chemical or biological weapons became stark reality. Though the cult used the chemical sarin, which is deadly on contact but cannot be spread from person to person, the Aum could, in fact, have chosen biological weapons. 

Before the sarin attack, the Aum reportedly made at least nine unsuccessful attempts to dispense anthrax and botulinum toxin in the streets of Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan, including along the perimeter of a U. S. military facility. The cult was consciously committed to recruiting members with scientific and technical backgrounds to help develop chemical and biological weapons, and it had established extensive laboratory facilities for that purpose. It also used international networks to acquire the necessary material and equipment. Arrests in the United States of people in possession of pathogenic or poisonous agents such as anthrax, ricin, and plague— and a spate of anthrax hoaxes in California; Indiana; Washington, D. C.; and elsewhere— have since exacerbated fears of chemical and biological terrorism. 

These few cases illustrate that chemical and biological weapons proliferation is a threat both in terms of international conflict and terrorist activity. U. S. government spokesmen generally charge that as
many as two dozen nations are pursuing chemical weapons programs of concern, while as many as a dozen are working on biological weapons. Because of the secretive nature of these projects, it is hard to know exactly which countries are actually developing chemical and biological weapons. A 1993 overview of studies undertaken by several nongovernmental organizations focused on 10 countries suspected of pursuing chemical and five suspected of pursuing biological weapons programs. The past six years have seen few changes in the countries suspected of pursuing chemical and biological weapons proliferation programs, but the U. S. government is most concerned about programs in China, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Syria.11

Uncertain Path 

Producing a chemical or biological agent, however, is not the same as developing a weapon. First,
many additional steps must be taken before weapons capability is achieved, including designing, testing, and building munitions; acquiring effective delivery systems for the munitions; and conducting appropriate logistics, defense planning, and training efforts. Some of these steps are difficult. The most difficult phase of a biological weapons program, for example, is not acquiring the agent but engineering a device that disseminates the agent to accomplish the goals of the attack. 

Second, when the U. S. government asserts that a state is pursuing a chemical and biological weapons program, intelligence information is not always sufficient to determine the precise status of the program. In the case of Iraq, for example, many analysts were surprised by the scope of Saddam Hussein's biological weapons program and the speed with which it had moved to weaponization. In many cases, we just can't know enough to determine whether a country is a committed proliferator or if it is only a dabbler conducting research on various agents without necessarily having made the decision to go to full-scale production or weaponization. Third, while various programs may be similar, they are not necessarily identical. For example, there are at least nine different production processes for sulfur mustard.12 

The United States and the Soviet Union produced VX, a nerve gas, through different processes, and
Iraq and the United States used different methods to develop G-category agents.13 Moreover, the bio-technology revolution could open a path for entirely new technologies that were not available in earlier efforts such as the U.S. program in the 1950s. As the Office of Technology Assessment pointed out, each pathway involved tradeoffs among simplicity, speed, agent shelf life, and visibility. The choice of pathway would therefore be affected by the urgency of a country's military requirement, its desire to keep the program secret, its level of concern over worker safety and environ-mental protection, and the existence of embargoes on precursor materials and production equipment. 14 Whatever pathway is chosen, however, it is wrong to assume that the paths of the future will be the same as the paths of the past.

Taming the Hydra 

How can those responsible for dealing with these threats come to grips with chemical and biological weapons proliferation? First, since much of the material and equipment in a chemical and biological weapons program is dual use, many agents and much of the equipment used to make them also have legitimate commercial uses. For example, the chemical thiodiglycol, a key precursor for large-scale production of mustard gas, also happens to be a key component of ballpoint-pen ink. More generally, many of the chemical precursors that could be used in weapons production are commercially used in quantities surpassing millions of tons per year. With respect to biological weapons, much of the equipment and many of the production processes for making weapons differ very little from those used to brew beer, make yogurt, or develop medicines.

The international community, which recognizes the problems inherent in dual-use chemical and biological material and equipment, has attempted to impose some regulation of critical precursors and equipment. The 31-member Australia Group, an informal consortium of nations that has agreed to coordinate chemical and biological export controls, is currently under attack from radical nonaligned countries. Iran frequently takes the lead in accusing the Australia Group of discriminating against non-aligned countries and violating the spirit of the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention. These conventions, in addition to banning weapons, also commit parties to share technology and information for peaceful purposes. The United States, on the other hand, often takes the lead in arguing that the Australia Group is indeed consistent with the conventions and also provides a mechanism for implementing the commitment not to transfer equipment or material that could facilitate development of another country's chemical or biological weapons programs. Second, chemical weapons proliferation has been described as an "unfortunate side effect of a process that is otherwise beneficial and anyway impossible to stop: the diffusion of competence in chemistry and chemical technology from the rich to the poor parts of the world."15 The same can be said of biological weapons. Trade and investment figures underline the extent of the diffusion phenomenon: 

  • Exports of chemicals from the developed world to developing nations increased from $33 billion in 1980 to $57 billion in 1991. 
  • Annual direct investment in developing countries by U. S. chemical manufacturers more than doubled from $4 billion in 1983 to $10 billion in 1993. 
  • The U. S. share of investment in the chemical industry in developing countries remained a steady 21 percent between 1983 and 1993. 
  • The number of licenses issued for the export of microorganisms and toxins grew from 90 in 1991 to 531 in 1994, while permits denied barely increased from 1 to 4 in the same period. 
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shipped biological reagents to 41 countries in 1994, up from 24 in 1991. 16  

This diffusion of capital and materials in the global market increasingly creates a world of virtual chemical and biological weapons programs in which the critical factor shaping the proliferation landscape is not technical capability, but political choice. Human expertise adds to the diffusion problem. Experts from countries with a major chemical and biological weapons program are being
recruited by other countries interested in pursuing such programs. This is especially true for scientists
from the former Soviet Union. In addition, foreign nationals trained in the United States and elsewhere in the West in scientific disciplines such as organic chemistry and microbiology may return home and exploit their knowledge to develop chemical and biological weapons. Certainly, not all foreign students in the hard sciences or engineering are proliferation risks. But experience has demonstrated that foreign-trained nationals often take lead roles in a proliferator's weapons development programs. Iraq, for example, has used scientists educated in the United Kingdom as key players in its chemical and biological weapons programs. A third challenge is the prospect that new chemical and biological weapons could be developed. Russia has reportedly developed a novel chemical agent called Novichok— which means newcomer— that is alleged to be 10 times more lethal than VX, the deadliest known nerve gas.17 And the biotechnology revolution could lead to new weapons that capitalize on genetic engineering, including the prospect of weapons targeted against specific ethnic groups.18

Finally, the legacy of the Cold War has shaped current thinking about the threat posed by chemical
weapons. Thinking in such terms of limited Cold War scenarios today is too narrow.19 In major wars, chemical and biological weapons have a broader range of uses than has generally been appreciated. Their use may be threatened, for example, to dissuade national leaders from initiating military action or to deter intervention by an outside state or coalition before actual military conflict begins. Chemical and biological weapons may also be employed to cripple an intervention in its early stages and prevent the conflict from progressing to a decisive encounter. Other uses include psychological intimidation or instilling panic in civilian populations. Forces defeated on the battlefield may also resort to chemical or biological weapons to turn their defeat into a victory by making the territory lethal to humans, thus severely limiting the victor's freedom of action. 

A New Line of Defense

Increasing U. S. dependence on force projection— a military strategy for faraway places that counts on superior air power, naval forces, and smart bombs followed by the rapid introduction of ground troops— makes the United States particularly vulnerable to these broader chemical and biological weapons attacks. On the basis of war games and other analyses, one government study noted that force projection-style military operations are vulnerable to delays and disruptions, if not total failure, if even small amounts of chemical and biological weapons are used to attack the deployment sites.20

Major theater wars, however, are not the most likely conflict situations in which U. S. forces will find themselves in the future. Rather, lower-scale conflicts— such as peace enforcement operations, humanitarian assistance missions, or noncombatant evacuations— are more likely scenarios. Threatening to use chemical weapons to force U. S. troops out of the territory in such situations is
one possible contingency. Another scenario is using chemical and bio-logical weapons to target crowds of civilians preparing for evacuation. Policymakers and defense planners have paid almost no attention to confronting chemical and biological weapons use in such scenarios. That situation must change. Post-Cold War security dynamics may change how we calculate the costs and benefits of developing, acquiring, and exploiting chemical and biological weapons. The growing attraction of asymmetrical strategies used by weaker countries against the strong, or even civilian targets, and the emergence of new terrorist entities are but a small part of this changing environment. The diffusion of chemical and biological materials, equipment, and expertise is breaking down technical barriers to chemical and biological weapons proliferation. Since the end of the Cold War, the ways of engaging in conflict have diversified, multiplying the potential uses of chemical and biological weapons. The challenge, however, remains much the same: to convince decision makers who may contemplate acquiring chemical and biological weapons that the consequences of taking that step are too great. Raising the costs of buying, developing, or using chemical and biological weapons as high as possible will require a panoply of policy tools. Curbing the spread of these weapons will require more vigilant intelligence, stricter arms control and export controls, stepped-up diplomacy, and the threat of punishment for offending actors. The international community must work together to find an effective strategic approach to end proliferation.

Michael Moodie is president of the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute, a private, nonpartisan policy research organization in Alexandria, Virginia.

1. Office of Technology Assessment, Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: Assessing the Risks (Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1993), p. 3. 

2. Ibid., p. 53. 

3. R. James Woolsey, former CIA director in the Clinton administration, quoted in "Bioterror," The Boston Phoenix (March 19-25,1999), p. 20. 

4. Javed Ali, Leslie Rodrigues, and Michael Moodie, Jane's U. S. Chemical-Biological Defense
Guidebook (Alexandria, VA: Jane's Information Group, 1998), pp. 21-22.

5. For more information on the earlier history of biological weapons, see Mark Wheelis, "Biological Warfare Before 1914: The Prescientific Era," in Erhard Geissler and Johnvan Courtland Moon, eds., Biological and Toxin Weapons Research, Development, and Use from the Middle Ages to 1945: A Critical Comparative Analysis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). 

6. The Japanese program is described in Peter Williams and David Wallace, Unit 731: The Japanese Army's Secret of Secrets (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989) and Sheldon H. Harris, Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-45, and the American Cover-Up (London and New York: Routledge, 1994). More details about Japan's biological weapons program have begun to emerge through research by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Global Alliance for
Preserving the History of World War II in Asia. This evidence suggests that in addition, the Japanese may have used biological weapons in present-day Myanmar (Burma), China, Indonesia,
Russia, Singapore, and Thailand. The number of fatalities caused by the program is disputed, but the higher levels put the number in the hundreds of thousands. New York Times (March 4, 1999).

7. Ken Alibek, former deputy director of the Soviet Union's major Biopreparat biological weapons program, in a presentation to the Seminar Series on "Responding to the Biological Weapons Challenge," sponsored by the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute, May 19, 1998.

8. Quoted in a publication of the British Medical Association, Biotechnology, Weapons, and Humanity (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1999), p. 23.

9. Brad Roberts, "New Challenges and New Policy Priorities for the 1990s," in Biological Weapons: Weapons of the Future? Brad Roberts, ed. (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1993), p. 69.

10. Defense Week (September 8, 1998).

11. See, for example, Department of Defense, Proliferation: Threat and Response (Washing-ton: U. S. Government Printing Office ,1997). For individual assessments of the chemical and biological weapons programs in China, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Syria, see the case studies on these respective countries published as part of The Deterrence Series (Alexandria: Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute, 1998).

12. Office of Technology Assessment, Technologies Underlying Weapons of Mass Destruction
(Washington, DC: U. S. GovernmentPrinting Office, 1993), p. 21.

13. Ibid., p. 17.

14. Ibid., p. 18.

15. Julian Perry Robinson, "Chemical Weapons Proliferation: The Problem in Perspective," in Trevor Findlay, ed., Chemical Weapons and Missile Proliferation (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1991), p. 26.

16. Brad Roberts, Rethinking Export Controls on Dual-Use Materials and Technologies: From Trade Restraints to Trade Enablers, THE ARENA, no. 2, Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute (June 1995), pp. 2-3.

17. Will Englund, "Ex-Soviet Scientist Says Gorbachev's Regime Created New Nerve Gas in '91," Baltimore Sun (September 16, 1992).

18. See British Medical Association, Biotechnology, Weapons, and Humanity, chapter 4, pp. 53-69.

19. This discussion is based in part on the work of Brad Roberts, who has done extensive analyses of unexpected uses of weapons of mass destruction.

20. "Assessment of the Impact of Chemical and Biological Weapons on Joint Operations in 2010," U. S. Department of Defense <http://www.nbc-med.org>.