Biological Weapons

Biological weapons (bioweapons) are weaponry that utilize pathogens to inflict damage or death on their target. They involve the "planned and deliberate use of pathogenic strains of microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses or their toxins" (Syal). Biological warfare is an ancient practice, with many conflicts finding diseases responsible for more deaths than armed combat, sometimes even when biological weapons were not consciously used as a weapon ("Biological Weapons"). Today, if the goal is to inflict mass panic or death on an enemy, emerging bioweapons have remarkable potential, according to Kellman.

The type of pathogens used in bioweapons vary and some are easier to weaponize than others. Despite the anthrax attack in 2001, anthrax is still difficult to weaponize. Smallpox is presumably unavailable. The plague is readily treatable. The Ebola virus is extremely deadly, but it kills too quickly to start a pandemic. Other microorganisms that may be used in bioweapons include: dengue, boutulism, typhus, brucellosis, cholera, and drug-resistant tuberculosis (Syal). Due to advancements in science, specifically: nanotechnology, genomics, and other microsciences, these pathogens could be altered to be more effective bioweapons (Kellman). Although science breakthroughs are typically thought of as a boon to humanity, it can also be a double-edged sword.

Scientific breakthroughs could lead to vaccine or antibiotic resistant agents. The manipulation of the flu, due to its highly contagious nature, is of particular concern. Kellman noted that the genomic sequence for the Spanish flu virus, that killed approximately 40 million people, has been widely published, making it possible for someone to reconstruct it. There is also a concern for the resynthesis of smallpox. Whatever the agent, the end goal is typically the same.

Release of a biological agent, in biological warfare, is meant to cause "unrest in a population due to large scale sufferings from diseases and disabilities. And, this may lead to collapse of administration and governance" (Syal). The use of bioweapons against enemy military troops aim to disrupt their military actions due to the disease and disabilities the troops are experiencing, with a hopeful collapse of leadership. In instances like bioterroism, the effect is typically targeted to a more diverse societal population.

Summary of Biological Weapons Policy, Changes and its Effectiveness:

United States official policy on biological weapons began in 1969, with then President Richard Nixon. On November 25th, President Nixon declared he would be eliminating all biological warfare agents unilaterally, while only retaining defensive research programs. These defensive research programs, according to Goldman, included detection, protection and antidotes for bioweapons used against the United States. In addition, Nixon ordered the Department of Defense to come up with a plan to destroy all of America's existing bioweapons and stocks. Never before had a president addressed the topic of bioweapons; however, President Nixon strongly believed that mankind had enough weapons at its disposal and that his initiative would foster international peace and understanding.

In 1975, the key international governance framework for controlling bioweapons, the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), was ratified (Suk). The BTWC "prohibits the production, development, and stockpiling of all agents and toxins for us in war or for hostile purposes, and not just the classical agents such as anthrax, botulinum toxin, and smallpox" (Littlewood). However, this piece of international governance, even when combined with the 1925 Geneva Convention which also prohibits the use of biological weapons, was ineffective. As Littlewood noted, Boris Yeltsin admitted in 1992 that the U.S.S.R. had actually expanded their bioweapons program, instead of dismantling it as required by the BTWC.

This illustrated the primary failing of the BTWC. Known as the 'toothless tiger', the BTWC made no provision for checking on compliance with the convention, of the 140 member states. In addition, there were no remedies provided for sanctions for non-compliance. In 1994, the members agreed to negotiate a set of measures meant to remedy these failings; however, these negotiations broke down in 2001 (Kelle).

In 2002, the United States congress passed the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, as a means of protecting the country against bioweapons and increasing America's biodefense (Syal). In this law, national preparedness in the case of biological attack is covered, enhanced controls on dangerous biological agents and toxins are mandated, and the protection of the food, water and drug supply from toxins are discussed.

The Best Policy Going Forward:

The threat of bioweapons is not driven solely from technological advancements, but also from political motivators, and as such both factors must be taken into consideration when considering the best policy going forward. Guillemin described two levels of threat when discussing the technology for biological weaponry. First is the residual threat that stems from the previous bioweapons programs from countries in the past, including the United States and the Soviet Union. In these programs bioweapons featuring anthrax, tularemia, plague, and other infectious diseases were developed. Second is the threat from innovations in science, especially human genetics and neurology. It is feared that these sciences will be exploited the same way physics and chemistry was exploited for the development of military weaponry in past centuries.

Of course, Guillemin surmised that specific technical innovations will depend heavily on government secrecy. It will also depend greatly on scientists willing to dedicate themselves to projects in the interest of national defense, despite the fact that their projects defy international law. It's likely that these scientists would simply be told that their work is defensive in nature, yet, as history has demonstrated, this often leads to offensive capabilities.

In World War II, Germany's capabilities were overestimated. This cause the Allies to move forward with germ weapon development. Although these innovations were purported to be for retaliation, they were inherently offensive in nature. As mentioned, the Soviet Union expanded their bioweapon program in the 1970s and 1980s, by telling their scientists that it was a necessary defense against America. "In the last six years, the United States has invested some $44 billion in biodefense research and development, but whether this use of resources has deterred bioterrorism is unclear" (Guillemin).

With these factors in mind, an effective policy would have to address the failings of the 1972 BTWC must be addressed. Verification procedures must be determined, as well as sanctions for non-compliance. In addition, the United States government's biodefense program needs to be revamped. Despite the highly restricted, high-containment laboratories, these facilities are a genie just waiting to get out of the bottle. The recent explosion of biodefense projects has seen an associated rise in biological accidents, including incidents with anthrax, plague and cholera (Guillemin). Yet, the United States has to carefully way their 'defense' programs for other reasons.

The detection of bioweapons is definitely a valuable part of a defense program. However, any defensive weaponry that could be possibly utilized offensively it shouldn't be part of the program. It would be quite hypocritical for the United States to be in violation of the BTWC yet expect other member states to uphold the convention. As a world leader, the United States has a responsibility to lead by example. Performing covert bioweaponry research is hardly the type of example they should be setting for the international community.


Bioweapons have been in use since ancient times and will likely be a part of the warfare landscape for the near future. Although many members of the international community have pledged an anti-bioweaponry stance, it is known that members have not necessarily been following the regulations of the compliance -- such as the Soviet Union. Policy changes need to address the challenges the current BTWC has with monitoring and enforcing of the convention. Specifically the United State's biodefense policy also needs to be revamped. The escalation of biodefense has resulted in increased biological accidents. In addition, as a matter of good faith, any projects that could possibly be utilized offensively should be scrapped.

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