Why Does Nobody Talk about Bioweapons Proliferation?

May 24, 2012

By Eli Jacobs

From the perspective of many states, biological weapons seem to enjoy all the benefits of nuclear weapons and none of their drawbacks. Bioweapons are both cheaper and easier to produce. Countries that pursue bioweapons are less likely to get caught—whereas the IAEA has 2300 employees, the Implementation Support Unit of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) has only 3, and lacks any sort of inspections regime. In the unlikely event that a country is caught, international diplomatic costs are likely to be low. Despite the norm against bioweapons, the BWC has no teeth; there exists no regime of sanctions and incentives comparable to those present within the NPT.
At the same time, biological weapons share nuclear weapons’ capability of inflicting mass casualties on civilian populations. In theory, states pursuing a strategic deterrent ought to consider foregoing nuclear weapons to focus on bioweapons.
The majority of U.S. counter-proliferation efforts, however, appear to deprioritize this possibility. They tend to focus on nuclear proliferation, which is understood to significantly upset both regional and global power dynamics. Most discussion of bioweapons concerns acquisition and use by nonstate groups, with relatively little attention given to the risks of state acquisition and related balance of power dynamics. Terrorism is an important concern for nuclear, but it is far from the sole focus of discussion.
This reality is puzzling, but it can be explained by a confluence of two factors: the capabilities of bioweapons and perceptions of them in U.S. policymaking circles.
Bioweapons and nuclear weapons are both weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but they are not weapons of equal effect. There are two primary differences: (1) nuclear weapons are more useful for strikes against strategic military targets (as opposed to civilian populations), and (2) nuclear weapons have more predictable effects.
Strikes against Military Targets
Like nuclear weapons, bioweapons can be delivered atop a missile and their delivery can entail the explosion of a primary that results in the distribution of a biological agent. Unlike nuclear weapons, the mass destruction caused by bioweapons occurs days (at minimum) after a strike, as individuals in affected areas are infected with deadly pathogens. Whereas a kinetic explosion is primarily responsible for the damage done by a nuclear weapon, no explosion is necessary for a devastating bioattack; a crop duster or van could quietly distribute aerosolized pathogens throughout densely-populated areas.
This difference restricts the usefulness of bioweapons in achieving military goals. Nuclear weapons, for example, can be used to destroy hard-to-reach strategic targets such as leadership bunkers, command and control facilities, or adversary nuclear weapons. Biological weapons do not share these strategic benefits. They kill much more slowly than nuclear weapons, allowing a fairly large window for retaliation—which undercuts the rationale for strategic strikes in the first place. Further, bioweapons are not particularly useful for eliminating strategic targets themselves. Even if the operators of a missile silo were killed, for example, others could come – vaccinated, wearing containment-appropriate clothing, or simply after the pathogens had dissipated – and retaliate as usual.
Both types of weapons can be used tactically to isolate the battlefield by targeting potential adversary reinforcements. Similarly, both can be used to incapacitate a staging area such as an aircraft carrier or military base on land. However, bioweapons offer one tactical possibility that nuclear weapons do not: the potential for use on a contested battlefield. One could, for instance, immunize or otherwise protect one’s soldiers against a particular pathogen and widely disperse that pathogen across the battlefield. While compelling in theory, the vagaries of combat and potential adversary countermeasures make adoption of such tactics quite difficult in practice. In brief, nuclear weapons are much more useful for achieving military objectives—the marginal tactical advantages of bioweapons are insufficient to overwhelm the significant strategic advantages of nukes.
More Predictable Effects
Two primary factors make nuclear weapons more predictably deadly than biological weapons. First, these weapons have been widely tested and their efficacy demonstrated. Whereas even the most sophisticated bioweapons-related incidents have produced fewer than 100 fatalities, the atomic bomb killed tens of thousands at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Second, the effects of nuclear weapons are more predictable than those of biological weapons. Biological agents are alive and can move and change freely, which reduces the certainty of operations that involve their deployment. Plague, for example, is highly fragile and likely to die if it is outside a host. Influenza spontaneously mutates too rapidly to be dependably and durably altered to increase virulence or lethality. The wind pattern can seriously affect the consequences of an aerosolized pathogen attack. None of these barriers are insurmountable (using a robust pathogen such as anthrax would overcome the barriers associated with plague and influenza, for example), but nuclear weapons are subject to the relatively more straightforward laws of physics. While there is uncertainty about fire damage and radiation zones, the core element of a nuclear attack – the explosion – is not in doubt.
Biological weapons, as a result, cannot be seen as a certain route to a secure deterrent. They are relatively untestable, relatively unsuccessfully used, and extremely unpredictable – a bad combination for a state that expects to need a reliable strategic deterrent. Further, the history of nuclear weapons makes their possession more prestigious than biological weapons. Overcoming such large-scale scientific barriers can produce domestic pride and foreign respect in a way that bioweapons – because of their history – cannot.
Each of these differences, respectively, eliminates one category of state likely to pursue biological weapons but not nuclear weapons. First, the greater usefulness of nuclear weapons against military targets means that large states are unlikely to be content with biological weapons. States with global ambitions such as the United States and Russia want the flexibility that comes along with a strategic counterforce capability. China, India, and Pakistan may not be far behind in emphasizing counterforce in their nuclear doctrine and force structure. Biological weapons will not be enough for any country that is not satisfied with mutually assured destruction.
Second, the greater prestige and certainty of nuclear weapons means that a wide swath of smaller states will want a nuclear capability. Greater prestige means that revisionist regional powers may be inclined to seek a more easily-leveraged nuclear capability in order to increase their freedom of action. One could argue that Iran and North Korea fall into this category. Greater certainty means that states in dire security circumstances may seek the surety of a nuclear capability rather than a questionably-effective biological weapons capability. Israel may fall into this category of states.
That leaves only a narrow set of states who may be tempted to pursue biological weapons but not nuclear weapons: small, status quo states without pressing security needs. Generally speaking, acquisition of WMD by status quo states is not enormously disconcerting—a fact that may contribute to the dearth of discussion concerning biological weapons proliferation.
Of course, these sorts of states tend to have little reason to acquire WMD in the first place, so some additional impetus is necessary. Unconfirmed allegations that Cuba, Egypt, and Taiwan may be pursuing bioweapons support this position. Cuba faces no immediate national security threat, but may be tempted to hedge with a bioweapons capability should relations with the U.S. sour. Egypt enjoys U.S. military aid and peace with its neighbors, most notably Israel, but may want a bioweapons capability to ensure its survival should another war break out between the two states. Taiwan faces the threat of invasion by China, and may be pursuing bioweapons to guard against the potential of diminished U.S. support.
The capabilities of biological and nuclear weapons cannot completely explain the emphasis of counter-proliferation policy on nuclear weapons. Acquisition of WMD even by status quo states ought to be disconcerting. Two factors internal to the U.S. policy community contribute to this emphasis: (1) the dual-use nature of biological research, which makes detecting and preventing bioweapons proliferation exceptionally difficult, and (2) the lack of a U.S. bioweapons capability, which means our nation has little intellectual foundation for thinking about the military potential of bioweapons.
Research with dangerous pathogens is inescapably dual-use. Any effort to create countermeasures to anthrax or smallpox, for example, requires intensive work with that pathogen – work that could easily be a precursor to the creation of biological weapons. The ambiguity between civilian and military research was the Soviet cover for their extensive biological weapons program, and this fine line continues to arouse suspicion among some about U.S. biodefense research.
The unclear line between civilian and military research means that possession of a latent biological weapons capability has the potential to carry almost no international diplomatic costs. A country could, under the likely effective guise of civilian research, complete the necessary preliminaries to the creation of biological weapons, but hold off on production until a crisis made WMD possession worthwhile. Such a stance would achieve many the benefits of a strategic deterrent (perhaps all of the benefits desired by a small, status quo state, at least) while enduring none of the costs.
As Iran demonstrates, however, the same cannot be said of a virtual nuclear weapons capability. Even such a capability requires noticeable installations – such as advanced centrifuges – and processes – such as enrichment of uranium above 20% – that have no plausible civilian purpose. All components of a latent biological weapons capability, however, could be either justified as civilian or easily hidden. Work on aerosolization and delivery, for example, could be explained as modeling to facilitate more efficient defenses. The only facilities that one would have trouble presenting as civilian – fermenters to rapidly mass produce pathogens – can be easily hidden since they are small and leave no radioactive footprint.
The upshot of this is that stopping proliferation is much harder for bioweapons than for nuclear weapons. A country could fairly easily prevent its latent bioweapons capability from being either discovered or identified as militarily-oriented. This complexity, combined with an underdeveloped international bureaucracy for biological arms control (recall that the BWC’s ISU has three employees), may deter policymakers from seriously engaging a problem for which so few potential solutions exist.
Lack of U.S. Offensive Capabilities
A related factor that contributes to the shortage of discussion of biological weapons proliferation in U.S. policy circles is a lack of U.S. offensive bioweapons capabilities. The nuclear bureaucracy in the United States is responsible for a large percentage of strategic insights about international acquisition of nuclear weapons. People who work in U.S. nuclear labs and on U.S. nuclear policy tend to be the experts on foreign technical progress, capabilities, doctrine, and consequences of nuclear acquisition.
This makes a good deal of sense – those who think about and work on U.S. nukes would naturally think about the same features – both scientific and geopolitical – with regard to others’ nukes. The same natural intellectual foundation does not exist for bioweapons. As a result, it’s unsurprising that there’s a shortage of thinking in U.S. policy circles about the consequences of biological weapons proliferation.
There are military reasons why biological weapons proliferation is less disconcerting than nuclear weapons proliferation. However, these reasons alone are not sufficient to explain the dearth of analysis regarding the spread of bioweapons to states – which, while not as disconcerting, is still disconcerting – in U.S. policy circles. A series of systematic tendencies within the U.S. counter-proliferation community completes the explanation for this tendency, which has the unfortunate result of reducing bioweapons to the status of nuclear’s little sibling – overshadowed and poorly understood. Legitimate concern over non-state acquisition of biological weapons ought not to forestall a discussion that recognizes the unique consequences of state acquisition of bioweapons.
Eli Jacobs is a research assistant for the Defense and National Security Group. The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues.