Closing the biology-security gap

By Malcolm Dando | October 26, 2009

Contrary to popular opinion, I think that the international community has been relatively successful in constraining the proliferation of nuclear weapons over the last 60 years. I also believe that we may see a substantial reduction in the number of nuclear weapons over the next decade. Yet I am much less optimistic when it comes to the proliferation of biological weapons. In part, because it’s easier to account for fissile material than biological material. But it’s also because, unlike Cold War-era scientists and policy makers who grew up under the specter of the mushroom cloud, few biologists are interested in international security and few international security experts are familiar with biology.

Two recent publications, however, give me hope that this gap can be closed. The first is Michael Moodie’s “Dangerous Weapons in Dangerous Hands: Responding to the Challenges of Chemical and Biological Terrorism,” which reflects on the possible use of chemical and biological weapons by terrorists. Moodie, who was the president of the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute from 1993 to 2005, has long asked questions regarding the challenges that biological weapons pose for national and international policy makers in light of the fluid post-Cold War international security situation. This particular report considers future biological weapons risks, such as terrorist action, and examines some of the potential policy responses available to deal with them.

While Gregory Koblentz finds that advances in science and technology have the potential to assist the provocateurs more than those seeking to defend themselves, he also suggests that there is a ‘window of opportunity’ for modern science to be used for defensive advantage.”

As he points out, the small number of bioterrorist attacks has produced very different appreciations by security experts, despite extensive debate. In particular, there are different views on what capability terrorists have, or need, for various degrees of attack. Moodie states that some less sophisticated forms of bioterrorism could have major economic or psychological impacts today. And while I agree with him on that point, it seems unlikely to me that technically sophisticated biological weapons will be within the reach of terrorists in the near future. In either case, however, Moodie’s contribution is an important one because it raises the issue of time. Although the biological weapons game probably won’t change overnight, there could be unexpected outcomes if policy makers neglect biological security and avoid establishing preventative policies while they still have the opportunity to do so.

Moodie is also right to argue that we need to think about bioterrorism in a more rigorous way than has been done so far. He asks, “How can governments and international institutions keep pace with the speed at which science and technology is moving, with the growth in the number of people who have access to it, with the flexibility of the networks through which those people act, and with the geographical scope across which they operate?” What’s more, this question no longer applies only to traditional proliferation–that is, the proliferation of materials and technologies. Instead, it also encompasses the proliferation of knowledge. How can governments or institutions keep up with the growth and spread of knowledge? On this, Moodie is even more pointed: “How does one manage the risks in a world in which terrorists are coming closer to at least a ‘virtual’ chemical and biological weapons capability?” These aren’t merely rhetorical questions. We currently have few means of dealing with the potential misuse of dual-use knowledge. Good then that Moodie is intent on pushing this problem to the forefront.

The second work that suggests security experts are developing a stronger interest in biology and its dangers is George Mason University professor Gregory Koblentz’s Living Weapons: Biological Weapons and International Security. In fact, Koblentz is not shy about pointing out the four crucial biological weapons characteristics that are directly relevant to security: “First, biological warfare strongly favors the attacker. Second, biological weapons have utility as force multipliers for conventional military operations. Third, biological weapons are poorly suited to serve as strategic deterrents. Fourth, the constraints on developing and using these weapons may be eroding.”

It’s rare that any conversation about biological weapons is given such stark treatment. Koblentz points out that biological warfare favors the attacker because the diversity of potential agents gives the attacker a great deal of flexibility–both in terms of virulence and reach. Additionally, if an offensive program is kept secret then a surprise attack gives the attacker a considerable advantage. While Koblentz finds that advances in science and technology have the potential to assist the provocateurs more than those seeking to defend themselves, he also suggests that there is a “window of opportunity” for modern science to be used for defensive advantage. That is, current advances in dual-use knowledge that benefit peaceful causes could be harnessed in defensive strategies before the same knowledge is adopted for malign purposes, thus providing the benefit of preparation.

Furthermore, Koblentz’s work illuminates the (at least theoretical) potential for biological weapons to be used as force multipliers in conventional military operations. Although these weapons might be limited at the tactical level, they certainly could be used effectively to disrupt logistics, command and control, and troop movements at the strategic level. As Koblentz stresses, “Large facilities, such as ports and airfields, are particularly vulnerable to such disruptive attacks.”

Perhaps Koblentz’s most interesting point is that biological weapons lack a number of characteristics intrinsic to strategic deterrence associated with nuclear weapons. Consider that nuclear weapons are particularly reliable and cannot be defended against. Biological weapons, however, don’t give an attacker the same level of reliability. As Koblentz correctly puts it, the effects would be “delayed, variable, and difficult to predict.” It’s also worth considering one last fact: states have every reason to keep an offensive biological weapons program secret–and it’s surely impossible to threaten retaliation with a secret weapon.

Koblentz worries that the constraints that have made state-developed biological weapons so rare–the normative taboo, the problems of assimilating such weapons into military forces, and the political and strategic concerns about escalation and retaliation–are eroding. Furthermore, the weakness of the Biological Weapons Convention, and the difficulties of strengthening it, could lead to what Koblentz describes as its “diminishing normative power,” or its declining ability to indirectly affect nonproliferation of biological weapons. In other words, like Moodie, he is concerned that advances in science and technology could ease the practical problems of assimilating such weapons into national arsenals. Koblentz further suggests that biological weapons might be seen as an attractively disruptive technology by some military thinkers. In fact, in the modern civil and international wars now being fought, chemical and biological weapons could appear to some participants to have considerable advantages.

Moodie and Koblentz have opened up the policy debate about how to address and prevent future biological and chemical attacks–whether from state, sub-state, or even individual actors. Without significant action from policy makers, we may very well see nuclear weapons recede as a threat while biological weapons become the next new international danger. At the same time, however, engaging policy makers will first require expanding the pool of academic analysts who can dissect and clarify the novel and complex issues of biological weapons and biosecurity.

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