Parts of the sum: Unpacking the dynamics of biological weapons proliferation

By Kirk C. Bansak | February 22, 2011

The proliferation potential of biological weapons is an exceedingly complex topic, only made more complicated by semantic inconsistencies. For example, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), considered to be the cornerstone of the global biological weapons nonproliferation regime, has been variously termed an arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation treaty. The broad biological weapons nonproliferation umbrella, on the other hand, includes not only efforts to thwart the acquisition of traditional biological armaments but also efforts to prevent the militarization of emerging dual-use biotechnologies. However, the two goals are not always differentiated in the formulation of nonproliferation strategies.

A popular concept used to characterize the nonproliferation regime is a paradigm known as the “web of prevention”, which creates a whole out of the disparate nonproliferation elements. While such unifying models are valuable for the abstraction they provide, equally useful are attempts to analyze the concept of proliferation and unpack its many intricacies. The driving force behind biological weapons proliferation is composed of three distinct sets of factors: facilitators, motivators, and shapers. Each plays a unique role in proliferation and, accordingly, must be managed through different means.

Facilitators. Contributing to the feasibility of proliferation, both physically and politically speaking, facilitators do not directly cause proliferation but rather enable and expedite it. The most far-reaching facilitator is the dual-use dilemma, a term used to describe how the same materials, equipment, and expertise used for the peaceful development and production of legitimate biological products, such as vaccines and biopesticides, can also be employed for the development and production of biological weapons. Because of the dual-use dilemma, the acquisition of many biological weapons-relevant materials and items of equipment is relatively easy and does not require procurement of highly controlled military technologies, thereby facilitating proliferation. Compounding this problem is the ubiquity of such materials and knowledge in today’s increasingly advanced and globalized world. In addition, there exist political facilitators, such as the weaknesses of the BWC, whose “institutional deficit” and lack of formal verification measures increase the ease with which a member state may contravene the BWC and proliferate.

The physical facilitators must be addressed through concrete nonproliferation measures, such as enhanced biosecurity and access controls (including export controls) on sensitive technologies and dangerous pathogens in order to limit their availability. The political facilitators must be handled by strengthening the relevant institutions and structures, such as the BWC, and filling in the nonproliferation gaps that have engendered these proliferation vulnerabilities.

Success in addressing these particular challenges will not eliminate the risk of proliferation completely. The facilitators do not turn but rather grease the wheels of proliferation; thus, addressing these issues will increase friction and thereby decrease risk to an extent. However, any efforts on this front may be undercut by state or non-state actors who are determined to acquire biological weapons.

Motivators. The factors that lead state or non-state actors to seek biological weapons — that motivate or provoke the acquisition of these weapons — are the motivators. The most obvious and powerful motivator is the belief in the military utility of biological weapons. Such confidence may stem from various assessments of these weapons, including their ability to inflict unique types of harm upon an enemy; financial cost-benefit analyses that portray biological weapons as a particularly inexpensive class of weapon of mass destruction, or the “poor man’s nuke”; and the potential appeal of biological weapons for clandestine warfare resulting from the difficulties involved in attributing their use. Another historically significant motivator is the security dilemma: States may seek biological weapons in pursuit of “retaliation-in-kind” parity when they believe, perhaps mistakenly, that a potential adversary possesses biological weapons. For example, during World War II, incorrect intelligence assessments of a biological weapons threat from Germany led to increased Allied interest in biological weapons, while the mistaken belief that the United States secretly maintained a biological arsenal after ratifying the BWC in the 1970s provided the Soviet Union a justification for its modern-era biological weapons program.

Proliferation motivators must be addressed through dissuasion measures, which convince would-be proliferators that biological weapons are neither desirable nor necessary. Biological weapons can be rendered less desirable by diluting their military utility — for example, by developing effective medical countermeasures and bolstering public health preparedness so as to reduce the nation’s vulnerability to biological attack. The existence of robust and timely defensive capabilities decreases the attractiveness of this class of weaponry, thus projecting a unique preventive effect by denying the intended goals of an attack. Likewise, enhanced microbial forensics, investigation methods, and intelligence capabilities that can effectively attribute biological attacks would help to prevent the anonymous use of biological weapons and provide a deterrent effect by making it possible to identify and retaliate against an aggressor. Finally, increased transparency among potential adversaries, particularly regarding biodefense activities, serves to strengthen mutual confidence in the non-possession of biological weapons and removes the incentive to acquire biological weapons as an in-kind deterrent.

Similar to the case of the proliferation facilitators, addressing the motivators will not completely eliminate proliferation risks, particularly when biological warfare offers an offensive advantage. Ultimately, both facilitators and motivators factor into a state or non-state actor’s decision whether to develop and acquire biological weapons. When considering these two categories, it is important to avoid shortsightedness, as biotechnological capabilities and the perceived utility of biological weapons continue to change over time.

Shapers. The conditions that alter the landscape of potential biological weapons proliferation are the shapers. Most notable are the ongoing advances in the life sciences and biotechnology. This “new biology” is expanding technical frontiers in terms of microbiological and molecular manipulation, delivery technologies, and the understanding of human immunological vulnerabilities. Another shaper is the evolving nature of warfare, which in recent years has emphasized asymmetric conflict, stabilization operations, and other types of irregular warfare. New conflict scenarios create new roles for weapon systems.

The dynamics that shape biological weapons proliferation are not fully separate from the facilitators and motivators but rather add complexity to them. Regrettably, the shapers threaten to remove barriers and increase incentives for the acquisition of biological weapons. For example, progress in the field of DNA synthesis has made possible the de novo construction of entire pathogenic genomes, theoretically enabling proliferators to bypass physical controls on dangerous pathogens. This development has a facilitating effect on proliferation. Other advances, such as emerging technologies like DNA shuffling and the increasing convergence of the biological and chemical sciences, are poised to offer novel biological and biochemical materials with hypothetical application in a new generation of weapons. Meanwhile, new conflict scenarios could theoretically create and legitimize a new niche for these weapons, for instance, as nonlethal weapons used for peacekeeping purposes. Such an exploitation of the biotechnological revolution could dramatically affect assessments of the military utility of biological weapons.

The shapers reveal a distinction between two proliferation threats: the spread of traditional biological weapons systems and the militarization of emerging dual-use technologies. This duality necessitates a supplementary layer of nonproliferation strategy. To begin with, the shapers and their effects must be constantly monitored and studied. Indeed, governments and independent experts alike have recommended that the implications of scientific and technological advances be monitored more closely and on an ongoing basis within the context of the BWC, an issue that is likely to arise during the Seventh BWC Review Conference in December. Another important nonproliferation tool that has gained momentum is the employment of dual-use education and norm building within the science and industry communities in order to empower individuals and organizations to prevent their research and products from being misused for hostile purposes.

Looking Ahead. In preparation for the upcoming BWC review conference, governments and civil society have begun efforts to address specific components of the treaty in an attempt to strengthen the global biological weapons nonproliferation regime. In the course of this year’s meeting and into the future, the states parties must keep in mind that the BWC is only one component of the nonproliferation enterprise, although it plays a central role as the embodiment of the norm against the use of disease as a weapon.

Similar to the nonproliferation enterprise, the process of biological weapons proliferation must not be viewed as a monolith. As illustrated above, different sets of factors can contribute to the proliferation process in distinct ways. The continuous search for a better understanding of proliferation dynamics is vital in order to apply nonproliferation tools in a more targeted and effective manner, rather than casting an overly wide net. It is also vital to adapt our understanding of biological weapons proliferation to ongoing technological breakthroughs and geopolitical shifts, which are certain to keep the dynamics of proliferation in a constant state of flux.

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