A recent Bulletin column has suggested that non-contagious biological weapons may be a useful alternative to nuclear weapons as a deterrent, and could reduce the threat of nuclear devastation. While the United States may consider a variety of mechanisms toward a more stable deterrence strategy with fewer nuclear risks, biological weapons development will not be one of them. Doing so would violate US and international law and would be morally reprehensible. It would also leave the United States less secure.
There are multiple legal restrictions. The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC, formally titled the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological [Biological] and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction) is the first agreement among nations that declared an entire category of weapons to be off limits. It has been in force since 1975, and there are currently 170 states parties that have agreed not “to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain: Microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes; Weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.” The 1925 Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare also bans the use of biological weapons in warfare. Taking the ban on bioweapons one step further, UN Resolution 1540 (2004) prohibits nations from supporting non-state actors toward developing, acquiring, manufacturing, possessing, transporting, transferring or using nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons or their delivery systems.
Biological weapons development is within the technical capability of most countries, so a revocation of the bioweapons ban could lead to a rapid proliferation of highly dangerous weapons. Even non-contagious biological weapons have enormous lethal potential that could rival the use of nuclear weapons, and could, in the case of anthrax, make the attack area unusable for a long time. The results of nation-state sponsored tests—back in the days before the BWC, and before the US renounced the development and use of biological weapons—demonstrate this. In 1968, a US military exercise took place 1,000 miles south of Hawaii, where hundreds of rhesus monkeys were loaded onto barges and exposed to aerosolized anthrax released from a Marine Phantom jet. Monkeys 50 miles downwind died of anthrax. In 1942, the United Kingdom tested bombs filled with anthrax spores on Gruinard Island, off the Scotland mainland, which left it uninhabitable for 48 years, until it was decontaminated at great expense.
Instead of pursuing a weapons class that the international community has decided is off the table—a decision that has saved lives—the US government should continue what it is doing: working towards strengthening the BWC and rallying international partners to diminish the threat of sub-state actors or even individuals from pursuing biological weapons. While it would be a mistake to discount the technical skill, biological knowledge, and manufacturing technologies that were utilized in offensive biological weapons development when it was legal in the 1960s, there are many more technologies and shortcuts that would be available to a modern-day bioweaponeer. One can easily imagine how modern biological advances could be used to make a biological weapon more lethal, or difficult to detect or treat.
In short, the ban on biological weapons continues to be the best policy. It has worked well to reduce proliferation—though there have been violations, no nation state openly declares that it is developing a biological weapons capacity—and it promotes US security.