Closing the biology-security gap

Bulletin Of the Atomic Scientists


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 
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

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 

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.

Copyright  2009 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. All Rights Reserved.