warfare, also known as germ warfare, is the use of any
organism (bacteria, virus or other disease-causing
organism) or toxin found in nature, as a weapon of war.
It is meant to incapacitate or kill an adversary.
Biological warfare is a cause for concern because a
successful attack could conceivably result in thousands,
possibly even millions, of deaths and could cause severe
disruptions to societies and economies. However the
consensus among military analysts is that except in the
context of bioterrorism, biological warfare is militarily
of little use.
The main problem is that a biological warfare attack
would take days to implement and therefore unlike a
nuclear or chemical attack would not immediately stop an
advancing army. As a strategic weapon, biological warfare
is again militarily problematic, because it is difficult
to prevent the attack from spreading to either allies or
to the attacker and a biological warfare attack invites
immediate massive retaliation.
Table of contents
2 Biological weapons characteristics
3 Protection measures
4 Examples of biological weapons
4..1 Rajneeshi Salmonella Attack
4..2 2001 anthrax attack
5 New technological threats
5.1 Impact of new technologies of mass destruction
The use of biological agents is not new, but before the
20th century, biological warfare took three main forms:
- deliberate poisoning of food and water with infectious
- use of microorganisms or toxins in a weapon system
- use of biologically inoculated fabrics
Biological warfare is believed to have been practiced in
the Middle Ages, often by flinging victims of the Black
Death over castle walls using catapults. Its use has also
been documented in the French and Indian War when British
troops distributed blankets infected by smallpox to
Use of such weapons was banned in international law by
the Geneva Protocol of 1925. The 1972 Biological and
Toxin Weapons Convention extended the ban to almost all
production, storage and transport. It is, however,
believed that since the signing of the convention the
number of countries capable of producing such weapons has
During the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and World War
II, Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army conducted
human experimentation on thousands, mostly Chinese. In
military campaigns, the Japanese army used biological
weapons on Chinese soldiers and civilians.
Research carried out in Great Britain during World War II
left a Scottish Island contaminated with anthrax for the
next 48 years.
Considerable research on the topic was performed by the
United States, the Soviet Union (see Biopreparat), and
probably other major nations throughout the Cold War era,
though it is generally believed that such weapons were
never used. There have been reports that United States
Army has been developing weapons-grade anthrax spores at
a biological and chemical weapons facility in Utah at
least since 1992. However, the United States had and
maintains a stated policy of never using biological
weapons under any circumstances.
Biological weapons characteristics
Ideal characteristics of biological weapons are low
visibility, high potency, accessibility, and easy
Diseases most likely to be considered for use as
biological weapons are contenders because of their
lethality (if delivered efficiently), and robustness
(making aerosol delivery feasible).
The biological agents used in biological weapons can
often be manufactured quickly and easily. The primary
difficulty is not the production of the biological agent
but delivery in an infective form to a vulnerable target.
For example, anthrax is considered an excellent agent. We
use it here because it is historically important and
enough information is public that this discussion can't
be a manual. First, it forms hardy spores, perfect for
dispersal aerosols. Second, pneumonic (lung) infections
of anthrax usually do not cause secondary infections in
other people. Thus, the effect of the agent is usually
confined to the target. A pneumonic anthrax infection
starts with ordinary "cold" symptoms and
quickly becomes lethal. Finally, friendly personnel can
be protected with suitable antibiotics or vaccines.
A mass attack using anthrax would require the creation of
aerosol particles of 1.5 to 5 microns. Too large and the
aerosol would be filtered out by the respiratory system.
Too small and the aerosol would be inhaled and exhaled.
Also, at this size, nonconductive powders tend to clump
and cling because of electrostatic charges. This hinders
dispersion. So, the material must be treated with silica
to insulate and discharge the charges. The aerosol must
be delivered so that rain and sun does not rot it, and
yet the human lung can be infected. There are other
technological difficulties as well.
Diseases considered for weaponization, or known to be
weaponized include anthrax, ebola, pneumonic plague,
cholera, tularemia, brucellosis, Q fever, VEE, SEB and
smallpox. Naturally-occurring toxins that might be used
in weapons include ricin, botulism toxin, and mycotoxins.
The primary civil defense against biological weaponry is
to wash one's hands whenever one moves to a different
building or set of people, and avoid touching door knobs,
walls, the ground and one's mouth and nose. Washing
literally sends the germs down the drain.
More exotic methods include decontamination, usually done
with household chlorine bleach (5% solution of sodium
hypochlorite). One useful decontamination is to leave
shoes in an entranceway and make people wade and handwash
in a footbath of bleach. Another useful technique is to
periodically decontaminate floors and door knobs.
Medical methods of civil defense include stockpiles of
antibiotics and vaccines, and training for quick,
accurate diagnoses and treatment. Many weaponized
diseases are unfamiliar to general practitioners.
Positive pressure shelters are possible but not
cost-effective except for the most important
installations. This is because in most attacks, the agent
will disperse in a long narrow ellipse downwind from the
release point. Persons outside the ellipse will not be
affected except by secondary infection. Persons within
the release ellipse cannot be helped by civil defense
measures. They need medical diagnosis and treatment.
Examples of biological warfare
Rajneeshi Salmonella Attack
In a small town in Oregon, followers of the Rajneesh Yoga
attempted to control a local election by infecting a
salad bar with salmonella. The attack caused about 900
people to get sick, and was thus quite effective.
2001 anthrax attack
In September and October of 2001, several cases of
anthrax broke out in the United States in the 2001
anthrax attacks, caused deliberately. This was a
well-publicized act of bioterrorism. It motivated efforts
to define biodefense and biosecurity, where more limited
definitions of biosafety had focused on unintentional or
accidental impacts of agricultural and medical
New technological threats
New technologies such as genetics, proteomics, molecular
engineering, artificial intelligence and robotics led to
new concerns. Robotics and (limited) artificial
intelligence have been used in war, in particular by the
United States. Proteomics and genetics have both been
used in research into new chemical and biological weapons
- again, the US has led the way here, researching
"crowd control" chemical weapons that are
permitted under the relevant treaties, and also pursuing
"defensive" research into biological weapons.
Molecular engineering has yet to be used in warfare, but
has yet to be used in anything besides research into
Supported by these concerns, some claim "NBC"
weapons should now include genetic, proteomic, robotic
and AI threats as well.
For example, one concern met with each of the
"NBC" types is that the different treaties
applicable had legal loopholes, due to confusion about
the line between chemical and biological weapons (e.g.
prions which are not organisms but simple single-molecule
proteins, and could thereby be considered either chemical
or biological), and the spread of "dual use"
technology through commercial channels that could easily
be put to military use.
Another concern was that most "NBC" treaties
predated the ability to DNA-sequence and genetically
modify biological entities (to be, make or carry
poisonous substances, virus or prion), e.g. altering the
well-understood e. coli bacterium to generate prions).
Impact of new technologies of mass destruction
Some of these technologies could have impacts far beyond
a single generation of the human species in one place on
Earth, and so are generally considered to be wholly
inappropriate for conflict between nation-states. The
only use of such weapons seems to be threatening human
extinction (as North Korea began to do starting early in
2003) or mutual assured destruction of an opponent who
attacks first - perhaps including other populations
innocent in the conflict.
Miniaturization, mastery of genomes and proteomes, and
adaptive software, all seem to have the potential to be
combined to create pseudo-life-forms that may compete
successfully with natural life. Indeed, some scientists
in the artificial life field believe it is desirable to
do so. The dangers of these technologies in combination,
and of loss of human control over biological or robotic
runaways, is a major reason that the United Nations seek
to control their spread, especially to non-state actors
such as terrorist groups, that typically have no
population to defend, and so can be quite reckless, and
are not concerned with the threat of retaliation against
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