Friday, August 15, 2008

The truth about biological weapons

From Stratfor:
While there has been much consternation and alarm-raising over the potential for widespread proliferation of biological weapons and the possible use of such weapons on a massive scale, there are significant constraints on such designs. The current dearth of substantial biological weapons programs and arsenals by governments worldwide, and the even smaller number of cases in which systems were actually used, seems to belie — or at least bring into question — the intense concern about such programs.

While we would like to believe that countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia have halted their biological warfare programs for some noble ideological or humanitarian reason, we simply can’t. If biological weapons were in practice as effective as some would lead us to believe, these states would surely maintain stockpiles of them, just as they have maintained their nuclear weapons programs. Biological weapons programs were abandoned because they proved to be not as effective as advertised and because conventional munitions proved to provide more bang for the buck.

In some ways, the psychological fear of a “super weapon” — undetectable, microscopic, easily delivered and extremely deadly — shapes assessment of the threat, more so than an objective understanding of actual capability and intent (not to mention the extreme difficulties of ever creating some sort of a super bug). Conventional weapons systems, and unconventional tactics, continue to be the most cost-effective and proven methods of warfare, whether between state actors or between state and nonstate actors. Nuclear weapons have also been shown to have true weapons of mass destruction power.

To help keep the cost-benefit calculation of a biological warfare program in perspective, consider that Seung-Hui Cho, the man who committed the shooting at Virginia Tech, killed 32 people — more than six times as many as were killed by the 2001 anthrax letters. John Mohammed, the so-called “D.C. Sniper,” was able to cause a considerable amount of panic and kill twice as many people (10) by simply purchasing and using one assault rifle. Compare Mohammed’s effort and expenses to that of the Aum Shinrikyo anthrax program that took years of work by a huge team and millions of dollars to develop but infected no one.

Now, just because biological weapons are not all they are cracked up to be does not mean that efforts to undermine the biological warfare plans and efforts of militant groups such as al Qaeda should not continue or that programs to detect such agents or develop more effective treatments and vaccines should be halted. Even though an anthrax attack probably will not kill huge numbers of people, as we saw in the case of the anthrax letters, such an attack can be quite disruptive. Cleaning up after such an attack is expensive and takes considerable time and effort. Like a dirty bomb, an anthrax attack will more likely serve as a weapon of mass disruption and not a weapon of mass destruction.

Due to the disruption and the potential for some deaths as a result of an anthrax attack, the threat against the United States does remain a significant concern. However, the threat it represents is not as great as that of conventional attacks using firearms and explosives against soft targets, and it certainly does not rise anywhere near the level of a threat posed by a terrorist attack using a nuclear weapon.

Homeland security resources are very limited and have been shrinking as we move further from 9/11 and as other items begin to take precedence in the federal budget. This means that an array of different programs is being forced to scramble for an ever-shrinking piece of the funding pie. In such an environment, it is often a temptation to overstate the threat. Such overstatements are harmful because they can sometimes prevent a rational distribution of resources and prevent resources from being allocated to where they are needed most.
Hat tip: Bruce Schneier

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