by Anthony F. Hillen
May 12, 2007
from Scribd Website
Nevertheless, some potentially catastrophic security concerns are likely to accompany the development of these otherwise propitious technological achievements. History suggests that emerging political, business and social structures are more adept at utilizing nascent technologies than their more established counterparts.
The biotech revolution stands to alter the conduct of warfare more dramatically than the infotech revolution.
Biotechnology affords sub-state groups
the type of destructive power previously available only to the
superpowers. The production of biological weapons has become an
increasingly diffuse scientific enterprise since the end of the Cold
War, and as far as terrorists are concerned, they represent the
ultimate means of sewing political discord and instigating economic
Unlike nuclear weapons that destroy everything within a certain radius, biological weapons are uniquely advantageous in that they can shutdown vital activity without destroying physical infrastructure. At the height of its biological weapons program, the Soviet Union had ICBMs loaded with several kilograms of highly infectious pathogens processed into a powder finer than bath talc that can drift in the air for miles at a time.
Pathogens are ideally dispersed in
an aerosol cloud of particles measuring about one to five microns in
diameter (in other words, a line of a hundred particles in a row
would scarcely equal the thickness of a human hair), inhaling just
one of these particles can be lethal.
Modern research efforts aimed at developing militarily effective biological agents often “weaponize” certain diseases by increasing their pathogenicity and refining their deliverability. Genetically altering the pathogenicity of infectious organisms can boost their lethality and make them more resistant to treatments and vaccines.
Weaponization can also involve a refinement of the toxin’s means of delivery and release.
Biological weapons offer a great deal of
flexibility in terms of delivery systems, they can be unleashed on
their targets using missiles with toxin-loaded explosive warheads,
cluster-bombs, crop-dusting aircraft, vehicle-borne improvised
explosive devices, or even simple hand-delivery.
The United States operated an offensive biological weapons program at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), in Fort Detrick, Maryland.
President Nixon shut down the program in 1969, for fear of pioneering weapons that could later be turned against the United States or its allies. Although some of them may have been designed to spread disinformation, a significant number of news articles and journal publications since the 1970s suggest that biological weapons are ineffective as a strategic deterrent and operationally impractical at the tactical level.
Logic, however, suggests that those assertions are incorrect.
Pathogens can be highly effective weapons, researchers need only,
Alibekov insists that biological weapons
can be effective because he developed one: a durable, highly
infectious, and vaccine-resistant strain of Anthrax.
Monitoring the employment and international travel habits of scientists with backgrounds in fields like micro-biology used to be relatively simple when they were predominantly trained at Western universities and easily identifiable. But after the events of September 11, 2001 and the anthrax-letter attacks a month later, the US dramatically curtailed its acceptance of foreigners to its universities and research institutions.
International students seeking an American education have been discouraged from doing so by recently implemented visa restrictions and steadily increasing tuition costs. However, it would be a negligent mistake for policy-makers to assume that the expertise necessary for manipulating pathogens is exclusively available in the West; there are a number of first-rate biological science institutions around the world.
Furthermore the widespread availability
of online research data, including step-by-step production
protocols, means that terrorists can clandestinely obtain the
knowledge to produce biological weapons from practically anywhere.
Technicians in BSL-4 labs wear protective suits with individual oxygen supplies and work on samples enclosed in a specialized cabinet with an air supply of its own. Although the technical requirements associated with facilities considered BSL-3 and above have been considered to be too demanding for their construction in less developed countries, certain technological breakthroughs allow modular mobile BSL-3 labs to be constructed on short order and in the most inhospitable environments.
Another disconcerting fact is that the virus-propagating flasks known as “bioreactors” are available for as little as $25 on eBay. Once produced, delivering the pathogen to its target is relatively simple.
A “line-source laydown” by a modified
commercial helicopter or crop-dusting aircraft could disperse enough
weaponized powder over an open-air stadium or music concert to kill
thousands of people directly and hundreds of thousands indirectly
through contagious infection.
Some of the more promising ones include:
The lethality and widespread availability of such pathogens suggests that terrorists will likely attempt to use them at some point in the future.
The small-scale production of pathogens using cloning technology is another source of biological weapons that has been negligently underestimated.
Once a disease-causing gene has been
identified and its location published in an academic journal,
scientists or terrorists can use cloning kits (available from
typical lab equipment catalogs) to clone that gene and then splice
it into a common host bacteria.
The US Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency (DARPA)
realized the significance of biotechnology for defense applications
in the mid-1990s. By 1999 the agency funded more than $40 million
dollars worth of bio-defense research projects. That budget grew to
nearly $150 million in 2002, primarily due to DARPA Director
Larry Lynn’s emphasis on pathogen countermeasures. (Marshall)
The alien substances are then bound to
the CR1 receptor and flushed out of the body through the liver. This
particular technology has the potential to purge any known virus
from the human body in less than two hours.
Theoretically, these cells could identify specific pathogens and activate certain genes to trigger a curative biological response. This approach circumvents the troublesome need for multiple injections, depending instead on cells engineered to automatically vaccinate the body against pathogens. The primary drawback of such methods is their dependence on the pharmaceutical industry.
DARPA may fund their initial research
and development, but it is unlikely to provide the financing
necessary to transform prototype vaccines into functional and
available countermeasures to biological weapons.
However, DARPA evidently perceives that
to be a surmountable obstacle, investing heavily in its
Accelerated Manufacturing of Pharmaceuticals program, intent on
exploring various challenging but technologically feasible methods
of producing millions of doses of a complex new therapeutic in 12
weeks or less.
This approach would involve the use of inhibitors to disrupt protein enzymes such as proteases which are instrumental to pathogenic invasion. For instance, the botulinum toxin could be effectively neutralized by using inhibitors to target the zinc endopeptidase in its light chain (the polypeptide subunit of an antibody). Similarly, anthrax could also be detoxified with inhibitors, by using them to target the source of its lethality: zinc protease.
The diffuse applicability of this approach hinges on the fact that all pathogen invasions are enzyme-contingent.
The pathogenic enzymes can be inhibited without the risk of crippling those required for normal functions, primarily due to the characteristically high substrate specificity among viral and bacterial enzymes. Although the validity of this approach has been repeatedly confirmed by the clinical use of protease inhibitors to successfully treat infections, at present it must be considered a long-term solution. By today’s technological standards, it takes about ten years to produce an effective protease inhibitor.
However, that development time could be
drastically reduced by using advanced supercomputers in the drug
The FASTREAD program is designed to detect biological agents at a standoff distance using coherent nonlinear optical spectroscopy, laser pulse shaping techniques, and adaptive optics in conjunction with other efforts to better elucidate the agent under interrogation, such as return signal optimization strategies.
Primarily based on coherence theory (the optical effects resulting from partially coherent light and radio sources), FASTREAD exploits the spectral and temporal information provided by the backscatter from short-pulse lasers to identify specific biological agents.
The system is extremely promising but must first overcome several technological and developmental challenges before its true potential can be fully realized.
When comparing these weapons of mass destruction, one should keep in mind that the destruction wrought by a single nuclear weapon is inherently limited by the laws of physics, whereas a highly contagious biological weapon has neither a calculated blast radius nor an upper limit death-toll.
At first glance, states seem to have
typically abided by the rules of the 1972 Biological Weapons
Convention (BWC) that categorically banned the production of
biological weapons. The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
(NPT), on the other hand, appears to have been somewhat less
successful. However, such perceptions can be misleading; the reality
is that they are probably equally dysfunctional.
The fact that the BWC lacks a counterpart institution to the IAEA may suggest a simple and reasonable explanation for the regimes regulatory weakness. One might go as far as to say that the evidence supports the efficacy of institutional oversight mechanisms in enforcing arms control regimes, but it would be slightly presumptuous to hastily make that conclusion as it fails to take one important factor into account.
There is a logical reason why more states do not “go nuclear”, and it has very little to do with the NPT. Unless motivated by strategic concerns or nationalist impulses, countries like Uganda, Sri Lanka, or Chile refrain from developing nuclear arsenals because they would gain nothing (except international condemnation and notoriety) and it would cost them everything (politically and economically).
Recent members of the nuclear club, like Pakistan and India, maneuvered themselves into a security dilemma destined to result in the mutual development of nuclear weapons, whereas South Africa geopolitically isolated itself to the point that it had nothing to lose by building the bomb.
The new “club” members also had a technological head-start in their nuclear development: the US “Atoms for Peace” program.
However, it is highly unlikely that a
sub-state actor could obtain the materials and expertise necessary
to manufacture nuclear weapons, especially when one considers that,
even when supported by the resources available to an entire
nation-state, developing nuclear weapons represents a political,
financial, and especially technological feat of the highest order.
Thus, for a suicidal sub-state actor
intent on indiscriminately killing as many people as possible, a
nuclear weapon is neither feasible nor desirable.
That particular attack may not have killed scores of people, but for only a few ounces of anthrax and postage stamp, the attacker managed to disrupt Congress for several months, ramp up operating costs for the USPS (and federal government) by imposing additional screening requirements, and incurred hundreds of millions of dollars worth of clean up costs.
One could hardly ask for a more cost
effective weapon to advance one’s political agenda. If the
biological weapon enclosed in those envelopes were weaponized
smallpox, a single envelope could have resulted in three times the
casualties on September 11th alone. With the necessary expertise and
equipment, increasing the virus’ pathogenicity would not be
difficult, the complete smallpox genome can be found online in less
than ten minutes.
The exercise was terminated prematurely
when authorities calculated that a fourth generation of the disease
would have resulted in the infection of 3 million people, killing at
least a third of them. Biological weapons are capable of killing
many more people than a nuclear attack. Given the current trend
in biotechnology, small groups or perhaps even individuals may soon
be able to take the sort of virus used in the “Dark Winter”
simulation and increase its lethality three-fold.
The last effort to revise the 1975
Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention was in 2002. A draft
protocol was submitted but the United States rejected it out of
hand, asserting that it did not strengthen existing arms control
strategies, benefited potential proliferators, and compromised
American national security as well as proprietary business
The biotech revolution is already underway, but the risks and dangers which will surely accompany it have only just begun to reveal themselves.
With the dawning of new technological eras come new and previously unimaginable threats, often taking the form of sociopolitical or military challenges. Dual-use emerging technologies could potentially provide militant organizations or groups of disaffected individuals with highly effective means of challenging state-level actors.
The strategically disruptive effect this
could have on the geopolitical environment merits serious
consideration by policy-makers and the scientific community in