Chemical and Biological Weapons

Key Problems

  • Like nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons are indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction.
  • As many as 25 countries are believed to already have or to be interested in acquiring chemical weapons programs, while 10-12 countries are suspected to have or be interested in acquiring biological weapons programs.
  • Only three nations—the U.S., Russia, and Iraq—have openly acknowledged possessing chemical weapons arsenals.

Since the end of the cold war, the global proliferation of chemical and biological weapons (CBWs) has become more prominent in U.S. national security and foreign policy planning. CBWs are often referred to as the “poor man’s nuclear bomb.” Like nuclear weapons, they are indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction. But unlike nuclear weapons, they are relatively simple and inexpensive to build using technology and know-how that is widely available.

Chemical weapons are inanimate poisonous substances that incapacitate, injure, or kill through their toxic effects on the skin, eyes, lungs, blood, nerves, or other organs. Examples include nerve, blister, choking, and blood agents. Some chemical warfare agents can be lethal when vaporized and inhaled in amounts as small as a few milligrams. Virtually any nation with a petrochemical, pesticide, or fertilizer industry has the potential to produce chemical weapons. Some of the simpler chemical warfare agents, such as the blister agent mustard gas, are based on technology and know-how that is at least eighty years old. Many of the technologies and materials needed to produce chemical weapons also have legitimate civilian applications. For example, chemicals used to make nerve agents are also used to make plastics and to process foodstuffs.

Biological weapons are infectious or toxic agents (such as bacteria, rickettsia, and viruses) that are derived from natural sources and can cause disease or death. Laboratory tests on animals indicate that, if effectively disseminated and inhaled, just 10 grams of anthrax spores (a form of disease-inducing bacteria) could produce as many casualties as a ton (1 million grams) of nerve agent. Under conditions favorable to the attacker, biological weapons might kill as many people as comparably sized nuclear weapons, making them extremely dangerous as a strategic or terrorist weapon against dense population centers. Virtually any nation with a modestly sophisticated pharmaceutical industry has the potential to produce biological weapons.

Incidents of chemical or biological warfare date back centuries. During the Peloponnesian wars (431-404 B.C.), the Athenians and Spartans burned mixtures of pitch and sulfur to wear down each other’s armies. In 1763, the British army gave smallpox-infected blankets as gifts to an Ohio tribe in an attempt to quell Indian rebellions. Modern chemical warfare saw its origins in World War I, when Germany released clouds of chlorine gas, a choking agent, on French troops. By the war’s end, chemical weapons use by both sides had caused more than one million injuries and 100,000 fatalities. Although the Geneva Protocol of 1925 was intended to prohibit chemical and biological warfare, chemical weapons use continued sporadically in the decades that followed. There have also been numerous unsubstantiated allegations of their use.

Three recent events—the extensive use of chemical weapons during the Iran-lraq war (1983-88), the March 1995 sarin nerve gas attack by terrorists in the Tokyo subway, and the uncovering by the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) of the extent of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons programs—have reminded nations of the danger posed by CBWs and the need to control their spread. Currently, as many as 25 countries are believed to already have or to be interested in acquiring chemical weapons programs, while 10-12 countries are suspected to have or be interested in acquiring biological weapons programs. Only three nations—the U.S. (with 31,000 tons of chemical warfare agents), Russia (with 40,000 tons), and Iraq (with several hundred tons)—have openly acknowledged possessing chemical weapons arsenals. No countries admit to having currently active, offensive biological weapons programs yet revelations indicate that both Iraq and Russia have recently maintained such programs. The U.S. unilaterally renounced biological methods of warfare in 1969 and subsequently destroyed its biological weapons arsenal.

Problems with Current U.S. Policy

Key Problems

  • The CWC is scheduled to take effect possibly without U.S. participation. Failure to ratify the treaty would mean that the U.S. will not be represented on the CWC’s executive council in The Hague.
  • The U.S. has always opposed any phrasing in the biological weapons treaty that includes the word “verification.”
  • Further compounding the goal of eliminating biological weapons is the continued research into defenses against biological warfare that involves live biological agents.

A new international treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), prohibits the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer, and use of chemical weapons. Unprecedented in its scope and complexity, the CWC is the most significant agreement to stem the spread of weapons of mass destruction since the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Opened for signature in January of 1993, the CWC had 160 signatories as of September 11, 1996. Once a country has signed the treaty, its legislative body must ratify it. On October 31, 1996, the 65th country ratified the treaty, clearing the way for its entry into force. Although an original signatory of the CWC, the U.S. has yet to ratify it. A separate treaty, the Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), prohibits the development, production, and stockpiling of biological weapons and toxins. Opened for signature in 1972 and in force since 1975, the U.S. has both signed and ratified the BWC.

President Bill Clinton forwarded the CWC to the U.S. Senate for its advice and consent in November 1993. But it was not until April 1996 that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee finally recommended support for U.S. ratification of the treaty. Under a unanimous consent agreement, the entire Senate was expected to vote on ratification in September. But Senate hawks (led by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms) and last-minute lobbying by presidential candidate Senator Bob Dole, former defense secretaries Richard Cheney and Casper Weinberger, and a handful of conservative pundits succeeded in derailing the expected vote. With the two-thirds Senate majority required for treaty ratification less than assured, the Clinton administration had no choice but to accept indefinite postponement of the ratification vote.

As a result, the CWC is scheduled to take effect in April 1997 possibly without U.S. participation. Failure to ratify the treaty before then would mean that the U.S. will not be represented on the CWC’s executive council in The Hague. Nor will it be able to participate in final preparations for an enforcement system designed to make sure that nobody is making or selling prohibited chemicals. Nonparticipation in the CWC could also harm the $62 billion U.S. chemical export business. According to John D. Holum, director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, “U.S. companies could lose hundreds of millions of dollars in sales and many U.S. jobs.” U.S. allies and major trading partners such as Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and the Britain have all ratified the treaty.

In contrast to the CWC, the main problem with the BWC is a lack of verification and enforcement mechanisms. This shortcoming has left the nearly 140 nations that have ratified the treaty without on-site tools to corroborate claims of good behavior or allegations of cheating. Currently, treaty parties are working to develop a protocol to strengthen international compliance with the treaty. President Clinton has identified strengthening the BWC as one of his six “priority areas” for limiting the global spread of weapons of mass destruction. It remains the official U.S. position however, that the BWC cannot be adequately verified. Indeed, the U.S. has always opposed any phrasing in the treaty that included the word “verification.” A major hang-up in the current negotiations is whether future on-site verification measures will be limited to “challenge inspections” of declared biological facilities or might also include routine, random inspections of undeclared facilities. The U.S. opposes incorporation of the latter.

Further compounding the goal of eliminating biological weapons is the continued research into defenses against biological warfare, some of which involves working with live biological agents. While permitted by the BWC, such research, because it might easily be construed as offensive, risks arousing the suspicions and distrust of other nations. For this and other reasons, many experts in the biological and health science professions have signed a petition circulated by the Council for Responsible Genetics pledging not to engage in military research. They propose that biological warfare research involving agents should be discontinued or, at minimum, shifted away from military facilities such as the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute on Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) to civilian agencies such as the National Institute of Health or the Centers for Disease Control.

Toward a New Foreign Policy

Key Recommendations

  • The U.S. should ratify the CWC without further delay and should, in collaboration with other nations, devise and implement a stringent verification regime to ensure compliance with the BWC.
  • The U.S. should curtail all biological defense research involving agents.
  • U.S. policymakers must engage the greatest possible international cooperation for CBW nonproliferation efforts. They must act to strengthen international norms, or rules of acceptable behavior, against the acquisition or use of weapons of mass destruction.

Despite some dangerous trends and many uncertainties, the world community in the 1990s has significant new opportunities to curtail, and perhaps roll back, the spread of CBWs. But the future success of international efforts to control CBWs is heavily dependent upon what the U.S. does. The U.S. should ratify the CWC without any further delay. It should, in collaboration with other nations, devise and implement a stringent verification regime to ensure compliance with the BWC. And it should curtail all defense research involving live biological agents.

The CWC would require nations to quit the chemical weapons business, something the U.S., in practice and in policy, is already committed to doing. In May 1991, then-President George Bush forswore future U.S. use of chemical weapons. In June 1994, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General John Shalikashvili, testified that the U.S. response to any future chemical attack would not be a retaliatory use of chemical weapons, but an overwhelming and devastating use of conventional force. Under a 1985 congressional mandate, the U.S. Army has begun unilaterally destroying all but 2% of the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile. This task is supposed to be completed by 2004, years ahead of the CWC’s 10-year deadline for participating states to destroy their chemical weapons production facilities and stockpiles.

U.S. policymakers must engage the greatest possible international cooperation for CBW nonproliferation efforts. As a prerequisite to obtaining that cooperation, they must act to strengthen international norms, or rules of acceptable behavior, against the acquisition or use of weapons of mass destruction. To do this, policymakers must give the goal of nonproliferation higher priority than they did during the cold war by:

  1. Imposing obstacles to those attempting to acquire CBWs.
  2. Imposing disincentives in order to deter proliferants.
  3. Offering incentives to increase the attractiveness of voluntarily forgoing the acquisition of CBWs, and devising and offering global or regional security improvements to reduce perceived needs for the weapons.

Obstacles to proliferation might include: secrecy to restrict the flow of knowledge; national and multilateral export controls adopted by supplier nations; diplomatic, military, or other actions to prevent exports by third parties; and actions to stop or discourage experts from giving assistance. Disincentives designed to deter proliferants might include economic sanctions or strong diplomatic and military responses—when it is clear that there is no other recourse—designed to make acquiring CBWs seem undesirable. The CWC calls for sanctions to be applied against any signatory that does not comply with the treaty’s requirements. Thus, a noncompliant nation might lose access to certain chemicals regulated by the treaty.

The best chance for nonproliferation in the long term lies in building a consensus among potential proliferants that it is in their interests to refrain jointly from acquiring the weapons. Incentives to increase the attractiveness of voluntarily forgoing the acquisition of CBWs might include:

  1. Financial or technical assistance.
  2. Exemptions from nonproliferation export controls on dual-use (having both military and civilian applications) items.
  3. Assurances by potential adversaries not yet possessing CBWs that they also will forgo them.
  4. Assurances by existing owners of CBWs that they will not use or threaten to use them.
  5. Diminution of the role of CBWs in international relations.
  6. Monitoring or confidence-building measures to help verify that potential adversaries are forgoing CBWs.
  7. Broader regional or global arms control arrangements that reduce conventional weapon threats.
  8. Foreign commitments to come to the defense of or otherwise assist a nation if it is attacked.
  9. Regional security arrangements that more broadly reduce the chances of war with local adversaries.
  10. Global security arrangements that reduce the chances of attack from regional or extraregional adversaries.
Written by Martin Calhoun, senior research analyst for the Center for Defense Information.
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