Historical Notes: Worst-case scenario of `the poor man's nuke'

DURING THE Cold War we had it easy. We had a clearly defined enemy, the Soviet Union. She threatened us with the conquest of Western Europe. If war broke out we would know about it. Tanks flanked by helicopter gunships would have been charging across the north German plain. The Soviets might well have also used chemical weapons. For that we were well prepared, well protected and had, arguably, better binary chemical weapons. Even in the worst case we knew that if the Soviet Union turned to nuclear weapons she risked unleashing an escalating response that might have ended in holocaust or MAD (mutually assured destruction).

That is the traditional view. Not many people know that throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s Russia had over 60,000 people involved in a high-intensity programme of research, development and production of biological weapons - germ warfare in old money. Hundreds of tons of anthrax weapon components, along with dozens of tons of smallpox and plague were produced. It is frightening to speculate what the real scenario might have been.

Thankfully we no longer have to, because we won the Cold War. But, now that the threat to us is no longer a monolithic Communist edifice, nothing is clear-cut. Our potential enemies now include anyone who views the economic, financial, ideological and military domination of the world by a US-led West as less than desirable. Which is a lot of people.

And there is evidence to suggest that such people are building up ways and means to threaten our future. The most worrying of these is the explosion of bio-weapon programmes. Both the nature of bio-weapons and the industrial base needed to support their manufacture have several unique properties.

First the production of biological weapons agents requires neither special equipment nor advanced technology. It is relatively easy to start, stop and conceal the production of such weapons behind legitimate research programmes. Moreover the facilities used in the production of pharmaceuticals and pesticides are virtually identical to those required for bio-weapons. This dual use means that any attempts to halt proliferation through export technology bans would be futile. Any determined regime will succeed if it really wants a bio- weapons programme. There are more than a dozen nations succeeding today.

And it gets worse. Delivery of a bio-weapon does not require vast armed forces, nor even missile technology. It is possible to use ordinary people using ordinary devices, such as aerosol cans, or direct dumping into water supplies, to inflict massive casualties. Also, unlike their chemical and conventional counterparts, bio-weapons are, pound for pound, potentially many times more lethal. The bio-weapon has been dubbed "the poor man's nuke".

Perhaps the greatest strengths of the bio-weapons - plague, smallpox, anthrax, ebola and TB for example - is their pernicious double ambiguity. By this I mean that, because there is an incubation period for the diseases which is followed by initial symptoms of malaise that most GPs would recognise as flu, it may not be obvious for a while that an attack is either under way or has taken place. The second ambiguity is that even as the epidemic grips and spreads it might not even be clear who has carried out the attack especially if it has been done by a particularly clever and careful enemy.

The worst-case scenario is an entirely covert and apparently unprovoked attack on a single nation in the West. Without an obvious enemy the conspiracy theorists will immediately point to an error or accidental spillage by government scientists carrying out secret research. The films have been made. Bring back the Cold War and the shadow of nuclear winter, deterrence theory, trip wires and flexible response - all is forgiven. Those were the days - we knew exactly where we stood.

Simon Pearson is the author of `Total War 2006' (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 18.99)