Historical Notes: Worst-case scenario of `the poor man's nuke'
Monday 13 September 1999
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)
Bannatyne leaves Dragon's DenTV
They're back, they're big – and they're still spectacularly boringfilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Howard Jacobson: Let's see the 'criticism' of Israel for what it really is
- 2 Gingers face extinction due to climate change, scientists warn
- 3 Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014: In defence of Mesut Ozil - the Arsenal midfielder works magic in the shadows
- 4 Pornhub pleads with users to stop uploading videos of Brazil 'getting f**ked by Germany' in World Cup match
- 5 Give childhood back to children: if we want our offspring to have happy, productive and moral lives, we must allow more time for play, not less
Sustained immigration has not harmed Britons' employment, say government advisers
British jihadist calls for 'flag of Islam' over Downing Street and Buckingham Palace
Australia facing international condemnation after turning around Sri Lankans at sea
7/7 memorial defaced on anniversary of 2005 attacks with ‘Blair lied thousands died’ graffiti
Even when it brutalises one of its own teenage citizens, America is helpless against Israel
There’s a nasty smell in the political air – and it’s coming from the Tories