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)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker