No Democracy Can Feel Secure

By Lieutenant Colonel Raymond S. Shelton, U.S. Marine Corps

As U.N. forces in country continue to fall ill, the inbound flow of military assistance is halted. The rival factions of this tiny nation, who have escaped exposure to the biological warfare attack, continue their brutal civil war. The media focus no longer is on the relief effort, civil strife, or famine but concentrates on the growing number of casualties and the inability of the military to deal with the situation.

The Threat

What U.S. and U.N. forces experienced in this scenario is biological warfare—limited and nonlethal, yet totally incapacitating. It may not occur in 1999, but it is a real possibility for the near future.

Biological warfare (BW) is the intentional use of disease against an adversary's military force, population, crops, or livestock, and its lethality can be enormous. Ten grams of anthrax, for example, can kill as many people as a ton of the nerve agent Sarin. Botulinum toxin—the most toxic substance known to man-is an even greater danger. The inhalation of nanograms will cause death.

The counting of nuclear warheads and the tracking of nuclear-grade material appears incredibly easy when compared with the time, personnel, and equipment needed to keep tabs on all BW manufacture. Because many of the materials and equipment used in the production of biological weapons are common or can be easily converted (such as milk bottling plants, breweries, and fertilizer-production facilities), BW programs are easily hidden within legitimate facilities. This dual-use situation also makes counter-proliferation measures more difficult: export controls or the outright denial of certain equipment and technologies, interdiction, or supply disruption meant to stem biological warfare activities also could affect legitimate businesses.

Biological warfare has been with the global community since the Middle Ages, but the threat and severity of these weapons grows daily. Various open and official sources estimate that between 10 and 20 countries have the capability, or are pursuing the capability, to produce BW agents. As many as 100 nations now have the technological capability to develop a rudimentary program.

The appeal is clear. Sometimes called the poor man's nuclear weapon, biological agents are a relatively cheap force multiplier. They provide a capability as lethal and potentially devastating as nuclear weapons—100 kg. of anthrax delivered by an efficient aerosol generator on a large urban target would be between two and six times as lethal as a one-megaton thermonuclear bomb—but at significantly lower cost in terms of acquisition, development, production, weaponization, and delivery. One U.N. expert estimated that the costs of producing mass casualties per square kilometer are:

  • $1 for biological
  • $600 for chemical (nerve agent)
  • $800 for nuclear
  • $2,000 for conventional

Biological warfare has become the great equalizer for many lesser developed nations hoping to offset the perceived nuclear advantage of their neighbors. The following countries are believed to have active BW programs: China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, North Korea, Laos, Libya, Myanmar, Russia, South Africa, Syria, and Taiwan. But let us not forget the rogue, non-state actors of the world who must be reckoned with.

BW agents can be produced from easily obtainable, inexpensive, off-the-shelf technology. Virtually any nation and some non-state actors have the capability to go from laboratory development to weapons-quality agents in a matter of weeks, and in a room the size of a two-car garage. Most of the required apparatus and many of the cultures can be obtained from mail order houses. In fact, Saddam Hussein bought his original anthrax cultures from a mail order house in the United States and had it shipped overnight mail.

Once a nation possesses biological weapons, the means of dissemination is hardly an obstacle. Conventional transport and munitions delivery methods include: gravity bombs, artillery and mortar shells, aircraft, boats, vehicles, and man-portable systems. The preferred method of dispersal is via aerosol spray—the common crop duster is perfect. A tool as simple as an aerosol canister, similar to a commercial insect bomb or deodorizer, is sufficient to infect an entire city or cripple a force before it knows it has been attacked.

What keeps a rogue power from using any one of the 160 existing disease-causing BW agents as a means of establishing dominance? Publicly, the United States reserves the right of massive retribution if any nation or force should use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against U.S. forces. During the Gulf War, President George Bush informed Saddam Hussein:

The United States will not tolerate the use of chemical or biological weapons.... The American people would demand the strongest possible response. You and your country will pay a terrible price if you order unconscionable acts of this sort.

The threat of retaliation apparently worked during Desert Storm, but will it always? Possible future scenarios raise some difficult questions. What is the U.S. position on retaliation in the face of an evasive enemy? What will be the response if U.S. forces are exposed to a BW agent in the course of a peacekeeping or a humanitarian assistance mission? Could we in good conscience retaliate with lethal vigor when faced with an incapacitating, infectious, but nonlethal BW attack? How can we protect innocents from likely collateral damage? Without a Cold War, nuclear retaliation is less likely and therefore less of a deterrent.

Diplomatic and economic pressures can help inhibit a proliferant's activities, but as with military deterrence, this requires direct, punctual, and definitive intelligence. Because of the common availability of BW agents and dual-purpose equipment, the ease of manufacture, and the relatively short time needed to develop a BW program, it is impossible to track all possible biological sites with current intelligence assets. Today, the most reliable detection comes from human intelligence (HumInt) sources, which tend to be rudimentary and very dangerous.

What Course of Action?

The National Command Authorities someday will face a crisis where BW agents are likely to be employed against U.S. or coalition forces. Will its reaction mirror those of the past, acting as if the threat did not exist, relying on stealth, precision munitions, and escalation dominance to deter the adversary whose most deadly weapon we may not be able to target? This was the approach used during the Gulf War.

Perhaps the force will be protected with new and innovative tactics such as the extended dispersal of smaller, more mobile units and the integration of active and passive defenses. In this second approach, the United States employs much the same force structure as that of the Gulf War, but forces are given greater air and missile protection and highly sophisticated passive WMD defenses. Reduction of theater targets, maximum dispersal of forces, tactical mobility, and command and control will be critical to mission accomplishment in a BW environment.

Or will the United States adopt a mode of disengaged combat, where it stands off and annihilates the foe before putting forces in close combat, where they might encounter BW? In this scenario, allied and U.S. forces remain out of range of the adversary until his WMD have been eliminated and his massed forces destroyed by air, missiles, and special forces.

Whatever course of action future military leaders choose, forces facing weapons of mass destruction will require active and passive defense and medical support anchored by early warning. The full implementation of this protective triad is the guarantor of military success when operating in a BW environment.

Active Defense . Throughout the range of conflict where biological agents might be encountered, the expedient course of action incorporates disengaged combat, innovative tactics, and active defense. Active defense is the state of operating in a BW defensive posture while prosecuting the operational and tactical offense. It includes knowledge, dispersal, detection, protection (individual and unit measures), connectivity (command and control), rapid mobility and maneuver (ensuring contamination avoidance), high-tech weapons, and rapid decontamination.

In an active defense, the principle of mass in battle may well become obsolete, because mass makes one more vulnerable to weapons of mass destruction. Concurrently, maneuver will take on greater emphasis. Disengaged combat coupled with active defense will give the commander the latitude to choose the time and place of the fight, possibly avoiding the BW threat completely.

Passive Defense . Passive defense entails military capabilities that provide protection against the effects of biological and chemical weapons. Such programs involve contamination avoidance (reconnaissance, detection, and warning), force protection (individual and collective), and decontamination. Intelligence and reconnaissance maintain battlefield awareness and provide early detection and warning—the keys to avoiding contamination. With the increased lethality and strenuous operational tempo of the future battlefield a timely, responsive warning and detection capability is imperative. Detection methods must be linked throughout all echelons of the command structure and must be inexpensive and redundant, not only to give adequate coverage but also to be sufficiently reliable to rule out false alarms.

Current prophylactic measures, primarily vaccines, are inadequate, so individual protection depends on the use of masks and overgarments. Force protection requires improved masks and protective clothing that not only will protect against known threats but also will not measurably degrade the performance of personnel.

Existing decontamination systems are effective against a wide variety of threat agents, but they are slow and labor intensive; present logistical, environmental, and safety burdens; and cannot be used on sensitive electronic equipment. These systems must become easily transportable modular systems, employing new fast-acting sorbents and decontaminants. Large area decontamination centers will be needed for forces landing at forward airports or seaports that may have been or are targeted for BW attack. Medical personnel must be ready to treat casualties in a BW environment, including decontamination of exposed individuals and containment, so the contagion does not infect medical or other personnel.

An adequate passive defense demands a large increase in the logistical footprint of the deployed force. If technology proves fruitful, the majority of the increase will come in the medical arena.

Medical . Medicine is perhaps the weakest partner in the triad of BW defense. Critical elements include the ability to rapidly identify an agent (diagnosis) and to provide prophylactic and/or therapeutic protection from the agent.

Paramount to an individual's protection and recovery are medical products such as vaccines, immunoglobulins, and antibiotics that can mitigate the effects of biological agents.

All three can provide a measure of both pre-exposure and postexposure protection. As stated earlier, casualty management is not only a key medical challenge but a logistical one as well. Antibiotics, immunoglobulins, and vaccines have to be stockpiled, preserved, and ready for patient administration.

For any medical system or organization to function properly, it must be staffed by well-educated and disciplined professionals. Military doctors at the commander/captain level have attended the basic and advanced medical officer course, where most likely they will have received no more than 84 hours of training (40 of which are optional) in the management and treatment of biological casualties. The question of who is responsible for the decontamination of casualties—many medical personnel believe it should be the field units, and field units believe they should do only a "hasty" decontamination—remains unresolved. Thus, the burden of final decontamination likely will fall on medical personnel, many of whom lack an understanding of the related procedures and techniques. Add to this the general pandemonium of an infected civil population and it is easy to visualize how a crisis can turn into a catastrophe.

Intelligence: The Critical Link

The overarching and hands-down most critical issue for every part of the protection triad is knowledge, which comes from comprehensive intelligence. Whether in tracing the preproduction source of agents, discovering the cure, obtaining early warning, or locating and targeting production and dissemination sites, intelligence plays a vital role. On the battlefield it provides critical input to military planning and detection and information on weapon design to facilitate disabling activities; in the laboratory, it points the way for scientists who labor to develop vaccines, antibiotics, and immunoglobulins.

The most effective source of BW intelligence remains HumInt, and it will be for the foreseeable future. As Robert Gates, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, stated, "Human intelligence is critical in assessing the proliferation of both chemical and biological weapons of the Third World." It is imperative that all possible sources, especially HumInt, be exploited, because superior intelligence provides increased warning time, which translates into operational preparedness and active defense.

The Present

The United States must accept and adapt to the fact that we can and will operate under the threat of biological warfare. A significant effort must be made to thwart the proliferation of BW agents, but also to reduce our critical vulnerabilities. Biological warfare must be separated from the general classification of weapons of mass destruction and treated as an individual entity. Its special characteristics that distinguish it from chemical and nuclear warfare must be recognized and acknowledged.

Only through a concerted national effort at all levels will the military be able to avoid the trap of biological warfare. Medical and pharmaceutical research centers and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention must work hand in hand with the military to conquer known agents and establish protocols for dealing with "new" ones. With the advances in microbiology and genetic engineering, the future appears rife with opportunity for those determined to uncover new and evermore resilient and virulent strains.

The Department of Defense has placed chemical and biological operations into the joint arena. Although funding has been consolidated, it remains woefully lacking. One GAO report notes:

chemical and biological defense activities at all levels tend to . . . receive a lower level of emphasis than other high-priority activities, such as performing traditional operational mission tasks. This lower emphasis is seen in the funding, staffing, monitoring, and mission priority given to chemical and biological defense activities.

Exacerbating the lack of funding is the fact that U.S. forces have few opportunities for serious training related to chemical and biological proficiency. Of more than 200 exercises conducted under Joint Staff authority, only 10% conducted in 1995 and 15% in 1996 included any chemical or biological training. It is imperative that a new mindset be established throughout our civil and military structure that focuses on overcoming BW obstacles.

A step in the right direction is the Joint Service Integration Group, which is responsible for chemical and biological requirements, priorities, training, and doctrine. The Army has been designated the DoD executive agent and is tasked with coordinating and integrating the individual and collective service programs. The Joint Service Material Group has been designated to identify material solutions to requirements, coordinate and integrate nonmedical research, and guide acquisition efforts. Current joint BW procurement is focusing on the following:

  • Vaccine procurement funding
  • Fielding of improved protective masks (current masks are effective against BW agents if sufficient warning is received)
  • Procurement of joint service lightweight integrated suit technology (JSLIST)
  • NBC reconnaissance system block I upgrades to active field units
  • Upgrade to 38 fielded biological integrated detection systems (BIDS)

Joint research-and-development efforts now are being divided into three mission areas: contamination avoidance (detection, identification, warning, and reconnaissance), force protection (individual, collective, and medical support), and decontamination. Although we are headed in the right direction, the road is long and filled with uncertainty.

If this nation is to call on the military to prosecute national goals in hostile environments, then our armed forces must be equal to the task in all capacities. In the very near future, our deployed forces almost assuredly will encounter a biological agent. The military challenge then is to train and equip our troops to respond with efficiency and tenacity. The knowledge and support of major segments of the political and civil communities and of the entire military community are required to achieve proficiency on the BW battlefield. As President Bill Clinton remarked in 1993:

If we do not stem the proliferation of the world's deadliest weapons, no democracy can feel secure.... One of our most urgent priorities must be attacking the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, whether they are nuclear, chemical, or biological.

Colonel Shelton , a graduate of the Naval War College, is assigned to Commander, Amphibious Group Three, in San Diego. He recently returned from the Persian Gulf, where he served with Commander, Task Force Kuwait, as part of Operation Desert Thunder against Iraq.


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