Dangers of flawed WMD analysis

To the Editors:

Owen Cote (“Weapons of Mass Confusion,” April/May 2003) provides a cogent argument against grouping nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons into the same category and labeling them all weapons of mass destruction (WMD). According to Cote, WMD is a flawed concept because nuclear weapons are completely different from chemical and biological weapons and the United States’ security strategy must take these differences into account. He is correct, but he also makes the same mistake he is complaining about by lumping chemical and biological weapons together and ignoring the important differences between these categories. The failure to differentiate between these weapons leads to flawed policy prescriptions on reducing the danger they pose.

Cote rightly points out that chemical and biological weapons are easier to produce and hide than nuclear weapons and that there are defenses available against the effects of most types of chemical and biological agents. However, the differences between chemical and biological weapons have profound implications for the United States’ nonproliferation, counterproliferation, and defensive strategies. It is easier to control and detect the proliferation of chemical weapons due to the specialization of materials and equipment required for large-scale production, the larger facilities needed to produce militarily significant quantities, and the existence of an international verification regime administered by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. In contrast, the raw materials required for biological weapons can be found in nature and the production equipment is identical to that used in a range of civilian industries. Furthermore, the potency and self-replicating nature of biological weapons enables even small facilities to produce significant quantities of agent. These factors have presented major stumbling blocks to the negotiation of a verification regime for the Biological Weapons Convention.

The threat to American forces abroad and civilians at home posed by biological weapons far exceeds that of chemical weapons and is on par with that of nuclear weapons. A study conducted by the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) estimated that under favorable conditions a chemical attack on a city like Washington, D.C. could kill between three and eight thousand people whereas a biological attack with anthrax could kill from one to three million. This combination of lethality and accessibility is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of biological weapons. The limited history of the use of these weapons in international conflict should not blind us to their potential utility and attractiveness to weaker actors seeking to upset the status quo. Advances in biotechnology since the 1970s have provided the means to make these weapons easier to produce and store and more effective when employed.

Although Cote is correct to point out that defending against chemical and biological weapons is greatly enhanced if early warning of an attack is received, his proposal for a nationwide aerosol detection system is off the mark. The technology to reliably and accurately differentiate warfare agents from the other chemical and biological particles in the atmosphere is nowhere near ready for massive operational deployment. According to a recent Defense Science Board study, “Biological sensors will remain imperfectly reliable, environmentally sensitive, slow, range-limited, and difficult to operate for the foreseeable future.” A more useful system for detecting a biological attack would involve near real-time public health surveillance and DNA-based diagnostic tools that could readily determine the infectious cause of an illness. Such a system would not only improve our ability to detect a biological attack early on, but also strengthen our ability to respond to naturally occurring outbreaks of disease like SARS.

Finally, Cote is wrong to dismiss completely the utility of the supply-side controls, which he favors for nuclear weapons, for reducing the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons. Just as the most tempting source of fissile material for states seeking nuclear weapons is the unsecured stockpile in Russia, the most sophisticated chemical and biological warfare scientists and materials are also located in Russia. The former Soviet Union produced chemical and biological weapons more advanced than anything developed in the West or by Iraq. Securing the legacies of these programs from diversion to terrorist groups or other states should be a high priority for the United States’ cooperative threat reduction programs in Russia. Our defensive efforts will be much more successful if our opponents are denied access to these resources.

Overall, Cote is right to point out that not all weapons of mass destruction are the same, but he does not carry his analysis far enough and fails to appreciate the significant differences between chemical and biological weapons. Furthermore, his analysis masks the special challenges presented by biological weapons: these weapons strongly favor the attacker, can be highly lethal, are accessible to a wide range of actors, including terrorists, and are well-suited for covert and anonymous attacks.

Gregory Koblentz 
Doctoral Candidate 
Department of Political Science, MIT

Owen Cote replies:

Gregory Koblentz argues that my article fails to differentiate adequately between chemical and biological weapons, that the differences between chemical and biological weapons have profound implications for U.S. nonproliferation, counterproliferation, and defensive strategies, and that my failure to note these differences leads to flawed policy prescriptions.

He states that it is easier to prevent the spread of chemical weapons than biological weapons, and that biological weapons are more lethal than chemical weapons. The flawed policy prescriptions that result from my ignoring these differences are that I exaggerate the near-term feasibility of a nationwide aerosol detection system for warning of chemical or biological attack and understate the value of supply-side controls for both kinds of weapons. His preferred policy prescriptions would be to improve public health surveillance of biological attack using DNA-based diagnostic tools, and better secure the legacy of the Soviet Union’s chemical and biological weapons programs, as well as its nuclear programs.

Mr. Koblentz’s arguments are both contradictory and irrelevant to the basic point of my article, which is that supply-side measures, including military force, are much more useful in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to terrorists than they are in preventing the spread of chemical or biological weapons, and that the opposite is true of homeland defensive measures, which can (we hope) be made reasonably effective against terrorist attacks with chemical and biological weapons, but will likely remain ineffective against nuclear weapons.

For example, Koblentz argues that the nationwide aerosol detection system whose development I proposed for detecting both types of weapons is not yet ready for massive deployment. He proposes instead the development of DNA-based diagnostic tools which would be useful only against biological weapons. What would Koblentz propose to detect chemical attacks? Are DNA-based diagnostic tools ready for massive deployment? In an area of great potential danger and little current capability, is it not wise to pursue multiple investments in immature technologies with a potentially high payoff in the future? And leaving these questions aside, the basic critique is irrelevant to the main point of my article. DNA-based diagnostic tools deployed within the public health system to detect biological weapons are a defensive measure, not a supply-side measure. The problem is not whether one differentiates between the two types of weapons; the problem is whether one can find reliable and timely means of detecting their use. I care not how that task is accomplished and my notional aerosol detection system is just one example of how technology might serve that purpose.

With regard to supply-side measures against the spread of chemical and biological weapons, Koblentz contradicts himself when he says on the one hand that terrorists see Russia as the most tempting source of sophisticated chemical and biological warfare scientists and materials, while on the other hand saying that “the raw materials required for biological weapons can be found in nature and the production equipment is identical to that used in a range of civilian industries.” Which is it? My point about biological weapons is that they are fundamentally different from nuclear weapons partly because terrorists can make them without significant outside assistance. I have no problem with efforts to secure and dispose of such weapons in Russia, but unlike the case with Russia’s nuclear legacy, success in that endeavor will have little effect on the ability of terrorists to acquire biological weapons for the reasons that Koblentz himself cites.

I do agree with Koblentz that biological weapons pose a substantially greater potential threat than chemical weapons, but I don’t believe this is because chemical weapons are much harder for terrorists to obtain. Rather, it is because biological weapons are potentially so much more lethal. This potential difference in lethality doesn’t change the fundamental strategic point I was trying to make, which is that if we really believe that terrorists will seek to use WMD against the United States, our first priorities must be to prevent terrorists from obtaining nuclear weapons or materials and to develop homeland defenses against chemical or biological attacks. These are the two necessary, though not necessarily sufficient, tasks that must lie at the core of any strategy for dealing with the potential threat of WMD terrorism.