Posted: March 18th, 2023
Chemical & Biological Warfare
The idea behind both chemical and biological warfare is that there are agents that can be introduced into the atmosphere and/or a person’s immediate area that can do damage more quickly than conventional weapons that maim and do physical damage. In chemical warfare, chemical substances and their toxic properties are used as weapons. In biological warfare, also often termed germ warfare, infectious agents and biological toxins are used. Most people think of using these types of warfare to kill or severely injure human beings, but they can also be used to damage animal populations or plant life. Both chemical and biological warfare plans are generally set into motion in order to get a strategic or tactical advantage, and the individual or group of individuals focused on this kind of warfare must use the utmost care to avoid harm to themselves. Chemical and biological weapons can and do backfire and harm those who intend to use them against others if they are not handled carefully.
Addressed here will be both biological and chemical warfare options. The types of weapons that were (and still are) used, the battles and skirmishes in which those weapons have been seen, and the history behind the weapons are all very important to a clear understanding of the different types of weapons and why they are so valuable when it comes to fighting military battles. These kinds of weapons have also been used in incidents of both foreign and domestic terrorism, so that is also something that has to be addressed and considered in order to develop a complete understanding of the value and the danger that is presented when people elect to use these options for weaponry. While they may not do as much obvious damage as something like a bomb or gun, chemical and biological weapons can be just as deadly in the right (or wrong) hands.
Chemical substances are not always harmful. Many of them are used every day with no actual problem and no adverse affects. The longer society lives and continues to advance, the more chemical compounds are created and discovered, and the more is done with these compounds in the way of treating and preventing disease. However, there is a dark side to the issues. There are toxic properties of many kinds of chemical substances, and they can be used as weapons (Brophy & Fisher, 1959; Janata, 2009). Sometimes they are used in war, and sometimes they are used by individual terrorists, but either way they can result in significant damage to and loss of life (Hammond, 1999). The idea of chemical warfare is often lumped in with biological and nuclear warfare (Janata, 2009). The military uses the acronym NBC for those weapons as a group, and they are all termed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) (Hammond, 1999; Janata, 2009).
There are also conventional weapons, but chemical and other WMD designated weapons do not fall under that designation because they have the potential to be extremely destructive. Chemical warfare needs no explosive force or other detonation in order to do a serious level of damage (Hammond, 1999; Janata, 2009). The chemical agent itself, and the unique properties that belong to that chemical agent, are enough to cause the death and devastation that those who employ chemical weapons against others are looking for (Brophy & Fisher, 1959). The goal of the chemical weapon is to be a lethal agent that will incapacitate or injury the enemy. Sometimes, these chemical agents are also used over a wide area of terrain in order to deter an enemy from using that terrain in any kind of unhindered manner (Haber, 1986; Hammond, 1999). This can be very effective for keeping unwanted people, animals, and plants away from a particular dwelling or structure, but can also be used in actual combat to ensure that the enemy does not gain access to field, forests, or other areas that are too close to an encampment or other protected area (Janata, 2009).
If vegetation is the problem – or if the goal is to keep the enemy from using vegetation as a cover in which to hide – a defoliant can be used (Janata, 2009). The promoting of starvation and hunger against pests or livestock is another reason why a defoliant might be used (Janata, 2009). The enemy may be forced to surrender if he or she suddenly has no food because the livestock have died due to lack of vegetation. It is also possible that the enemy will be more easily captured if there is no vegetation and foliage in which he can conceal himself. Defoliants take very little time to work, and they are highly effective chemical weapons (Brophy & Fisher, 1959; Burck & Flowerree, 1991). It is not always necessary to deploy a chemical agent that will directly target human beings to have a significant impact on the enemy and his or her interests. Those who want to avoid chemical weapons can do so, however, if they are properly prepared. Training, proper protective equipment, and measures that are specific to decontamination are all available to people who want to overcome or mitigate the primary effects of these weapons (Hammond, 1999; Janata, 2009).
In many nations, there are huge stockpiles of chemical weapons (Janata, 2009). They are prepared for use in wartime, if they are ever needed. Naturally, the hope is that they will remain dormant, but the threat of them and what they can do remains. This threat, and the counter-threat from other countries that also have these chemical agents, are tools of strategy for a large number of countries when it comes to wartime measures and counter measures (Haber, 1986; Hammond, 1999). While there have been talks among countries about destroying these kinds of weapons so they can no longer cause such a danger, it is not likely that this will ever take place, simply because there is too much at stake with these weapons. They provide a measure of safety and security for these countries, and they also provide a show of strength (Hammond, 1999; Janata, 2009). A country would be foolish to give that kind of thing up when there are other countries that still intend to retain their chemical weaponry. Additionally, chemical weapons in some form have been used for thousands of years, so they are not new to the arsenals of countries (Burck & Flowerree, 1991).
Modern chemical warfare, however, started in the First World War (Brophy & Fisher, 1959). In the beginning of chemical warfare, the chemicals that were used were commercially available and very well-known. Phosgene and chlorine gases were two of the most commonly used options (Janata, 2009). The gases were dispersed toward the enemy when the battle was taking place, but the way this was done was not at all efficient. Trench warfare made for highly static troop positioning, though, so even unrefined ways of dispersing chemical agents could result in very heavy casualties (Janata, 2009). The first country to start using chemical warfare on the battlefield was Germany. Instead of attempting some fancy way of getting the chemicals to the enemy, they simply took canisters of chlorine and opened them upwind of the enemies they were fighting (Hammond, 1999; Janata, 2009). The way the wind was blowing took care of getting the deadly gas to the opposing troops, which was a crude delivery method but was relatively effective.
It was not long after that when French troops modified artillery munitions so they had the ability to hold phosgene (Janata, 2009). That was much more effective than relying on an upwind position, and became the most commonly used means for delivery. Ever since chemical warfare was developed and used in any kind of modern context, many nations have actively pursued development and research of chemical agents and weapons (Haber, 1986). There are four major categories for research and development, although each country has its own plans. The categories are: more efficient methods of delivery to the target, more and better means of defense against chemical agents, better and more accurate means of detective chemical agents, and agents that are newer and more deadly than was previously offered (Janata, 2009). During the last couple of centuries, there have been approximately 70 different chemicals that have either been stockpiled or stockpiled and used as agents of chemical warfare (Hammond, 1999; Janata, 2009).
Some of the agents are in liquid form, and others are solids or gases. Chemicals come in many different types, potencies, and consistencies, and a large number of them have properties that are highly toxic to humans, plants, animals, or all of those groups. Generally, liquid agents are designed to have a very high rate of evaporation (Janata, 2009). They have a very high vapor pressure, and are commonly referred to as volatile. Their volatility is actually extremely important, because it allows for them to be spread over a very large area quickly (Janata, 2009). Naturally, it is easy to see why that would be a good thing to consider when attempting to deter or injure an enemy. The larger the region covered by the chemical agent, the more likely it will be to cause the widespread destruction for which the person or group is looking (Brophy & Fisher, 1959). Toxicity matters, of course, but the earliest uses were not about the level of toxicity the chemical agent possessed. They were more focused on how the toxic was absorbed. If the chemical agent could be absorbed through the clothing and skin, a gas mask would be useless against it and it would be more likely to work on a larger number of people (Burck & Flowerree, 1991).
July of 1917 saw the use of mustard gas begin (Brophy & Fisher, 1959). The Germans, once again, were the first to use this chemical. It easily passes through fabric and leather, and causes very painful burns to appear on the skin. There are two categories into which chemical agents like mustard gas can fall: incapacitating and lethal (Janata, 2009). There is no fixed distinction between the two, but there is a statistical average that is used to make a determination. Additionally, substances are deemed incapacitating if it takes less than 1/100th of a lethal dose to cause said incapacitation (Janata, 2009). Often, the method of incapacitation is through visual problems, nausea, or something similar that the person will recover from but that will make traveling, fighting, and other tasks difficult for a period of time (Brophy & Fisher, 1959; Janata, 2009).
One of the ways in which chemical agents are classified has to do with the persistency they have. This is a measurement of the time they remain effective after they have been disseminated (Janata, 2009). The agent is either considered persistent or non-persistent. When they are considered to be non-persistent they use effectiveness very quickly. It can take minutes are hours to render these agents completely ineffectual, and sometimes it takes only seconds, depending on the chemical agent in question (Hammond, 1999). Chlorine gas, for example, is a non-persistent chemical agent. Sarin is also non-persistent and highly volatile, as are most other nerve agents. When a person or group needs to take a target “by storm” and gain control very quickly, these kinds of non-persistent agents are the best ones to use. They incapacitate or kill the targets, but because they disperse so quickly they allow those who are taking over to move in without waiting around for some of the targets to escape or recover enough of their faculties to potentially be able to fight back.
The delivery mode that is used is nearly as important as the agent where chemical warfare is concerned (Burck & Flowerree, 1991; Haber, 1986). Deployment of a non-persistent agent should be similar to the fine droplets that an aerosol can produces. That allows the gas to be inhaled, but it also allows the mist to be absorbed through the pores and into the skin (Haber, 1986). That is much more toxic to the target than a larger mist that the skin will not accept. High concentrations are needed to be effective, and a single breath should contain enough of the agent to be lethal (Hammond, 1999; Janata, 2009). Ballistic missiles that have cluster warheads or rocket artillery and bombs are the two best ways to get the agent to the target and deploy it in such a way as to be sufficient to achieve this level of saturation (Janata, 2009). This is a far different approach than would be used for persistent agents which, as their name implies, can remain in the target area for a long period of time and be highly difficult to clean up and neutralize (Janata, 2009).
Biological warfare is very different from chemical warfare, although the end result and the goal is the same. In biological, or germ, warfare, the agents used commonly include viruses, bacteria, and fungi (Alibek & Handelman, 2000). These are used with the intent to either incapacitate or kill human beings, plants, or animals when employed as an act of war. Other names for these agents include bio-weapons, bio-agents, or biological threat agents (Endicott & Hagerman, 1998). They are organisms that are alive and they are designed to replicate or reproduce within their hosts (Appel, 2009; Crosby, 1986). Occasionally, insects have also been used for warfare. Because of their living nature and means of replication, they are considered to be biological warfare agents. There are different ways in which biological agents are employed in warfare. Sometimes they are actually used, and other times they are just threatened (Appel, 2009). Often, the threat of biological warfare is enough to cause an enemy to back down, because these kinds of agents can be extremely severe and can devastate a relatively large population in a short period of time.
Similar to chemical weapons, biological weapons can also be used as a way to clear an area of targets and/or stop those targets from entering that area (Alibek & Handelman, 2000). They can be either lethal or non-lethal, and they are often targeted against large groups. However, small groups, individuals, or en entire population would not be immune (Dembek, 2007). Non-national groups and nation states can develop, acquire, stockpile, and deploy biological agents. When nation states use biological agents in a clandestine manner, or when non-national groups use them, it is often categorized as bioterrorism (Endicott & Hagerman, 1998). There are some overlaps between chemical and biological agents, because toxins that are produced by organisms that are alive fall under both the Chemical Weapons and Biological Weapons Conventions (Alibek & Handelman, 2000). Psychochemical weapons and various toxins are also available, and are generally called midspectrum agents (Alibek & Handelman, 2000; Appel, 2009).
Unlike the true biological agents, these agents that fall into the midspectrum range are characterized by shorter period of incubation and are not able to reproduce in their host (Endicott & Hagerman, 1998). While they are sometimes not as lethal because of these limitations, it is not safe to assume that they cannot be deadly or highly incapacitating under the proper circumstances. The use of biological weapons was outlawed in 1972, and this ruling meant that they also could not be mass produced or stockpiled (Alibek & Handelman, 2000). As of 2011, 165 countries had ratified that treaty. The goal is to ensure that countries cannot use a biological attack to create large numbers of casualties in the civilian population and cause disruptions to social and economic infrastructures (Alibek & Handelman, 2000). While the creation of these agents is prohibited, studying how to protect oneself from them and create a defense if they were ever to be used is not prohibited. Many countries pursue the study of biological warfare in this manner.
Biological weapons are highly destructive not just because of what they can do but because of how small an amount of them is needed in order to do anything that would result in a significant loss of life (Crosby, 1986; Dembek, 2007). Even more than nuclear, conventional, or chemical weapons, biological weapons cause a heavy level of destruction quickly and with only a small amount of agent (Crosby, 1986). They cost relatively little to develop and are easily stored, making them very useful as a deterrent when strategy is being discussed. On the battlefield they make good offensive weapons (Alibek & Handelman, 2000; Endicott & Hagerman, 1998). Even though it is illegal for countries to continue to make or store them, it is highly likely that there are still stockpiles of biological warfare agents in numerous countries – especially those that did not ratify the treaty. While this cannot be proven, it is something about which the other countries have to be aware.
Throughout history, there have been many examples of biological warfare. As far back as the 6th century BC, there were tales of the Assyrians putting a fungus into the drinking water of their enemies in order to make those enemies delirious (Alibek & Handelman, 2000). Hannibal of Carthage used biological warfare in 184 BC when he had his troops throw pots filled with venomous snakes onto the decks of enemy ships (Alibek & Handelman, 2000). Medieval Europe also has many accounts of biological agents being used. Infected animal carcasses were used to poison water supplies of enemies, and these diseased carcasses were also used as projectiles in catapults that were being used to launch them into cities under siege. The last known use of infected corpses as biological warfare was in 1710 (Alibek & Handelman, 2000). As society advanced, biological warfare changed and developed. There is at least one documented case of the British Army attempting to use smallpox as a biological agent. They army gave blankets that were infected with the disease to the Lenape during Pontiac’s War (Endicott & Hagerman, 1998). There are also suspicions that this same type of tactic was used on the Native Americans, but this has never been proven.
In WWI, anthrax and other agents really started to be developed and used. Bacteriology and germ theory was what helped this take place, and the German Government began to look for ways to use biological agents (Crosby, 1986). The Geneva Protocol in 1925 banned those kinds of agents from being used (Dembek, 2007). The production, transport, and storage was not banned until 1972. However, Iraq and the Soviet Union (as well as, potentially, other countries) defied the treaty despite the fact that they had signed it. They continued to produce and research offensive biological weapons. When the Soviet director of the program defected to the United States in 1992, major proof that the Soviets were still making and researching biological weapons came to light (Alibek & Handelman, 2000). One of the ways that countries conducted tests on biological warfare agents was to use them on prisoners and other people, which resulted in many unpleasant deaths for these people (Alibek & Handelman, 2000). Most of that has stopped now, but there remains the possibility that some countries may still be doing this kind of thing in secret.
Modern options for biological weapons are not as offensively targeted as they would have been in the past. The argument against using these kinds of weapons offensively is that they really cannot be controlled in the way that conventional weapons can, and that means that they could end up being just as dangerous to the people who deployed them as they were to the people who were targeted (Alibek & Handelman, 2000). Biological agents such as smallpox and other diseases could end up spreading on a worldwide level, which would mean that the target and a significant number of other people would end up damaged or killed. While the value may be in killing the targeted individual or group, what of the others? That is a serious question that those who deal with biological agents must always consider. The storage of biological agents is a serious concern, as well, because theft of them could render a large part of the country or the world vulnerable to dangerous toxic agents that could result in death (Alibek & Handelman, 2000; Appel, 2009; Endicott & Hagerman, 1998). It would not take long for a biological agent to get out of control.
Since so many biological agents can be used in so many deadly ways, the U.S. And other countries have effectively focused on finding ways to mitigate the damage (Alibek & Handelman, 2000; Appel, 2009). Information into what others countries are doing, defensive strategies in case of a biological agent attack, and other issues are all addressed by the majority of countries (Endicott & Hagerman, 1998). The concern is that countries such as the U.S. would be a good target for biological agents because there are large numbers of people living close together (Alibek & Handelman, 2000). While living in fear is not good (or necessary), it is important to be aware and to make certain that there is as much protection from these kinds of risks and problems as possible. That can help mitigate the damage and keep it contained if there ever is a biological agent event. Prevention would be much better, but mitigation of the damage is going to likely be the best that most countries are able to do against any kind of biological warfare.
It is clear that biological and chemical warfare are both highly significant and very serious issues that have to be faced by the world. Even though most people do not think about these kinds of issues on a daily basis, they are always behind the scenes. The differences between the two are inconsequential when it comes to the risks and dangers that they offer to people, plants, and animals. Because these agents can be used in so many different ways, they may not necessarily need to be used on the human population. By destroying high levels of vegetation and killing or infecting large numbers of animals that are used for food production, a country could effectively cripple another country. The likelihood of this is slim, of course, but this does not mean that the risk is not there. Fortunately, the vast majority of developed countries have taken steps to ensure as much protection and preparedness as possible for biological or chemical events.
Short of wartime, these kinds of events are rarely seen. However, the threat of terrorism is very real and there is the chance that terrorists would consider using chemical or biological agents in order to infect or injure large numbers of people in a country the terrorist organization wished to attack. Even damage or death to a small number of people in the target country would be enough to put everyone on high alert and make people fearful, which is what terrorists plan and desire to do. Naturally, countries that are more highly prepared for the possibility of terrorism are less likely to become victims of it, and if they do become victims the damage can be mitigated because the people are more able to react correctly to avoid further risk to health and safety.
Alibek, K. And S. Handelman. (2000). Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World — Told from Inside by the Man Who Ran it. Delta.
Appel, J.M. (2009). Is all fair in biological warfare? The controversy over genetically engineered biological weapons, Journal of Medical Ethics, Volume 35, pp. 429 — 432.
Brophy, L.P. & George J.B. Fisher (1959). The Chemical Warfare Service: Organizing for War Office of the Chief of Military History.
Burck, Gordon M. And Charles C. Flowerree. (1991). International Handbook on Chemical Weapons Proliferation.
Crosby, Alfred W. (1986). Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900 — 1900.
Dembek, Zygmunt (editor). (2007). Medical Aspects of Biological Warfare; Washington, DC: Borden Institute.
Endicott, Stephen and Edward Hagerman. (1998). The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea, Indiana University Press.
Haber, L.F. (1986). The Poisonous Cloud: Chemical Warfare in the First World War Oxford University Press.
Hammond Jr., James W. (1999). Poison Gas: The Myths vs. Reality NY: Greenwood Press.
Janata, Jiri. (2009). Role of Analytical Chemistry in Defense Strategies Against Chemical and Biological Attack, Annual Review of Analytical Chemistry.
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