Report No. 2000/05 has been archived.
Information identified as archived on the Web is for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It has not been altered or updated after the date of archiving. Web pages that are archived on the Web are not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards. As per the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, you can request alternate formats on the "Contact Us" page.
June 9, 2000
This paper uses open sources to examine any topic with the potential to cause threats to public or national security.
1. It is difficult to conceive of a more odious weapon than the biological one, capable in a particularly insidious way of causing a level of fatalities comparable to, or even greater than, that of nuclear explosive devices. Fortunately, doubts about the military effectiveness of biological weapons in a tactical combat situation have resulted in their being used little in recent times. Nevertheless, in spite of the prohibition embodied in the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) of 1975, some states continue to research and develop these weapons, which have often been characterized as "the poor man's atomic bomb."
2. Biological weapons intended to cause death or serious harm include viruses, such as Venezuelan equine encephalitis; bacteria, such as anthrax, brucellosis, and plague; rickettsiae, such as Q fever and typhus; and toxins (biologically-produced poisonous chemicals) such as botulin, ricin, and animal venoms. About 30 of the several hundred different pathogenic microbes that directly or indirectly afflict humans have been considered as likely Biological Warfare (BW) agents. Microbial pathogens require an incubation period of 24 hours to 6 weeks, while toxins act relatively quickly, causing incapacitation or death within several minutes or hours. Biological agents are easier and cheaper to produce than either nuclear materials or Chemical Warfare (CW) agents, and the necessary technology and know-how is widely available. Any nation with a modestly sophisticated pharmaceutical industry is capable of producing biological agents. However, it is much more difficult to develop BW munitions that have a predictable or controllable effect. And since microbial pathogens and toxins are susceptible to such environmental stresses as heat, oxidation, and dessication, to be effective they must maintain their potency during weapon storage, delivery, and dissemination.
3. Unlike chemical weapons, biological weapons have been little used in recent warfare, with the exception of Japanese attacks in China (and possibly other Asian countries) before and during World War II. Nevertheless, biological weapons were stockpiled during both world wars and featured in the arsenals of the Cold War antagonists (the US offensive program not having been terminated until 1969, and the Soviet program widely suspected to be continuing to the present day within Russia). Weapon designs have included spray-tanks, bombs, cluster bombs, and bomblet dispensers. Like chemical weapons, biological agents are best dispersed as low-altitude aerosol clouds (and explosive methods may destroy the organisms). Long-term storage of missile or artillery warheads filled with live or freeze-dried biological or toxin agent is difficult, except for anthrax spores; even if refrigerated, most of the organisms have a limited lifetime. Potentially, genetic engineering techniques could be used to render micro-organisms or toxins more stable during dissemination; more difficult to detect; and not susceptible to standard vaccines or antibiotics.
4. While biological agents in relatively small quantities are theoretically capable of causing massive casualties, their military utility as an instrument of war has long been questioned. They would appear to be too slow-acting and unpredictable for surprise attacks or repelling the immediate attacks of others. However, they may be more suitable for use against fixed defensive positions in long wars of attrition, or against reserve combat units, formations massing in preparation for an offensive, air force squadrons, or rear area support units-where immediate results are not required and the danger to friendly forces is minimal. Under the most optimal conditions (the nightmare scenario of the last Gulf War), a single aircraft could disseminate high quantities of biological agent over hundreds, or even thousands, of square kilometres by spraying a long line upwind from the target region. And defence against BW agents may be quite problematic, given current difficulties in detecting their presence or identifying them; the requirements of vaccination (advance knowledge of the type of agent, the availability of effective vaccines, and sufficient time to develop immunity); and the fact that sufficiently high concentrations of agent may overcome the immunity even of vaccinated personnel. For these reasons, biological weapons have sometimes been considered a potential "equalizer" for less-developed states facing a more technologically sophisticated foe.
5. Despite the existence of the BTWC, which bans such weapons and entered into force in 1975, the US Congressional Office of Technology Assessment in 1993 listed eight countries generally reported as having undeclared offensive BW programs: Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Syria, China, North Korea, and Taiwan. Another six countries were listed as being "suspected" by at least some open sources of having such programs: Egypt, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, Bulgaria, and India. Allegations have also been made in the past about Romania and South Africa. As of 29 January 1998, all of the above-named states had acceded to the BTWC, with the exception of Israel, Syria and Egypt (the latter two having signed but not ratified it). The Director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency told a press conference in Geneva in November 1996 that "roughly a dozen countries"-"twice the number suspected in the mid-1970s"-were now believed to have "an active biological weapons programme." The seven he chose to identify were: China, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Russia, and Syria. The Special Assistant to the (US) Director of Central Intelligence for Nonproliferation, John Lauder, similarly told a Congressional committee in March 1999 that "About a dozen states, including several that are hostile to Western democracies-Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Syria-now either possess or are actively pursuing offensive BW capabilities for use against their perceived enemies, whether internal or external." The countries of greatest concern from a proliferation perspective today are discussed separately below.
6. According to open information, Egypt announced early in 1972, before signing the BTWC, that it possessed biological weapons. The US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in July1998 reiterated its belief that Egypt had developed BW agents by 1972, and went on: "There is no evidence to indicate that Egypt had eliminated this capability and it remains likely that the Egyptian capability to conduct BW continues to exist."
7. The Pentagon noted in 1996 that while India possessed the infrastructure necessary to support an offensive BW program, it had apparently "given priority to R&D applicable only to...defensive measures." The 1993 public report of the Russian Sluzhba Vneshneiy Razvedky (SVR) or Foreign Intelligence Service agreed, stating outright that (in contrast to CW) India did "not possess offensive biological weapons."
8. According to the Pentagon in 1996, Iran began its BW program in the early 1980s; was conducting research on toxins and organisms with BW applications; was capable of producing many different BW agents; and was "now pursuing complete biological production plants that could be converted to producing BW agents." Some major Iranian universities and research organizations were suspected of being linked to its BW program. The following year, in November 1997, the Pentagon warned that "while only small quantities of usable agent may exist now, within 10 years, Iran's military forces may be able to deliver biological agents effectively." According to a July 1998 report by the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, "The Iranian BW program has been embedded within Iran's extensive biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries so as to obscure its activities. The Iranian military has used medical, education and scientific research organizations for many aspects of BW agent procurement, research, and production.
9. The CIA was publicly reported in August 1996 to have credited Iran with BW, "largely in the research and development stage," although Tehran could possess weaponized biological agents that could be dispersed by artillery and aerial bombs, and be pursuing the development of biological warheads for ballistic missiles. About the same time, Israeli sources maintained that Iran had stockpiled anthrax and botulism, could produce more stocks quickly, and could already deliver biological weapons via Scud missiles and Sukhoi attack aircraft. The SVR, in its 1993 report, acknowledged, that "It cannot be ruled out that small stocks of biological agents have already been created," noting that Iran had reportedly been seeking to purchase "unofficially" equipment and material suitable for the production of mycotoxins in particular. The Special Assistant to the (US) Director of Central Intelligence for Nonproliferation, John Lauder, testified in April 1999 that "Tehran...continues to seek dual-use biotechnological equipment from Russia and other countries, ostensibly for civilian uses,...and it may have some limited capability for BW deployment."
10. The Iraqi government in August 1995 admitted to having produced 19,000 litres of botulinum toxin (BTX), 8,500 litres of anthrax, and 2,400 litres of the cancer-producing agent aflatoxin; to have loaded BTX and anthrax on Scud missile warheads and aerial bombs; and to have conducted research on mycotoxins and infectious viruses. It also claimed to have destroyed the agents after the 1991 Gulf War, but has failed to produce evidence to support such a claim. The Pentagon, noting that "All known fermentation and bioproduction equipment remains intact, and key experts are still available to serve Iraq's military programs," warned in 1996 that Iraq "could easily renew production of biological agents when intrusive UN inspections are discontinued." The following year, it stated outright that "Iraq may still retain some biological agents and weapons," including "some missile warheads"; and that "Iraq clearly intends to reestablish its biological warfare effort." The UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) was reported in 1996 to believe that Iraq still possessed between six and sixteen missiles with BW warheads.
11. The CIA publicly stated in March 1995 that, although Iraqi BW facilities had been damaged during the 1991 Gulf War, some "critical equipment" had been hidden and, because the program does not require a large infrastructure, in the absence of UN monitoring "the Iraqis could be producing BW agents in a matter of weeks." In February 1998, a US House of Representatives task force reported that Iraqi BW experts had been dispersed in Sudan, Libya, and Algeria. The CIA, in a letter to a US Senate committee in September 1998, noted that Iraq could resume production of BW "virtually overnight at facilities that currently produce legitimate items, such as vaccines." It was reported in December 1998 that, based on discrepancies between declared BW-related activity and UNSCOM's findings, inspectors believed that Iraq's BW arsenal could have been two to five times larger than it had previously declared. UNSCOM told the UN Security Council in January 1999 that it had "no confidence that all bulk agents have been destroyed; that no BW munitions or weapons remain in Iraq; and that a BW capability does not still exist in Iraq."
12. Although little is known about its program, Israel has been listed in the past as among those states that "possibly" possess an offensive BW capability. A January 1994 French press report maintained that Israeli scientists were working on "43 types of biological and other non-conventional weapons." An earlier, 1989 report credited a US State Department official as claiming that Israel's BW program was more advanced than Iraq's. The SVR in 1993 admitted that there was "No direct evidence of the presence in Israel of biological weapons," but went on to note that it pursued biological research "in which elements of a military-applied purpose are present" and that "As a whole, Israel possesses a strong civilian biotechnology base, which, if necessary, could be reoriented sufficiently rapidly to the production of biological weapons." According to an October 1998 British press report, Israeli F-16 aircraft are equipped to carry biological weapons manufactured at a secret biological institute in a suburb of Nes Ziona.
13. The Pentagon in 1996 maintained that Libya was pursuing an offensive BW program "in the early research and development stage," but that "technical shortcomings, combined with limitations in Libya's overall ability to put agents into deliverable munitions, will preclude production of militarily effective biological warfare systems for the foreseeable future." The following year it stated that Libya "may be able to produce laboratory quantities of agent" but that "Given the overall limitations of the program, it is unlikely that Libya will be able to transition from laboratory work to production of militarily useful quantities of biological warfare agent until well after the turn of the century."
14. Another 1996 source noted that "Libya may be trying to acquire the capability to produce limited amounts of biological agents, like anthrax and botulism, in a batch mode," but that "no serious evidence of progress is as yet available." In 1995, Libya was reported to be attempting to recruit South African BW scientists; the following year, to be conducting a joint BW program with Romania. The SVR referred in 1993 to "information that Libya is engaged in initial testing in the sphere of biological weapons." According to the CIA's March 1995 public report, "A number of Libyan universities are being used for basic research of more common BW agents, but they are not equipped to perform the sophisticated work needed for weapons development," and Libya had "not [yet] produced any biological weapons." However, the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency reported in July 1998 that "Evidence indicates that Libya has the expertise to produce small quantities of biological equipment for its BW program and that the Libyan Government is seeking to move its research program into a program of weaponized BW agents." In January 1998, "Western intelligence sources" were cited in the British press as reporting that up to a dozen Iraqi BW scientists had been transferred to Libya to join others already there working on its BW program.
15. The Pentagon reported in 1996 that North Korea had "begun to emphasize" an offensive BW program during the early 1960s, and that "With the scientists and facilities for producing biological products and micro-organisms,...probably has the ability to produce limited quantities of traditional infectious biological warfare agents or toxins and biological weapons." The CIA in March 1995 noted that, although a party to the BTWC, North Korea had "an active BW program in the early research and development stage." The SVR in 1993 maintained that "Information on the offensive nature of these [BW] programs has not been received."
16. The Pentagon in 1996 simply noted that, although Pakistan had signed the BTWC, it had "the resources and capabilities appropriate to conducting research and development relating to biological warfare," and was in fact "conducting research and development with potential biological warfare applications."
17. Syria has long been assumed, based on public statements by US government officials and other open sources, to have an offensive BW program. In early 1989, a State Department official was reported to have said that Syria's BW program was more advanced than Iraq's. In April 1993, it was reported that Syria was seeking Chinese and Western assistance to develop a BW missile warhead. The SVR in 1993 maintained that "there is no reliable information about the existence of biological weapons in Syria or a target program for the creation of an offensive potential in the biological sphere." Nevertheless, according to one 1996 source, it possesses "at least one major biological warfare facility, and possibly two," and "has possibly produced botulism as well as other agents." The US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency reiterated in July 1998 that "it is highly probable that Syria is developing an offensive biological warfare capability."
18. In its November 1997 report, the Pentagon stated outright that "Syria is pursuing the development of biological weapons. Syria probably has an adequate biotechnical infrastructure to support a small biological warfare program, although the Syrians are not believed to have begun any major weaponization or testing related to biological warfare. Without significant foreign assistance, it is unlikely that Syria could advance to the manufacture of significant amounts of biological weapons for several years."
19. Taiwan has been widely suspected of mounting an offensive BW program. However, the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in July 1998, while noting that Taiwan had "been upgrading its biotechnology capabilities by purchasing sophisticated biotechnology equipment from the United States, Switzerland and other countries," concluded that: "The evidence indicating a BW program is not sufficient to determine if Taiwan is engaged in activities prohibited by the B[T]WC."
20. Canada is a party to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (which entered into force on 26 March 1975), and is also a member of the Australia Group, an informal association of states seeking to limit the spread of chemical and biological weapons through the control of,inter alia, CBW equipment and BW agents and organisms. As such, Canada would be in violation of its commitments to other states and to the world at large if it did not seek to stem the proliferation of biological weapons. It would also be highly embarrassing for the Canadian government or private companies if BW proliferant states were able to acquire such materials or technology from Canadian sources.
21. While the lack of an intercontinental delivery capability makes it unlikely that any of the above- named states of BW proliferation concern would target Canadian territory directly with biological weapons, the same may not be true of Canadian troops serving abroad in peacekeeping or peace-enforcement missions, especially in such areas as the Middle East. Moreover, as delivery ranges increase, some of Canada's allies may be threatened directly by the use of biological weapons against their home territories.
Ken Alibek (with Stephen Handelman), Biohazard. New York: Random House, 1999.
The Arms Control Reporter (Institute for Disarmament and Defense Studies, Cambridge, MA).
The Biological & Chemical Warfare Threat (Revised edition). Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1999.
The CBW Conventions Bulletin (Quarterly Journal of the Harvard Sussex Program on CBW Armament and Arms Limitation).
ChemBio Weapons and WMD Terrorism News(Monterey Institute Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Washington Office).
Chemical & Biological Arms Control Dispatch (Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute, Alexandria, VA).
Leonard Cole, The Eleventh Plague: The Politics of Biological and Chemical Warfare. New York: Freeman, 1997.
Journal of the American Medical Association 278:5 (6 August 1997) (Special Issue on Biological Warfare and Terrorism).
Joshua Lederberg (ed.), Biological Weapons: Limiting the Threat. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.
Ye. Primakov, A New Challenge after the ?Cold War': The Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Moscow: Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation, 1993.
U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, 1997 Annual Report. Washington, July 1998.
U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Nonproliferation Center, The Weapons Proliferation Threat. Washington: March 1995.
U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Proliferation: Threat and Response. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, April 1996.
U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Proliferation: Threat and Response. Washington, November 1997.
U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Technologies Underlying Weapons of Mass Destruction. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, December 1993.
U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: Assessing the Risks. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, August 1993.
NOTE: For an assessment of the possible terrorist use of biological weapons, see the earlier CSIS publication in this series, Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Terrorism (Perspectives #2000/02).
Perspectives is a publication of the Requirements, Analysis and Production Branch of CSIS. Comments concerning publications may be made to the Director General, Requirements, Analysis and Production Branch at the following address: Box 9732, Stn. "T", Ottawa, Ont., K1G 4G4, or by fax at 613-842-1312.