Several major nations have worked to some degree on the development of biological agents for use in warfare. Selected or adapted from pathogens causing various diseases that attack humans, domestic animals, or vital food crops, such agents include bacteria, fungi, and viruses or the toxins they produce. The pathogens causing botulism, plague, hoof-and-mouth disease, and stem rust in wheat are among the many that could be directed against opposing armies or the civilian economies supporting them. Genetic engineering also offers the possibility of developing new virulent strains against which an opposing force could not be prepared in advance.
Large-scale biological warfare has thus far remained theoretical, although in the 1980s it was learned that Japan used biological agents against the Chinese in the 1930s and early 1940s. In the early 1980s, claims were also made that the Soviet Union, in Afghanistan, and Vietnam, in Laos and Kâmpùchéa, were using fungal toxins—in a form called “yellow rain”—as biological weapons. The charges, however, were controversial and have not been proved.
Dissemination and Protection
The earliest method of disseminating chemical agents was simply to release them from pressurized containers, as the Germans did in World War I. This made the use of these weapons dependent on the wind; quite often the wind would change and bring the chemicals back onto friendly troops. Thus, armies turned to better ways of projecting weapons, including mortars, artillery, rockets, aerial bombs, and aerial spray. Biological agents can also be disseminated by releasing insects or animals released in a target area.
Whatever the means of dissemination, care must be taken to protect friendly forces and populations. Most nations are developing programs to detect lethal agents and decontaminate them. Efforts are also being made to develop offensive weapons that are less dangerous to store and use. The United States has an extensive program for the safe demilitarization of these weapons.
The chemical and biological weapons employed in nuclear or conventional war may also play a part in future guerrilla wars or sabotage actions. In such situations, inert toxic materials, such as dusts that are activated on contact with moist surfaces such as the lungs, might be surreptitiously sprayed into city air from moving vehicles or from offshore vessels. The delivery of soluble toxins into urban water supplies is another possible tactic.
Chemical and biological agents have possibilities for use in limited wars. The fact that it does not take a very sophisticated industrial base to produce lethal chemicals makes this a viable means of warfare for Third World countries. Use of chemical weapons by Iraq and Libya’s chemical warfare capability in 1988 reinforce the danger that these weapons will spread. The attraction of such weapons for terrorists is also a matter of great concern, since release of relatively small amounts of toxins in a water supply or into the air might cause a widespread catastrophe.
The Hague Conference of 1899 made an attempt to outlaw projectiles carrying poison gases; the agreement to this effect lasted only until World War I. In Geneva in 1925 a League of Nations protocol against chemical and biological war was signed; it was not, however, ratified by the United States until 1975. The treaty outlaws the first use of such weapons in warfare, but nations generally reserve the right to use them in retaliation. Agreements totally banning chemical warfare have proved difficult to achieve.
A treaty totally banning biological warfare was drawn up by the Geneva Disarmament Conference in 1971 and approved by the United Nations General Assembly. Some 80 nations signed the Biological Weapons Convention, which the United States ratified in 1974. This treaty is unique because it outlaws a whole class of weapons by most of the world. Its effectiveness, however, is still questionable; progress in genetic engineering has also complicated this issue. At the Bush-Gorbachev summit in June 1990, a treaty was signed providing for both the United States and USSR to reduce stockpiles of chemical weapons. In May 1991, 19 industrial nations—including the United States—committed to adopt controls on the export of 50 common chemicals used to manufacture these weapons.
Information Courtesy of Microsoft Encarta ® 1998