biological warfare defence

Biological warfare

Biological warfare (BW) — known as a germ warfare, biological weapons and bioweaponry — is the use of any pathogen (bacterium, virus or other disease-causing organism) as a weapon of war. Using nonliving toxic products, even if produced by living organisms (e.g., toxins), is considered chemical warfare under the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention. A BW weapon may be intended to kill, incapacitate or seriously impede on an individual as well as entire cities or places. It may also be defined as the material or defense against such employment. BW is a military technique that can be used by nation-states or non-national group. In the latter case, or if a nation-state uses it clandestinely, it may also be considered bioterrorism.


The creation and stockpiling of biological weapons ("offensive BW") was outlawed by the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), signed by over 100 countries. The BWC remains in force, and it prohibits storage, stockpiling, and usage of these weapons. The rationale behind the agreement is to avoid the devastating impact of a successful biological attack which could conceivably result in millions, possibly even billions of deaths and cause severe disruptions to societies and economies. However, the consensus among military analysts is that, except in the context of bioterrorism, BW is of little military use. Many countries pursue "defensive BW" research (defensive or protective applications) which are not prohibited by the BWC. As a tactical weapon, the main military problem with a BW attack is that it would take days to be effective, and therefore, unlike a nuclear or chemical attack, would not immediately stop an opposing force. As a strategic weapon, BW is again militarily problematic, although with a possible exception with the Soviets, the weaponized biological agents did not spread from person to person. Spread is less of a concern for terrorists, but it was very much a concern for post-WWII BW development by major powers.


Biological warfare has been practiced repeatedly throughout history. Before the 20th century, the use of biological agents took three major forms:

  • Deliberate poisoning of food and water with infectious material
  • Use of microorganisms, toxins or animals, living or dead, in a weapon system
  • Use of biologically inoculated fabrics

The ancient world

The earliest documented incident of the intention to use biological weapons is recorded in Hittite texts of 1500-1200 B.C, in which victims of plague were driven into enemy lands. Although the Assyrians knew of ergot, a fungus of rye with effects similar to LSD, there is no evidence that they poisoned enemy wells with ergot, as has often been claimed. According to Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, epic poems about the legendary Trojan War, spears and arrows were tipped with poison. During the First Sacred War in Greece, in about 590 BC, Athens and the Amphictionic League poison the water supply of the besieged town of Kirrha (near Delphi) with the toxic plant hellebore. The Roman commander Manius Aquillus poisoned the wells of besieged enemy cities in about 130 BC. During the 4th century BC Scythian archers tipped their arrows with tips with snake venom, human blood, and animal feces to cause wounds to become infected. There are numerous other instances of the use of plant toxins, venoms, and other poisonous substances to create biological weapons in antiquity.

In 184 B.C, Hannibal of Carthage had clay pots filled with venomous snakes and instructed his soldiers to throw the pots onto the decks of Pergamene ships. In about AD 198, the city of Hatra (near Mosul, Iraq) repulsed the Roman army led by Septimius Severus by hurling clay pots filled with live scorpions.

Medieval biological warfare

When the Mongol Empire established commercial and political connections between the Eastern and Western areas of the world, its Mongol armies and merchant caravans probably inadvertently brought bubonic plague from central Asia to the Middle East and Europe. The Black Death swept through Eurasia, killing approximately one third to one half of the population and changing the course of Asian and European history.

During the Middle Ages victims of the bubonic plague were used for biological attacks, often by flinging their corpses and excrement over castle walls using catapults. In 1346 the bodies of Mongol warriors of the Golden Horde who had died of plague were thrown over the walls of the besieged Crimean city of Kaffa (now Theodosia). It has been speculated that this operation may have been responsible for the advent of the Black Death in Europe.

At the siege of Thun l’Eveque in 1340, the attackers catapulted decomposing animals into the besieged area.

In 1422 during the siege of the Bohemian castle of Karlstein Hussite attackers used catapults to throw dead (but not plague-infected) bodies and 2000 carriage-loads of dung over the walls. The last known incident of using plague corpses for biological warfare occurred in 1710, when Russian forces attacked the Swedes by flinging plague-infected corpses over the city walls of Reval (Tallinn). However, during the 1785 siege of La Calle, Tunisian forces flung diseased clothing into the city.

Modern times

The 18th century

In September 1710, during Queen Anne's War, Iroquois Indian tribes used biological warfare against the British. Native Americans were concerned that the British were becoming too strong compared to the French, and poisoned water sources with freshly killed animal hides, which would have presumably infected the water with E.coli and other enteric bacteria. This caused an estimated 1000+ soldiers' deaths and is the first recorded instance of biological warfare in North America.

The Native American population was decimated after contact with the Old World due to the introduction of many different fatal diseases. There is, however, only one documented case of alleged germ warfare, involving British commander Lord Jeffrey Amherst and Swiss-British officer Colonel Henry Bouquet, whose correspondence included a reference to the idea of giving smallpox-infected blankets to Indians as part of an incident known as Pontiac's Rebellion which occurred during the Siege of Fort Pitt (1763) late in the French and Indian War. Any smallpox transmitted by Native American tribes was due to the transfer of the disease to blankets during transportation. Historians have been unable to establish whether or not this plan was implemented, particularly in light of the fact that smallpox was already present in the region. The roots of many diseases that killed millions of indigenous peoples in the Americas can be traced back to Eurasians living for millennia in close proximity with domesticated animals. Without long contact with domesticated animals, indigenous Americans had no resistance to plague, measles, tuberculosis, smallpox or most influenza strains. (Attempts by missionaries to provide inoculation to local tribespeople were usually met with suspicion, thus leaving the native population completely vulnerable to epidemics.) Despite the lack of historical evidence, the claim that British and American soldiers used germ warfare against North American tribes has remained fairly strong in certain oral traditions and in popular culture. Such oral histories of smallpox infested blankets being used are especially strong in the oral traditions of native nations in the Plains and along the west coast of Canada.

The 19th century

In 1834 Cambridge Diarist Richard Henry Dana (Two Years Before the Mast; available in Project Gutenberg) visited San Francisco on a merchant ship. His ship traded many items including blankets with Mexicans and Russians who had established outposts on the northern side of the San Francisco Bay. Local histories document that the California smallpox epidemic began at the Russian fort soon after they left. Blankets were a popular trading item, and the cheapest source of them was second-hand blankets which were often contaminated.

During the American Civil War, General Sherman reported that Confederate forces shot farm animals in ponds upon which the Union depended for drinking water. This would have made the water unpleasant to drink, although the actual health risks from dead bodies of humans and animals which did not die of disease are minimal.

The 20th century

During the First World War, Germany pursued an ambitious biological warfare program. Using diplomatic pouches and couriers, the German General Staff supplied small teams of saboteurs in the Russian Duchy of Finland, and in the then-neutral countries of Rumania, the US and Argentina. In Finland, Scandinavian freedom fighters mounted on reindeer placed ampules of anthrax in stables of Russian horses in 1916 Anthrax was also supplied to the German military attache in Bucharest, as was glanders, which was employed against livestock destined for Allied service. German intelligence officer and US citizen Dr. Anton Casimir Dilger established a secret lab in the basement of his sister's home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, that produced glanders which was used to infect livestock in ports and inland collection points including, at least, Newport News, Norfolk, Baltimore, and New York, and probably St. Louis and Covington, Kentucky. In Argentina, German agents also employed glanders in the port of Buenos Aires and also tried to ruin wheat harvests with a destructive fungus. The Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibited the use of chemical weapons and biological weapons, but said nothing about production, storage or transfer; later treaties did cover these aspects. Twentieth-century advances in microbiology enabled the first pure-culture biological agents to be developed by WWII. There was a period of development by many nations, and Japanese Unit 731, based primarily at Pingfan in occupied China and commanded by Shirō Ishii, did research on BW, conducted forced human experiments, often fatal, on prisoners, and provided biological weapons for attacks in China.. Biological experiments, often using twins with one subject to the procedure and the other as a control, were carried out by Nazi Germany on concentration camp inmates, particularly by Joseph Mengele.
During the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and World War II, Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army conducted human experimentation on thousands, mostly Chinese and Korean. In military campaigns, the Japanese army used biological weapons on Chinese soldiers and civilians. This employment was often ineffective due to inefficient delivery systems, using disease-bearing insects rather than dispersing the agent as an aerosol cloud. It's estimated that 200,000 to half a million Chinese died as a direct result of Japanese field testing of biological weapons.

During the Khabarovsk War Crime Trials the accused, such as Major General Kiyashi Kawashima, testified that as early as 1941 some 40 members of Unit 731 air-dropped plague-contaminated fleas on Changde. These operations caused epidemic plague outbreaks. . Some other firsthand accounts testify the Japanese infected civilians through the distribution of foodstuffs, such as dumplings and vegetables, contaminated with plague. There are also reports of contaminated water supplies. Three veterans of Unit 731 testified, in a 1989 interview to the Asahi Shimbun, that they were part of a mission to contaminate the Horustein river with typhoid near the Soviet troops during the Battle of Khalkhin Gol.

In response to biological weapons development in Germany and Japan, the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada initiated a BW development program in 1941 that resulted in the weaponization of tularemia, anthrax, brucellosis, and botulism toxin. The center for U.S. military BW research was Fort Detrick, Maryland, where USAMRIID is currently based; the first director was pharmaceutical executive George W. Merck. Some biological and chemical weapons research and testing was also conducted at Dugway Proving Grounds" in Utah, at a munition manufacturing complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, and at a tract on Horn Island, Mississippi .

Much of the British work was carried out at Porton Down. Field testing carried out in the United Kingdom during World War II left Gruinard island in Scotland contaminated with anthrax for the next 48 years.

1946 to 1972

During the 1948 Israel War of Independence, Red Cross reports raised suspicion that the Jewish Haganah militia had released Salmonella typhi bacteria into the water supply for the city of Acre, causing an outbreak of typhoid among the inhabitants. Egyptian troops later captured disguised Haganah soldiers near wells in Gaza, whom they executed for allegedly attempting another attack. Israel denies these allegations.

During the Cold War US conscientious objectors were used as consenting test subjects for biological agents in a program known as Operation Whitecoat. There were also many unpublicized tests carried out on the public during the Cold War.

Considerable research on the topic was performed by the United States (see US Biological Weapon Testing), the Soviet Union, and probably other major nations throughout the Cold War era, though it is generally believed that biological weapons were never used after World War II. This view was challenged by China and North Korea, who accused the United States of large-scale field testing of biological weapons, including the use of disease-carrying insects against them during the Korean War (1950-1953). Cuba also accused the US of spreading human and animal disease on their island.

  Recently revealed documents indicate that this was disinformation produced by Soviet intelligence.

At the time of the Korean War the US had only weaponized one agent, brucellosis (agent US), which is caused by Brucella suis. The original weaponized form used the M114 bursting bomblet in M33 cluster bombs. While the specific form of the biological bomb was classified until some years after the Korean War, in the various exhibits of biological weapons that Korea alleged were dropped on their country nothing resembled an M114 bomblet. There were ceramic containers that had some similarity to Japanese weapons used against the Chinese in WWII, developed by Unit 731. Some of the Unit 731 personnel were imprisoned by the Soviets, and would have been a potential source of information on Japanese weaponization. The head of Unit 731, Lieutenant General Shiro Ishii, was granted immunity from war crimes prosecution in exchange for providing information to the United States on the Unit's activities.

The Korean War allegations also stressed the use of disease vectors, such as fleas, which, again, were probably a legacy of Japanese biological warfare efforts. The United States initiated its weaponization efforts with disease vectors in 1953, focused on plague-fleas, EEE-mosquitoes, and yellow fever - mosquitoes (OJ-AP).. However, US medical scientists in occupied Japan undertook extensive research on insect vectors, with the assistance of former Unit 731 staff, as early as 1946.

The United States Air Force was not satisfied with the operational qualities of the M114/US and labeled it an interim item until the US Army Chemical Corps could deliver a superior weapon. The Air Force also changed its plans and wanted lethal biologicals. The Chemical Corps then initiated a crash program to weaponize anthrax (N) in the E61 1/2-lb hour-glass bomblet. Though the program was successful in meeting its development goals, the lack of validation on the infectivity of anthrax stalled standardization.

Around 1950 the Chemical Corps also initiated a program to weaponize tularemia (UL). Shortly after the E61/N failed to make standardization, tularemia was standardized in the 3.4" M143 bursting spherical bomblet. This was intended for delivery by the MGM-29 Sergeant missile warhead and could produce 50% infection over a area. Unlike anthrax, tularemia had a demonstrated infectivity with human volunteers (Operation Whitecoat). Furthermore, although tularemia is treatable by antibiotics, treatment does not shorten the course of the disease.

In addition to the use of bursting bomblets for creating biological aerosols, the Chemical Corps started investigating aerosol-generating bomblets in the 1950s. The E99 was the first workable design, but was too complex to be manufactured. By the late 1950s the 4.5" E120 spraying spherical bomblet was developed; a B-47 bomber with a SUU-24/A dispenser could infect 50% or more of the population of a area with tularemia with the E120. The E120 was later superseded by dry-type agents.

Dry-type biologicals resemble talcum powder, and can be disseminated as aerosols using gas expulsion devices instead of a burster or complex sprayer. The Chemical Corps developed Flettner rotor bomblets and later triangular bomblets for wider coverage due to improved glide angles over Magnus-lift spherical bomblets. Weapons of this type were in advanced development by the time the program ended.

Richard Nixon signed an executive order on November 1969, which stopped production of biological weapons in the U.S. and allowed only scientific research of lethal biological agents and defensive measures such as immunization and biosafety. The biological munition stockpiles were destroyed, and approximately 2,200 researchers became redundant.

United States special forces and the CIA also had an interest in biological warfare, and a series of special munitions was created for their operations. The covert weapons developed for the military (M1, M2, M4, M5, and M32 - or Big Five Weapons) were destroyed in accordance with Nixon's executive order to end the offensive program. The CIA maintained its collection of biologicals well into 1975 when it became the subject of the senate Church Committee.

The Biological Weapons Convention

In 1972, the U.S. signed the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention, which banned the "development, production and stockpiling of microbes or their poisonous products except in amounts necessary for protective and peaceful research." By 1996, 137 countries had signed the treaty; however it is believed that since the signing of the Convention the number of countries capable of producing such weapons has increased.

The Soviet Union continued research and production of offensive biological weapons in a program called biopreparat, despite having signed the convention. The United States was unaware of the program until Dr. Vladimir Pasechnik defected in 1989, and Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov, the first deputy director of Biopreparat defected in 1992.

After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraq admitted to the United Nations inspection team to having produced 19,000 l of concentrated botulinum toxin, of which approximately 10,000 l were loaded into military weapons; the 19,000 l have never been fully accounted for. This is approximately 3 times the amount needed to kill the entire current human population by inhalation, although in practice it would be impossible to distribute it so efficiently, and, unless it is protected from oxygen, it deteriorates in storage.

On September 18, 2001 and for a few days after several letters were received by members of the U.S. Congress and media outlets containing anthrax spores: the attack killed five people. The identity of the perpetrator remained unknown until 2008. See 2001 anthrax attacks.

Biological weapons characteristics

Anti-personnel BW

Ideal characteristics of biological weapons targeting humans are high infectivity, high potency, non-availability of vaccines, and delivery as an aerosol.

Diseases most likely to be considered for use as biological weapons are contenders because of their lethality (if delivered efficiently), and robustness (making aerosol delivery feasible).

The biological agents used in biological weapons can often be manufactured quickly and easily. The primary difficulty is not the production of the biological agent but delivery in an effective form to a vulnerable target.

For example, anthrax is considered an effective agent for several reasons. First, it forms hardy spores, perfect for dispersal aerosols. Second, pneumonic (lung) infections of anthrax usually do not cause secondary infections in other people. Thus, the effect of the agent is usually confined to the target. A pneumonic anthrax infection starts with ordinary "cold" symptoms and quickly becomes lethal, with a fatality rate that is 90% or higher. Finally, friendly personnel can be protected with suitable antibiotics.

A mass attack using anthrax would require the creation of aerosol particles of 1.5 to 5 micrometres. Too large and the aerosol would be filtered out by the respiratory system. Too small and the aerosol would be inhaled and exhaled. Also, at this size, nonconductive powders tend to clump and cling because of electrostatic charges. This hinders dispersion. So the material must be treated to insulate and discharge the charges. The aerosol must be delivered so that rain and sun does not rot it, and yet the human lung can be infected. There are other technological difficulties as well.

Diseases considered for weaponization, or known to be weaponized include anthrax (TR), ebola, Marburg virus, plague (LE), cholera (HO), tularemia (SR & JT), brucellosis (US, AB, & AM), Q fever (OU), machupo, Coccidioides mycosis (OC), Glanders (LA), Melioidosis (HI), Shigella (Y), Rocky Mountain spotted fever(UY), typhus (YE), Psittacosis(SI), yellow fever (UT), Japanese B encephalitis (AN), Rift Valley fever (FA), and smallpox (ZL). Naturally-occurring toxins that can be used as weapons include ricin (WA), SEB (UC), botulism toxin (XR), saxitoxin (TZ), and many mycotoxins. The organisms causing these diseases are known as select agents. Their possession, use, and transfer are regulated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Select Agent Program.

Anti-agriculture BW

Biological warfare can also specifically target plants to destroy crops or defoliate vegetation. The United States and Britain discovered plant growth regulators (i.e., herbicides) during the Second World War, and initiated an Herbicidal Warfare program that was eventually used in Malaya and Vietnam in counter insurgency. Though herbicides are chemicals, they are often grouped with biological warfare as bioregulators in a similar manner as biotoxins.Scorched earth tactics or destroying livestock and farmland were carried out in the Vietnam war and Eelam War in Sri Lanka.

The United States developed an anti-crop capability during the Cold War that used plant diseases (bioherbicides, or mycoherbicides) for destroying enemy agriculture. It was believed that destruction of enemy agriculture on a strategic scale could thwart Sino-Soviet aggression in a general war. Diseases such as wheat blast and rice blast were weaponized in aerial spray tanks and cluster bombs for delivery to enemy water sheds in agricultural regions to initiate epiphytotics (epidemics among plants). When the United States renounced its offensive biological warfare program in 1969 and 1970, the vast majority of its biological arsenal was composed of these plant diseases.

In 1980s Soviet Ministry of Agriculture had successfully developed variants of foot-and-mouth disease and rinderpest against cows, African swine fever for pigs, and psittacosis to kill chicken. These agents were prepared to spray them down from tanks attached to airplanes over hundreds of miles. The secret program was code-named "Ecology".

Attacking animals is another area of biological warfare intended to eliminate animal resources for transportation and food. In the First World War German agents were arrested attempting to inoculate draft animals with anthrax, and they were believed to be responsible for outbreaks of glanders in horses and mules. The British tainted small feed cakes with anthrax in the Second World War as a potential means of attacking German cattle for food denial, but never employed the weapon. In the 1950s the United States had a field trial with hog cholera.

Unconnected with inter-human wars, humans have deliberately introduced the rabbit disease Myxomatosis, originating in South America, to Australia and Europe, with the intention of reducing the rabbit population - which had a devastating but temporary results, with wild rabbit populations reduced to a fraction of their former size but survivors developing immunity and increasing again.


Role of public health departments and disease surveillance

It is important to note that all of the classical and modern biological weapons organisms are animal diseases, the only exception being smallpox. Thus, in any use of biological weapons, it is highly likely that animals will become ill either simultaneously with, or perhaps earlier than humans. Indeed, in the largest biological weapons accident known -- the anthrax outbreak in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) in the Soviet Union in 1979, sheep became ill with anthrax as far as 200 kilometers from the release point of the organism from a military facility in the southeastern portion of the city (known as Compound 19 and still off limits to visitors today, see Sverdlovsk Anthrax leak).

Thus, a robust surveillance system involving human clinicians and veterinarians may identify a bioweapons attack early in the course of an epidemic, permitting the prophylaxis of disease in the vast majority of people (and/or animals) exposed but not yet ill. For example in the case of anthrax, it is likely that by 24 - 36 hours after an attack, some small percentage of individuals (those with compromised immune system or who had received a large dose of the organism due to proximity to the release point) will become ill with classical symptoms and signs (including a virtually unique chest X-ray finding, often recognized by public health officials if they receive timely reports). By making these data available to local public health officials in real time, most models of anthrax epidemics indicate that more than 80% of an exposed population can receive antibiotic treatment before becoming symptomatic, and thus avoid the moderately high mortality of the disease.

Identification of bioweapons

The goal of biodefense is to integrate the sustained efforts of the national and homeland security, medical, public health, intelligence, diplomatic, and law enforcement communities. Health care providers and public health officers are among the first lines of defense. In some countries private, local, and state (province) capabilities are being augmented by and coordinated with federal assets, to provide layered defenses against biological weapons attacks. The traditional approach toward protecting agriculture, food, and water: focusing on the natural or unintentional introduction of a disease being strengthened by focused efforts to address current and anticipated future biological weapons threats that may be deliberate, multiple, and repetitive.

The growing threat of biowarfare agents and bioterrorism has led to the development of specific field tools that perform on-the-spot analysis and identification of encountered suspect materials. One such technology, being developed by researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), employs a "sandwich immunoassay", in which fluorescent dye-labeled antibodies aimed at specific pathogens are attached to silver and gold nanowires. Researchers at Ben Gurion University in Israel are developing a different device called the BioPen, essentially a "Lab-in-a-Pen", which can detect known biological agents in under 20 minutes using an adaptation of the ELISA, a similar widely employed immunological technique, that in this case incorporates fiber optics.

List of BW institutions and programs by country

According to the United States Office of Technology Assessment, since disbanded, seventeen countries were believed to possess biological weapons in 1995: Libya, North Korea, South Korea, Iraq, Taiwan, Syria, Israel, Iran, China, Egypt, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, Bulgaria, India, South Africa, Russia, The Vatican, and The GTA.

United States

United Kingdom

Soviet Union and Russia




Treaties banning or restricting BW

List of people associated with BW


Writers and activists:

See also


Further reading

  • Alibek, K. and S. Handelman. 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 (2000) ISBN 0-385-33496-6
  • Crosby, Alfred W., Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (New York, 1986).
  • Endicott, Stephen and Edward Hagerman, The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea, Indiana University Press (1998). ISBN 0253334721
  • Keith, Jim (1999). Biowarfare In America. Illuminet Press. ISBN 1-881532-21-6.
  • Knollenberg, Bernhard, "General Amherst and Germ Warfare," Mississippi Valley Historical Review 41 (1954-1955), 489-494.
  • Mangold, Tom and Goldberg, Jeff (1999). Plague Wars: a true story of biological warfare. Macmillan, London. ISBN 0-333-71614-0.
  • Maskiell, Michelle, and Adrienne Mayor. "Killer Khilats: Legends of Poisoned Robes of Honour in India. Parts 1 & 2.” Folklore [London] 112 (Spring and Fall 2001): 23-45, 163-82.
  • Mayor, Adrienne, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World. Overlook, 2003, rev. ed. 2009. ISBN 1-58567-348-X.
  • Orent, Wendy (2004). Plague, The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World's Most Dangerous Disease. Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, NY. ISBN 0-7432-3685-8.
  • Pala, Christopher (19??), Anthrax Island
  • Preston, Richard (2002), The Demon in the Freezer, New York: Random House.
  • Woods, Lt Col Jon B. (ed.), USAMRIID’s Medical Management of Biological Casualties Handbook, 6th edition, U.S. Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases, Fort Detrick, Maryland (April 2005).
  • Zelicoff, Alan and Bellomo, Michael (2005). Microbe: Are we Ready for the Next Plague?. AMACOM Books, New York, NY. ISBN 0-8144-0865-6.

External links

Search another word or see biological warfare defenceon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature