Will plague and pox be the weapons of choice in future?

December 3, 2004

Lessons from the Soviet biological weapons programme are relevant to today's efforts to prevent the offensive use of disease, says John Hart

The threat of biological warfare has been much debated since 2001. Next week, Britain will join the other States Parties to the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) for a meeting in Geneva to discuss ways of tackling the problem. One of the key players will be Russia, but despite the opening up of the former Soviet Union, there is still little authoritative official public information about the nature and type of Soviet offensive activities. Russian officials appear to view the issue as a matter from an earlier era that is better left alone. Given the fact that the Soviet Union signed and ratified the BTWC, a more detailed accounting would almost certainly be politically embarrassing and might provide little or no perceived benefit to the Russian Government. The Soviet case also raises issues that are relevant to international efforts to deal with perceived threats of biological weapons. Such issues include how intelligence information is derived and used, how to distinguish an "offensive" from a "defensive" programme, and what additional steps the States Parties to the BTWC can take to strengthen the treaty.

It is generally believed that the Soviet Union had the largest, most extensive biological weapon programme of any country. Estimates of the number of people employed by the programme at its height are generally put at between 25,000 and 60,000. It also reportedly involved the development and fielding of both tactical and strategic biological weapon systems.

Factors that distinguished the Soviet programme included the existence of large-scale production and storage capabilities, the apparent Soviet decision to fill weapons with Yersinia pestis and Variola virus (the causative agents for plague and smallpox, respectively) and an emphasis on delivering treatment through the use of aerosols. The Soviet Union placed great emphasis on the principle of maintaining large standby production capacity in case of national need. The precise type and amount of agents produced to fill weapons are not known. But some information was gathered during secret visits to facilities by UK and US inspectors in the 1990s that were agreed with the country as part of a "trilateral process".

Evidence was found that suggested that the Soviets had or were in the process of acquiring an aggregate fermenter with the capacity to produce at least hundreds of thousands of litres.

It is also thought that a 1971 smallpox outbreak in Aralsk, Kazakhstan, that resulted in the deaths of three people may have been caused by work conducted at Vozrozhdeniye Island, formerly the location of the principal Soviet biological weapons field-test facility. The information is based on a Soviet health and environmental history of the region that was recovered from Kazakhstan and subsequently obtained by the Monterey Institute of International Studies' Center for Nonproliferation Studies, a US-based think-tank that placed the report in the public domain in 2002. Allegations that the Soviet Union used mycotoxins ("Yellow Rain") in Afghanistan and South-East Asia in the late 1970s and 1980s have not been publicly substantiated. There are strong indications that the Yellow Rain phenomenon was caused by bee faeces. The US Government is virtually alone in maintaining that Yellow Rain was the result of Soviet biological weapon activities. US officials are today largely silent on this issue.

Since the early 1990s, the US and a number of mainly European countries have implemented cooperative research and development programmes with facilities and personnel that were involved in the Soviet biological weapons programme. These have provided greater transparency on former biological weapons activities. Much of the effort is directed towards cataloguing and securing pathogens at all biological facilities of the former Soviet Union.

In 2003, a US Department of State official testified to Congress: "We believe... that Russia continues to maintain an offensive BW programme."

There are at least four military research facilities that the UK and US would like to visit and learn more about from Russian officials. A fifth facility of interest has, according to Russian officials, been transferred from Ministry of Defence control. In 2004, a US Department of Defence official estimated that 40 institutes that were part of the Soviet biological weapons programme still exist. However, this does not necessarily mean that the facilities are engaged in BTWC-prohibited activities.

Although it is known that the Soviet Union expanded its offensive weapons programme a year after signing the BTWC, there is no evidence to suggest why it did so. But there is speculation about whether the military leadership did not want to renounce a weapon system that might act as a counter to US superiority in nuclear weapons. It may also have believed that the US had not renounced its offensive biological weapon programme.

The US devoted the most resources of any state towards determining Soviet biological-related activities. US intelligence relied on indirect methods to try to determine whether the Soviet Union had an offensive biological weapons programme, such as a literature review of military-related activity in the field of biology and medicine and any suspicious biomedical studies.

A consequence of the availability of overhead imagery in the late 1950s was a renewed focus on Vozrozhdeniye Island, which was identified as a biological weapons facility in a 1951 report for the US Government, based on information developed by the German military.

A U-2 overflight in 1959 raised questions about its status. A now declassified 1965 CIA study based on the information obtained cited, for example, the fact that buildings on Konstantin Island (to the south of the facility) were believed to be inhabited and were in the path of prevailing winds. The study also noted the lack of information on biological weapons compared with information on nuclear and chemical weapons, and suggested Russia might therefore not have an offensive biological weapons programme.

But it also noted a near complete lack of information on Vozrozhdeniye Island and emphasised the need for intelligence-gathering.

The most significant event that led the US and UK to conclude that the Soviet Union had an offensive biological weapons programme was Vladimir Pasechnik's 1989 defection to the UK. Pasechnik, who formerly headed the Institute of Highly Pure Biopreparations in Leningrad, reportedly described a powdered form of antibiotic-resistant plague produced for filling warheads. He maintained that the Soviet Union had a 20-ton stockpile of plague and was periodically replenishing it. He also confirmed that Vozrozhdeniye Island had been used for large-scale field testing of biological weapons agents.

But the issue is complicated by the fact that most of the technologies, equipment and material used for peaceful biological purposes can also support an offensive programme. Unless the programme has moved from the basic research phase into the development or production phase, it may not be possible to determine whether the programme is offensive. States are protective of internal military policy documentation, partly because it may contain technically sensitive information or language that is potentially politically embarrassing. In view of such factors, as well as the fact that intelligence is rarely of a type that would allow for a conviction in a court of law, official public statements by governments that question another state's adherence to the BTWC almost invariably contain caveated language that leaves open the possibility that the prohibited activity might not be occurring. In practice, it may not always be clear when a technical violation would become a fundamental violation. It is also important to consider the nature of activities that can be characterised as "defensive".

It is important to distinguish general interest, including by military facilities, in a given agent, and the type of work involved in the process of developing and producing a much more limited number of agents to be eventually placed into weapons. Soviet scientists conducted research on a wide variety of pathogens that could be used for hostile purposes. However, at least in broad terms, the scientific literature does not appear to differ from the type of scientific literature produced by other states with well-developed scientific research capabilities. Furthermore, the number of possible agents selected for rigorous testing and development for use as biological weapons would have been quite limited. And some development work, such as that for aerosol production and dispersal, may be dual-purpose.

The BTWC does not have a standing institutional mechanism to verify compliance with the BTWC. Negotiations on a protocol to strengthen BTWC compliance, partly through the establishment of an international secretariat that would have conducted routine site visits and inspections to resolve compliance concerns or to investigate alleged biological weapons use, were suspended in 2001 when the US tabled a motion at the fifth review conference of BTWC States Parties to terminate the mandate of the ad hoc group that had negotiated the the draft protocol. Although the group mandate has not been terminated, the group has not met since 2001 and work on the protocol remains suspended indefinitely. With the US Administration opposed to any policy that would result in the establishment of a standing BTWC institutional framework or body, and other states worried that isolating the US would undermine the treaty, it is unlikely there can be much movement on strengthening or modifying the BTWC's verification mechanisms before the sixth review conference scheduled meeting in 2006.

The BTWC States Parties place great emphasis on national legislation that extends the convention's prohibitions to individuals and groups under a state's jurisdiction or control. Many of the efforts being undertaken by states to defend against possible biological weapons attack are focused on developing domestic and international emergency preparedness response measures and improving surveillance of disease outbreaks.

There are at least four multilateral mechanisms for investigating compliance concerns in relation to biological weapon development or use: the United Nations Secretary General can investigate allegations of use of chemical weapons under a General Assembly resolution; he or she can investigate possible violations of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, including allegations relating to biological weapons; the States Parties to the BTWC can lodge a complaint with the UN Security Council (though none has formally invoked this power yet); and they can also invoke a BTWC process to clarify compliance regarding another party.

Some, mainly Western, states are also implementing policies to meet perceived biological weapons threats through enhanced cooperation. In 2003, the Proliferation Security Initiative was established by a group of like-minded states. They agreed a set of "interdiction principles" with the objective of preventing the shipment of "weapons of mass destruction", including biological weapons. Under this initiative, vessels suspected of such an offence can be boarded and searched on the high seas.

A large state-run programme using older technologies and equipment, as exemplified by the Soviet programme, is more readily identifiable than a possible clandestine programme involving non-state actors. However, those involved in trying to prevent the use of biological weapons in future will always have to deal with the uncertainties associated with the derivation and use of intelligence and the difficulty of determining whether a programme is offensive or defensive. Further changes in the political and scientific leadership in Russia are necessary before a more definitive account of the Soviet biological weapons programme and its legacy can be produced. Efforts to strengthen international mechanisms to meet possible threats generally and those of non-state actors in particular may also contribute to the establishment of an international climate that facilitates disclosure about past activities.

John Hart is a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The views expressed are his and do not necessarily reflect those of the institute.

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