Ed Regis in his book The Biology of Doom writes: “The great mystery of biological warfare, in the end, was why they were never used.” His answer was “It was because there is no immediate visual display of overwhelming power.” Why do you think biological weapons have had only limited use?
Raymond Zilinskas answers:
A lot depends on which biological weapons program one is considering. The pre-1969 U.S. biological weapons program was never popular with the military, to the point where no appropriate force structure or protocol existed; i.e., even though we had biological weapons, no one in the military knew when they would be used or how. Probably the U.S. would have considered their use only if someone had used biological weapons against the U.S.
From interviews with Soviet scientists and military people I learned that they believed these weapons would never be used; again, there was no force structure or protocol in the Soviet military. Their program was like an uncontrolled juggernaut that just kept going until the money ran out.
For terrorists generally, it is extremely difficult to develop, manufacture and use a biological weapon that would kill a lot of people; killing depends on the effective aerosol dispersal of a deadly pathogen or pathogenic spore. It is relatively easy to do what the Rajneeshees did, which was to make a lot of people sick with a food-borne agent. But to kill a lot of people with an aerosol is very difficult. The anthrax letters demonstrated that it could be done, but they probably were prepared by someone who had access toBacillus anthracis and was well trained in clinical microbiology.
Martin Furmanski answers:
First of all, it is not true that biological weapons have NEVER been used. Biological weapons directed against military livestock were used on several continents by state-sponsored and state-supported German saboteurs in World War I. The Japanese biological weapons program used biological weapons directed against enemy military personnel in the Nomonhan Border clash with the Soviet Army in 1939 and against Chinese civilians in several attacks from 1940-1942, including a major province-wide campaign in Zhejiang Province in the summer of 1942 which caused thousands of civilian casualties.
An important factor to consider is that these initial uses were not dramatically successful: the German World War I anti-animal campaign had no effect on the supply of military animals to the Allies, and the Nomonhan biological weapons use by the Japanese did not avert a crushing victory by the Soviets, and, moreover, backfired on the Japanese, causing many “blowback” Japanese casualties. The 1940-41 attacks on Chinese cities caused a few cases of plague, but did not depopulate the cities or cause massive epidemics. The 1942 Zhejiang campaign caused much suffering and mortality, but the biological weapons aspect of that campaign was not overwhelming from the military viewpoint, and “blowback” cases were reported in Japanese troops as well. In short, the initial employments of biological weapons were NOT the dramatic successes seen in the initial employments of other weapons of mass destruction: the first employment of chemical weapons on the western front in World War I temporarily broke the Allied line, and the effect of the Hiroshima bomb needs no elaboration.
The historical record indicates that the important advocates of biological weapons (like Ishii in Japan, Fildes in the U.K., Merck in the U.S., Banting in Canada, Trillat in France, Fishman in U.S.S.R.) were scientists who sought to “sell” their idea for biological weapons to the military establishment. The idea did not come from the military, and the mainline military always remained suspicious and doubtful about biological weapons, particularly since there was no dramatic demonstration of the effectiveness of biological weapons on the battlefield.
The reluctance of the professional military to embrace biological weapons comes from several conflicts between the “culture” necessary to use biological weapons and the traditional “culture” of the professional military. To some extent, particularly for officers trained in the pre-World War II era, this was evident from a purely “moral” viewpoint: military “honor” traditionally forbid using poisoned weapons or polluting wells, etc., or in causing indiscriminant harm to non-combatants, and this was a powerful sentiment among many of the senior military leaders during World War II and the early cold war. Chemical warfare had been forbidden before World War I, and the German initiation of chemical weapons in World War I was viewed as a dishonorable violation of the rules of warfare by such major U.S. military leaders as General John Pershing. Biological warfare was considered akin to chemical warfare.
Another aspect was the “technical” or “social” aspect of actually employing biological weapons, as opposed to employing conventional military weapons. One advocate of chemical weapons in the 1920s lamented that chemical weapons would never be accepted by career military officers because “there is no sport analogous to using chemical weapons.” This was not a flippant statement: traditional military operations embodied the “manly” activities of marching, riding, camping, shooting, swordplay, and later flying aircraft and operating motor vehicles. Using chemical weapons required detailed scientific understanding and calculation, wearing cumbersome protective masks and garments, and using chemical detecting kits. In present day social terms, military officers have always been “jocks” and chemical weapons and biological weapons advocates have been “nerds.” Unless the “nerds” could offer a “war winning weapon” the “jocks” would just as soon skip the masks and inoculations if they could help it. The experience of chemical weapons in World War I was that although it at first offered a temporary advantage, it did not tip the scales of the war (indeed Germany always held a considerable superiority in both quality and quantity of offensive chemical weapons) and the use of chemical weapons made military life in the trenches even more ghastly. So from the “social” point of view, the “jocks” decided there was no point in making their campaigning more unpleasant by adding chemical weapons to it. And in the treaties outlawing first use of chemical weapons and biological weapons, the “jocks” had a way of doing it: just don’t start the thing yourself and nobody has to put up with the bother. Interestingly, in both Germany and the U.K. in World War II, consideration was given to initiating chemical weapons, but in both cases it was the military brass that declined such a move. Indeed, Winston Churchill was in favor, and in disgust stated: “I cannot fight both the parsons and the warriors.”
A third aspect is that, given a healthy skepticism by the mainline military, the advocates within the military (who were the career officers in the Chemical Corps) could not easily produce a weapon that was attractive to the combat officers who would have to use it. They could make something that could kill or incapacitate that was biological, but from a military point of view, was it a weapon? This “tunnel vision” backfired on the biological weapons program in multiple ways. For instance, by making unrealistically optimistic promises, the biological weapons program convinced the Air Force to fund a massive effort to make a strategic biological weapons bombing capability in 1952-53. But this crash program failed: the Strategic Air Command wanted a “killer agent” but the biological weapons program had none to offer: two bomb designs the biological weapons program developed failed in their field tests and, moreover, could only be carried by obsolete propeller-driven bombers vulnerable to Soviet MiG jet fighters. And the weapon system they proposed proved to be impossible to deploy from a logistical point of view: because the agent was perishable, it needed to be shipped by air, and in event of a “hot” war there would be insufficient air transport capability to sustain a biological weapons bombing campaign. Politically it was also impossible to deploy, because it required storage of “hot” biological weapons munitions in the U.K., but under exclusive control by the U.S. The U.K., an adherent to the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning first use of biological weapons or chemical weapons, (and vulnerable to Soviet retaliation in kind after a U.S. first-use of biological weapons) refused to allow biological weapons munitions on its soil.
Inescapable limitations of biological weapons made them problematical because the military needed to plan integrated campaigns with multiple forces and weapons systems. Successful employment of biological weapons requires particular weather conditions: dispersion of biological weapons agents in unsuitable conditions results in no effect. But determining weather conditions in advance over a distant target in enemy territory is difficult, and was particularly so in the Cold War era and earlier: the Air Force had trouble enough just predicting if there would be weather clear enough for the usual targeting of bombs and rockets, and the requirements for a successful biological weapons attack were much more stringent than simple good visibility. And military planners do not readily accept that they must factor in the necessity to delay an entire campaign while waiting for acceptable weather for a biological weapons attack, particularly since conventional bombs and nuclear weapons go off where and when they are targeted. Operational requirements can also be challenging: for instance spraying biological weapons from aircraft requires very low altitude flight often in conditions of poor visibility, exposing aircraft the hazards of ground-based obstacles and ground based anti-aircraft fire.
Even in the field tests advertised as demonstrating the effectiveness of biological weapons, there are “devils in the details” that were apparent to those looking at the results critically. For instance, Q fever and tularemia tests indicated aerosol infection was possible, but tularemia and Q fever were picked because only a few organisms can cause disease if inhaled, making dissemination by a single plane possible. But neither agent is a “weapon of mass destruction” comparable to nuclear weapons. Q fever is only very rarely fatal even if untreated, and tularemia is easily and effectively treated by a variety of readily available antibiotics. Candidate lethal biological weapons agents are not so potent: for instance anthrax requires about 1,000 times more organisms to be inhaled than does tularemia or Q fever: so for a similar coverage to the tularemia/Q fever tests you need 1,000 planes, not a single one.
In summary, despite recurrent claims by biological weapons advocates that BW was a “mighty weapon,” it was never really accepted as such by the line military command because it did not offer a significant military advantage.
Are biological weapons perishable? What is required to keep them “fresh”?
Raymond Zilinskas answers:
Remember, and this is important, a biological weapon is a system of which the payload of pathogens or toxin is just one of four parts. With this in mind, pathogens are by nature not designed to exist in a closed environment as represented by a warhead or storage tank, so they die off at a rate that depends on the agent in question (usually measured in terms of “half-life”; i.e., the time it takes for half of a stored number of organisms to die). Weapons scientists attempt to lengthen the half-life of weapons agents by “formulating” them; i.e., by protecting agents while in storage with chemical additives. It takes weapons scientists a long time and much effort to conduct experiments in which agents are combined with different combinations of chemicals and then the half-lives of the various combinations are measured. So, formulations are products of art rather than science and both U.S. and Soviet formulations are top secret to this day. Terrorists would have neither the expertise, nor patience to develop formulations.
Martin Furmanski answers:
There are several categories of biological weapons, and they differ in their perishability, depending on their origin and their preparation. All agents are initially produced “wet” and may be stored that way: some can be further processed and dried given more sophisticated facilities. Common examples are milk or baker’s yeast: they are made “wet”, and can be stored “wet” for a few days, but given a proper factory they can be dried and stored for months.
Some biological weapons agents are naturally very hardy: the only significant example is anthrax. Depending on the moisture, it may last only a few months in the soil if wet, or years if dry. If prepared in a “wet” preparation, it may keep a few months. If prepared “dry” it can keep years under the proper condition.
Most biological weapons agents are much more fragile: most need to be stored “wet” and refrigerated. They only last 30-60 days at most. Refrigerated storage is a hallmark of biological weapons warheads: in inspections the presence of refrigerated munitions bunkers is taken to indicate the presence of biological weapons, and during the Cold War the U.S. identified biological weapons warheads on Soviet missiles because infrared images indicated the warheads were refrigerated!
Only a few of the fragile agents can be dried: most are killed in the drying process. Of those that can be successfully dried, often only a small fraction of the original organisms survive, reducing the potency of the biological weapons preparation. But dried it can be kept for months or years.
Drying is a double-edged sword: it makes the agent less perishable in storage but introduces a variety of problems in addition to the loss of agent in the drying process. The drying process is difficult and hazardous. And the drying process complicates getting the biological weapons agent back into the air: most dried powders “clump” and the agent falls harmlessly to the ground. It takes a lot of research and development to dry the agent in the first place, and then a lot more research and development to develop ways of releasing it. Such an effort would typically require a national military biological weapons effort.
During World War I, an American named Anton Dilger grew a bacteria that causes glanders in his suburban home to infect horses being shipped to the front. How easy was it to make bioweapons in the basement in the early 20th century? How did they catch Dilger?
Raymond Zilinskas answers:
Depends on his training. If he was an environmental or clinical microbiologist, and assuming he had access to a virulent strain, and assuming he had access to the appropriate culture media, it would be fairly easy to grow and propagate Bacillus anthracis. This is not a fastidious organism; it grows pretty well on standard media and in an environment kept at about 37 degrees Centigrade (body temperature).
Martin Furmanski answers:
Well, it was not too hard to TRY and make biological weapons agents in the basement, but harder to actually make effective bioweapons. Dilger tried to grow the bacteria that causes glanders, an important disease of horses in the early 20th century. It could be grown easily enough on common materials available to a physician. (Dilger was American-born of German parents, but educated since childhood in Germany as a doctor, and was a German secret agent operating in the U.S. before the U.S. entered World War I.) But the bacteria that Dilger grew never made any horses sick: either the stock cultures he brought from Germany died on the way over, or the conditions under which he grew them made them less virulent, or the methods of spreading the germs were ineffective. At any rate, glanders was an important disease and was tested for routinely, and no unexplained outbreaks occurred in horses purchased in the U.S. by Britain.
Dilger was not caught. He was under suspicion as being a German agent, and when the U.S. entered World War I, he was interviewed by the Bureau of Investigation (later called the FBI): after this interview he fled to Mexico, and later to Spain, where he died of the Spanish Influenza in 1918.
The Dilger biological weapons sabotage ring was uncovered in the 1920s and 1930s when various U.S. companies attempted to obtain compensation for acts of sabotage by German agents during the period of U.S. neutrality (the most important being the sabotage causing the explosion of the Black Tom munitions factory in New Jersey). During this investigation a wide variety of sabotage activities such as planting explosives or incendiary devices were uncovered, and the Dilger anti-equid biological weapons as well. Dilger had employed U.S. dockworkers to spread the biological weapons agent to horses awaiting shipment to Britain, and these dockworkers were given immunity from prosecution to turn “states evidence” against the German government. They and some of Dilger’s loyal American relatives gave the information we have.
How easy is it to make biological weapons in the early 21st century? How does this complicate or limit the search for the anthrax mailer of 2001?
Raymond Zilinskas answers:
It is probably easier for someone to acquire media and second hand equipment, such as an incubator, now than in the past; eBay seems to have almost everything. The difficult trick is to acquire a virulent strain of B. anthracis, something that for example the Aum Shinrikyo with all its money and evil intent was incapable of doing. The 2001 perpetrator probably has/had really good training and, I hypothesize, was able to secure the B. anthracis Ames strain before strict controls were placed on the acquisition and transport of pathogens starting in 1993. Before these controls were in place, probably dozens of laboratories possessed B. anthracis and we cannot know to what extent the secondary spread of B. anthracis cultures occurred, so it is a tough problem for the FBI.
Martin Furmanski answers:
Scale here is important: if one wants to contaminate a few salad bars or a co-worker’s lunch by dribbling on the fluid from a test tube containing dysentery germs, it can (and has been) done by persons with routine bacteriology laboratory experience on an “ad hoc” basis.
But, the production and processing and preparation for delivery of sufficient material to make a biological weapons weapon capable of causing mass casualties (100s or 1,000s), for instance in an aerosol attack on a city, is a daunting task, and would require very considerable arcane expertise and a significant amount of sophisticated equipment. It is not something one could do with a college bacteriology textbook and some left over pickle jars.
The purity of the 2001 Postal anthrax material indicated a quite sophisticated understanding of purifying this material: this knowledge is not part of usual legitimate bacteriology practice. This is why the FBI looked for a biological weapons “insider” in their profile of the perpetrator. Looking at the historical problems the military biological weapons programs faced in developing anthrax (and other germs) as a biological weapons agent, I think that it requires considerable “institutional expertise” to get an agent with the characteristics of the 2001 U.S. Postal outbreak. It is unlikely that a true amateur would “get lucky” when decades of highly funded and sophisticated research and development was needed before the U.S. developed a practical anthrax weapon. In the 1940s workers thought it would be easy to make a germ weapon by just scaling up routine bench top laboratory procedures: it was by no means that easy, and it took 20 years to get working biological weapons produced.
What would it have been like working at Camp Detrick in the 1940s? Was it a top of field assignment?
Martin Furmanski answers:
Camp Detrick was staffed almost exclusively with active duty military personnel during the war years. This was for security’s sake and because hospitalization or death of a civilian would have entailed disclosure of the disease outside the military. There were also some perks: personnel assigned to Detrick could not be transferred overseas or to the Manhattan project.
A considerable number (at least 400 in 1945) of personnel assigned to Detrick were soldiers evacuated from overseas for “battle fatigue.” These “Psychoneurotic” cases did not work out well in a germ ware laboratory, and were transferred out as soon as possible.
Everybody knew it was a secret base, and nobody asked much about it. The FBI checked for leaks and rumors, and reported that “the citizens of Fredrick are apparently not a curious lot” or words to that effect.
Many top workers in bacteriology and virology worked at or advised on the work at Detrick. It was a wartime assignment and top secret to boot, so people did not have a lot of leeway in asking or declining postings.
Were there accidents? How were materials disposed of?
Martin Furmanski answers:
There were plenty of accidents: about 75 infections were caused by biological weapons agents, 25 of these required over 100 days of treatment, several were ill for a year, but no deaths. A major accident drenched four engineers with liquid anthrax slurry: when they remained healthy the U.S. began to re-consider anthrax as an anti-human weapon: they decided in 1946 that picking anthrax as the Number One agent to develop had, in retrospect, been a mistake.
Bench top materials were disinfected by the usual steam sterilizing machines. The sewage/drain waste was sterilized in a massive steam-treatment facility before being released into the Fredrick municipal sewer system. One zealous Fredrick official, suspicious that the secret work at Detrick might endanger the town, tested the effluent sewage from Detrick, and found it sterile! A very unexpected finding indeed.
How was the decision made to begin the U.S. biological weapons program?
Raymond Zilinskas answers:
Essentially, a National Academy of Sciences considered the issue about 1942 and made a recommendation that at least biological weapons defense work should be undertaken; the Secretary of War agreed and sent an appropriate recommendation to President Roosevelt who then signed the secret order for standing up a U.S. biological weapons program.
Martin Furmanski answers:
Before the U.S. entered World War II, concerns were raised that Germany and Japan were developing biological weapons. (In retrospect, Germany was not but Japan was.) Just before Pearl Harbor it was decided to investigate if biological weapons was actually a threat, and research to determine the threat of biological weapons was given to a number of U.S. universities. When the U.S. entered the war, it discovered that the UK and Canada had had biological weapons programs for several years, and all three entered into a cooperative program to develop biological weapons jointly. In 1943 it was decided that there was enough evidence that biological weapons might be an effective weapon that the U.S. military began taking over the program and developing the capacity to make offensive biological weapons.
Where are the stockpiles of biological weapons in the world today?
Raymond Zilinskas answers:
No one knows; the various U.S. sources, including intelligence, estimate that between 10 and 12 countries have biological weapons programs. The chief suspects are North Korea, Iran, and Syria; others are China, Russia, Pakistan, Egypt, and Israel.
Martin Furmanski answers:
The Biological Weapons Convention of 1975 outlaws the development and possession of biological weapons. Nearly all nations in the world are signatories (Syria, Israel and Micronesia are the only exceptions I can think of off hand). Nobody admits to holding stockpiles of biological weapons. It is anybody’s guess if any countries are holding contraband stockpiles (remember Iraq?). The recent rapid expansion of U.S. “biodefense” research and the classification of some of this research, and clandestine efforts to build “bootleg” mock biological weapons production plants and munitions in the late 1990s had made some observers concerned about how close the U.S. has gone to the line drawn by the Biological Weapons Convention.
China has accused the United States of using biological weapons during the Korean War. Could you explain the nature of the allegations and discuss why the facts behind them remain controversial?
Martin Furmanksi answers:
This is a primary interest of mine: I have written a chapter in a recent book on the subject. It is worth an entire book in itself, but I will try and make a complicated explanation as brief as possible.
In early (Feb-March) 1952, when the Korean War was in a stalemate and cease-fire negotiations were stalled, the North Koreans and then the Chinese accused the U.S. of beginning “germ warfare” first in Korea, and shortly thereafter in Northeast China. The Soviets then echoed the charges, and a long and persistent propaganda campaign began, that included confessions by captured U.S. Airmen that lasted until the cease-fire ended the fighting in summer of 1953.
The course of the allegations is complex. The Japanese had developed a biological weapons program during World War II, and had used biological weapons against Chinese civilians. At the end of World War II, the Soviets captured the main biological weapons facility in Manchuria and some Japanese biological weapons workers, and the Chinese knew of the Japanese biological weapons program from the attacks and the Manchurian facility. The U.S. had most of the Japanese biological weapons workers, and cut a deal with them not to prosecute them for war crimes if they gave the U.S. biological weapons program data on lethal human experiments they had performed on Chinese captives, and if they did not share the data with the Soviets. The Soviets wanted the U.S. to try the Japanese for war crimes, but the U.S. refused, so in 1949 the Soviets tried their group of biological weapons workers for war crimes. The U.S. pooh-poohed the trial as a “Soviet show trial” and suppressed any evidence or acknowledgement of a Japanese biological weapons program. The Soviets used the U.S. “protection” of Japanese war criminals as a propaganda theme on and off in 1950 and 1951, claiming the U.S. was using Japanese biological weapons workers to prepare for using biological weapons in the Korean War, but these early charges were minor and not repeated.
In February 1952, it appears that the Soviets fabricated some laboratory results to indicate a U.S. biological weapons attack had occurred in Korea. They did not share the fact that this was fabricated with the Chinese or North Koreans, who concluded a biological weapons attack may well have occurred, and issued orders for defensive inoculations and then made the formal charges. (Indeed, the Soviet agents in North Korea may not have informed the politburo in Moscow of the hoax.) The Chinese conclusion was not unreasonable: the U.S. had been threatening to use “new weapons” and had made thinly veiled threats that they would use atomic weapons if the peace talks failed. Several other important and valid pieces of circumstantial evidence indicated, erroneously, that the U.S. might well be preparing for just such a biological weapons attack.
At first the Soviets did not pick up on the allegations, but soon it became apparent that they had been handed a propaganda bonanza. The U.S. had just begun a crash program to develop biological weapons to be deployed in the U.K. to counter the overwhelming Soviet advantage in surface troops in Europe. In responding to the allegations, the U.S. denied that it had made biological weapons attacks in Korea, but it refused to re-iterate its World War II policy of using chemical or biological weapons in retaliation only or to repudiate its right to initiate biological weapons warfare if it saw fit to do so. This was a propaganda issue that put the U.S. in opposition to its European NATO allies and all neutral countries, and the Soviets played it for all it was worth, making resolutions in the U.N. Security Council and forcing the U.S. to strong-arm its allies into backing the offensive-smelling U.S. position on biological weapons. The propaganda characterization of the U.S. as a “dangerous ally” who might draw unwilling allies into a chemical and biological battlefield was not lost on the NATO allies: the U.S. biological weapons crash program failed in significant part due to the refusal of the U.K. to allow storage of hot biological weapons munitions on British soil.
In addition, to minds so inclined, the resistance of the U.S. to disavow first use also seemed to confirm the charges of U.S. biological weapons use in Korea.
Meanwhile, the Chinese mounted their own scientific investigation of suspected biological weapons attacks with considerable rigor and detachment. No truly “smoking guns” were found, but enough circumstantial evidence was found that the Chinese felt they had identified biological weapons attacks. Questioning of captured U.S. Airmen resulted in several who “confessed” to flying “germ warfare” missions. One of these was probably a “Stockholm Syndrome” and the others were simply POWs who had confessions extracted by the usual means of coercion short of actual torture. But a lot of the descriptions of “Manchurian Candidate” type of “brainwashing” arose from these “germ warfare” confessions.
Stalin died in early 1953. In the power struggle following Stalin’s death, Kremlin documents indicate that Soviet agents in North Korea admitted to fabricating the initial germ warfare allegations, but had not informed the politburo. These documents may reflect some degree of fabrication themselves, because they are part of the charges that resulted in the trial and execution of Soviet Secret Police Chief Lavrentii Beria. At any rate, the Soviets informed the Chinese of the hoax, and asked them to cease in the biological weapons allegations. The Chinese temporarily complied, but re-evaluated their evidence, and apparently concluded that at least some of the attacks were real. Chinese history texts and the memoirs of Chinese generals confirm that the germ warfare charges continue to be believed in China. In contrast, the Soviets expunged all mention of the Korean biological weapons allegations from their histories. One measure of the persistence of the belief in the Korean War biological weapons charges in China is that in the late 1990s Chinese scientists brought what must have been samples from alleged biological weapons attacks in 1952 to be DNA typed in a U.S. lab. Rather than the U.S. weapons strain, the agent proved to be of a strain native to Asia.
In summary, there is no evidence that the U.S. made biological weapons attacks in the Korean War, and considerable evidence supporting the conclusion that they did not. But from the Chinese point of view, the charges seemed reasonable at the time, the U.S. response seemed damning on its face, and “proving a negative” is a very difficult thing to do.
My American Experience
The Cold War and the nuclear arms race dominated American foreign policy for decades. Did fears of nuclear weapons affect your life? Should the U.S. have engaged in creating the world’s most powerful bombs? What is the most theatening weapon today?