US moves into emerging bioweapon era
Rapid biotech developments, like Russia's use of fentanyl, are leaving international treaties behind.
The use of poison gas to subdue Chechen rebels in Moscow, together with what the Bush administration says is the growing threat of Iraq's chemical weapons, comes as the United States itself investigates new substances that can be used to disable terrorists perhaps even battlefield opponents.
More profoundly, the opiate used to knock out the Chechen attackers (which killed 117 of 763 hostages) reflects a new era in weapons development: using biotech advances to degrade enemy forces while enhancing one's own troops. According to Pentagon documents, the Defense Department is studying the development and use of so-called "calmative" chemicals as well as "incapacitants, malodorants, and possibly convulsants." The idea is to take the fight out of an attacker without inflicting mortal damage.
One report commissioned by the Marine Corps' Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate concluded after an "extensive review conducted on the medical literature and new developments in the pharmaceutical industry" that "the development and use of [incapacitat- ing agents] is achievable and desirable."
Critics say that by designing such weapons as an 81-millimeter mortar round that can carry a chemical payload a mile and a half, the US may be violating international treaties.
As was true during the Moscow hostage crisis, the challenge will be minimizing harm to innocent civilians. Officials appear to recognize the sensitivity of this matter: A Defense Department review of legal requirements for nonlethal weapons development asks "whether the weapon causes unnecessary suffering ... whether the weapon is capable of being controlled in a discriminatory manner ... whether there is a specific rule of law prohibiting its use."
Chemical and biological weapons are controlled by three treaties dating back to 1925. In essence, nations may not develop, possess, or use such weapons. The Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 has been signed by 174 countries (including the US) who pledged to destroy chemical arsenals.
The treaty defines a chemical agent as "any chemical, which ... can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals." That would seem to describe the opiate fentanyl used by Russian security forces.
But the treaty also allows the use of chemical agents for riot control and other law-enforcement activities a loophole which presumably could be interpreted to mean anything related to domestic terrorism, perhaps even "hot pursuit" of terrorists beyond national boundaries.
One major problem is the relative level of effect among combatants and civilians including children and the elderly, who may suffer much worse effects (including death) than stronger and fitter soldiers. Trying to incapacitate snipers in say downtown Baghdad makes it very difficult to discriminate between combatants and bystanders caught in the crossfire, just as it was in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993.
The concern about developing chemical and biological weapons has a broader context as well: the Pentagon's research into "performance-enhancing" drugs. US Air Force pilots flying long-range missions regularly take amphetamines ("go pills") to fight fatigue and then sedatives ("no-go pills") to induce sleep.
But far more advanced means of enhancing performance are being studied by the US Special Operations Command, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and other Defense Department organizations. One example is quarter-sized body "monitors" that can be implanted under the skin of a soldier's neck and used to trigger the release of chemicals for "body regulation" and the release of "rejuvenating drugs."
"That research is very much alive and well," says retired Rear Adm. Stephen Baker, the Navy's former chief of operational testing and evaluation.
The danger is that it may be only a short step from developing chemical and biological agents that enhance US soldier's performance from those that degrade enemy troops. In fact, the potential for overlap in the research leaves some experts worried.
"It would be difficult to argue that military performance enhancers violate any treaties," says Edward Hammond, director of the Sunshine Project in Austin, Tex., a research center that investigates biological and chemical weapons in the US and Europe. "But their widespread use would lower the threshold for use of chemical weapons, particularly psychoactive substances, in conflict."
"If enhancing yourself is routine," Mr. Hammond asks, "how large a step would it be to chemically 'diminish' or 'de- enhance' your enemy?"
What seems likely is that the science of such advanced weaponry soon could outpace anything envisioned in arms control treaties if it hasn't already.
"There is a profound revolution underway in biology," says Mark Wheelis, a microbiologist at the University of California, Davis. "The same tools that are revolutionizing drug discovery can be used to discover novel biochemical agents for the purpose of weaponization." This could even include genetically engineered biological weapons designed to attack things like camouflage paint, stealth coatings, and electronic insulation an area of research sought by the Navy and the Air Force.
"I can understand the military infatuation with these technologies," Dr. Wheelis said. "There's a clear tactical utility to these weapons," he said. "But they come with a cost and the cost is largely in the area of arms control and we'd better be sure we want to pay that price before we actually do it."
In any case, Wheelis writes in a recent report for the Monterey Institute of International Studies, that "the technical landscape of chemical and biological arms control is rapidly changing."
There is no doubt that the Pentagon is canvassing this landscape to craft defensive responses to potential enemy use of these weapons against US soldiers. But they may also be looking at these weapons for their own interests, as a way of defeating terrorists or other enemies as well.
"In principle, bioengineering is on some level just an information processing problem," says John Pike, head of GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Virginia, which researches and analyzes national security issues. "And how much longer will [it take] before the information processing required for shake-and-bake bioengineering starts to become easily within the reach of a bright lunatic?"
"I don't know the answers to any of these questions," says Mr. Pike. "But I reasonably assume that the US government would like to get these answers many years before anyone else has them."
At least some answers may emerge this week when the National Academy of Sciences is expected to issue a report on non-lethal weapons.
As required under the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, the US is working to rid itself of millions of bombs, rockets, spray tanks, and other weapons containing nerve gas, blistering agents, and other deadly chemicals.
The newest of those weapons date back to 1968 (when the US stopped making them) and some are remnants of World War II, which means that many are leaking toxic substances.
At several federal government sites around the country, such weapons are being incinerated.
The process has had some technical problems causing leaks and other safety issues, and there have been delays tied to lawsuits challenging the program. For example, the Army's Umatilla Chemical Depot in Oregon has been preparing to burn more than 7 million pounds of Cold War-era chemical weapons stored in concrete bunkers.
But a lawsuit brought by a coalition of environmental groups that is now being heard in state court alleges that incineration is not a safe method of disposal.
Getting rid of old chemical weapons, it seems, is just as controversial as the prospect of developing new ones.