Controlling Chemical and Biological Weapons

History and Introduction

Chemical and biological weapons (CBWs) have been used over the ages as an effective means of warfare. The earliest incident of biological weapons (BWs) occurred in the third century B.C., when the Carthaginian leader Hannibal filled up pots with venomous snakes and threw them onto enemy ships. (Cirincione, 48) Since then, biological weapons have been used very infrequently. This is mainly due to enormous cost required to create and handle BW's (many of the groups who have attempted to create such weapons have ended up infecting themselves more often then their intended targets). (Henderson, 25) In contrast, chemical weapons have been used fairly frequently in warfare. The earliest example of chemical weapons comes from the Trojan War when the Greeks "mixed sulfur and pitch resin to engulf enemy troops in toxic fumes." (Cirincione, 51) More recently the Germans and the Allies of World War I utilized the capabilities of chlorine gas in order to asphyxiate their enemies.(Slotten, 478) These weapons are thought to have been employed more frequently because they are more "humane" than biological or traditional weapons of war. Explains Capt. Alfred T Mahan of the U.S. Army after the Germans deployed chlorine gas during WWI, "the use of gases might make war more humane, instead of dying an agonizing death from horrible wounds, soldiers might be incapacitated by gas and then be humanely carted off to prisoner of war camps where they could quickly recuperate with no ill effects."(Slotten, 478) Though Mahan's rationale may be a little naïve, one can see why after the war there were many advocates for chemical weapons.

Since their application in WWI by both the Allies and the Germans, the world has witnessed how devastating chemical weapons can truly be. There now remains only a small number of advocates for such weapons, and even a fewer number of biological weapon advocates. In fact, there are currently 144 member states of the Biological Weapons and Toxin Convention and 145 members of the Chemical Weapons Convention. (Cirincione, 52) Still, as Robert Blitzer of the FBI explains, CBWs pose a major threat to modern society. "The consensus of people in law enforcement and intelligence communities is that it's not a matter of if it's going to happen, it's when. We are very concerned."(Henderson, 25) In the following I hope to explain why controlling the production CBWs has become a serious problem for law enforcement organizations around the world and what can be done to improve intelligence.


During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union stockpiled biological and chemical weapons. Both sides chemical and biological weapons programs were overshadowed by their nuclear programs during the war, but the U.S. and the Soviet Union had decided they needed to pursue such programs in order "to deter the use of chemical (and biological) weapons by other states through threatened retaliation in kind." (Moodie, 9) By the 1988 the U.S. had stockpiled approximately 30,000 metric tons of chemical weapons and 45,000 tons of biological weapons while the Soviet Union had produced over 40,000 tons of chemical weapons (it is unknown how much biological weapons the Soviet Union ever had). (Cirincione, 47-52) Since 1988, both countries have stopped producing CBWs and are now in the process of destroying them, but the lack of knowledge over the size of the Russian program and Russia's own inability to destroy a sufficient number of these weapons in its current financial crisis, have raised worries that terrorist groups and other countries could easily purchase them without anyone knowing. The U.S. alone has spent over $5 billion dollars since 1991 to help secure Russia's biological and chemical weapons arsenal. (Cirincione, 49)
While the Unites States is often quick to point the finger at Russia for the proliferation of CBWs, they should also look at their own policies and how they are inadvertently helping to spread such weapons. Michael Moodie elaborates, "chemical proliferation has been described as an 'unfortunate side effect of a process that is otherwise beneficial and anyway impossible to stop: the diffusion of the rich to the poor parts of the world.' The same can be said of biological weapons." (Moodie, 15) Here is a list of investment figures that Moodie provides in his article.

- Annual direct investments in developing countries by U.S. chemical manufacturers more than doubled from $4 billion in 1983 to $10 billion in 1993.
- Exports of chemicals from the developed world to developing nations increased from $33 billion in 1980 to $57 billion in 1991.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shipped biological reagents to 41 countries in 1994, up from 24 in 1991.

From these numbers it is easy to see that countries that want CBWs (usually the developing nations who want to build defense without spending lots of money) can easily access the material to do so. As Moodie puts it, the "diffusion of capital and materials in the global market increasingly creates a world of virtual chemical and biological weapons programs in which the critical factor shaping the proliferation is not technical capability, but political choice." (Moodie, 15)


Identifying what countries or organizations are producing their own CBWs is difficult as well. "Many of the chemical precursors that could be used in weapons production are commercially used in quantities surpassing millions of tons per year. With respect to biological weapons, much of the equipment and many of the production processes for making weapons differ very little from those used to brew beer, make yogurt, or develop medicines." (Moodie, 14)

One organization that is helping to better inform authorities about the allocation of biological and chemical materials is the Australia Group. "Its member nations work on the basis of consensus to limit the spread of CBW by the control of chemical weapon precursors, biological weapon pathogens and CBW dual-use equipment." (Cirincione, 32) The 33 nations that comprise this group hope to attain this goal by enforcing strict chemical and biological export controls and sharing information amongst themselves about who is importing and exporting possible chemical and biological weapon precursors or production equipment. (Cirincione, 32 and Moodie, 14)


In order to slow or stop the proliferation of CBWs a number of steps could be taken. Increasing the costs of buying and developing CBWs would deter third world countries from seeing these weapons as a quick fix for defense. At the same time, the international community must realize by raising the costs of these materials, the developed countries could be hurting the poor nations who are using them in a proper and productive manner. The reason the U.S. chemical manufacturers invest so much money into developing countries is because it is both profitable to the company and the people of the third world nation. By denying outside countries the opportunity to invest in the poor countries, the international community is denying the third world nations a possible means of economic growth.

The next possible solution is regulation. The Australia Group has proven to be an effective organization in carrying out this solution. By sharing information between the 33 member nations, this union helps alert authorities of suspicious buying and selling of materials. If this organization can be expanded to a larger group of nations it should help improve the intelligence of the authorities in developed nations, who in turn can put political pressure on the nations building CBWs. Intelligence is the key. The more we know, the easier it is to stop terrorist groups and nations from using these weapons of mass destruction.


Cirincione, Joseph, with Jon B. Wolfsthal and Miriam Rajkumar, "Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction." The Brooking Institution Press, Washington, D.C. 2002.

Henderson, Harry, "Global Terrorism: The Complete Reference Guide." Checkmark Boook, 2001. New York, N.Y.

Moodie, Michael."Agents of Death." Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, Spring 2000. v15 i1 p6.

Slotten, Hugh R. "Humane Chemistry or Scientific Barbarism? American Responses to World War I Poison Gas, 1915-1930." The Journal of American History, Volume 77, Issue 2. September, 1990. p. 476-498.