NBC in the 21st Century

by Ake Bovallius

A widened threat spectrum During the last decade there have been dramatic political changes in the world. The most important is, of course, the abrupt end of the Cold War, which definitely has reduced the risk for global war, and, also the risk for massive use of N-B- or C weapons.

In this new-world situation, many countries have started to reconsider their threat spectrum. Low level conflicts take an increased part in most of these reconsidered threats. (Fig.1) If, however, the improbable would happen that at sometime in the future there would be a weaponised conflict between the former East and West, there would still be a risk that N-, B- or C- weapons would be used, and, perhaps at a higher level than before. The nuclear arsenal and the nuclear threat will exist for a very long time, even if the goals of the START 1, START 2 and even a future START 3 were fulfilled. Or to cite the Russian Defence minister "If the guns are silent, there is no risk at all for a nuclear war."

When it comes to chemical weapons (CW), the situation is similar to that of the nuclear ones. For state parties that have ratified the CWC, there is now a ten year period, probably longer, during which the CWs are to be destroyed. During this period, one can expect that the more or less unusable old storage of chemical agents, weaponised or not, will be destroyed first, and the most modern CW will be the last part of the destruction program.

Regarding biological weapons (BW), no long term storage is needed, especially as most of the biological agents cannot be stored for longer periods of time and still be effective. However, enough material can be produced in a very short time, if suitable production units are available. It is also relatively easy to have a covert, offensive BW preparedness.

On the other hand the stabilizing effect of the Cold War and the "Balance of Terror" is now gone. This may lead to an increased risk for more local wars between and within countries. Many conflicts have surfaced, many which were earlier suppressed by the former super powers. In such conflicts, the possibilities to use N-, B- or C- weapons may increase in the future. One reason for that is the increased proliferation of knowledge on how to produce and to use N-, B- and C weapons. This is due to several factors:

The most striking examples of this proliferation are of course the covert work in Iraq to develop and produce N-, B- and C-weapons and the use of CW in the war against Iran. Iraq's chemical attacks, so clearly forbidden in the Geneva protocol of 1925, resulted in astonishingly weak reactions from the rest of the world. Not until the Gulf War was inevitable, was protective preparedness examined in the Western world and the results were R&D programs to fill the most obvious gaps, e.g., biological detection. After the war, there were heavy sanctions against Iraq, and, the impressive work of UNSCOM has resulted in at least that most of Iraq's N- B- C-capacity have been destroyed. It is however disturbing that Iraq still seems to be retain undeclared weapons of mass destruction.

The new political world situation means that more countries are actively engaged in international peace keeping or peace enforcement operations. As NBC proliferation occurs, this means that there is an increased risk that international forces - civil or military - could be affected of these types of weapons. One example is from the former Yugoslavia. During the war there were threats of bombing industrial chemical storage as a part of the aggressions. There was also a risk that the former Yugoslavian CW storage could be used. Finally, some infectious diseases unusual in Yugoslavia, such as, tularemia and hantan virus appeared during the war in the Tusla area. The charges that biological weapons were used, were most probably not true.

Incidences of NBC character will be one part of the risk spectrum when involved in international operations. Another area where the risks for N-, B- or C- incidents have increased is in national or international terrorism. After the sarin attack in the Tokyo subway governments all over the world have become aware of the possibility of using weapons of mass destruction in national or international terrorism. A preparedness is being built up in many countries against this type of threat. Such organizations could use or threaten with primitive, but still effective, N-, B- or C weapons. Again the increased scientific/ technical knowledge, the modern IT society, as well the attention the Tokyo incident produced all over the world, has lead to an increased awareness among terrorists that N-, B- or C- weapons may be an effective alternative to other threats. Also, the G-7 countries, when they took up terrorism in a one-day symposium last year, recognized the threat of NBC terrorism.

In the nuclear area there is always a risk that some kilograms of plutonium or uranium could be, or have been, stolen during the process to reduce the nuclear arms as stated in the START agreements. Also, during the transfer of nuclear material from the former Soviet states to the Russian federation, there could have been a loss of nuclear materials. Recently there have also been rumors that several suitcases with small "nuclear bombs" belonging to the former KGB have disappeared.

Biological and chemical agents are much easier for terrorists to procure and also to produce. The best example is again the Japanese Aum sect, where besides sarin, they experimented with other classical chemical and biological agents, e.g., Clostridium botulinum toxins and anthrax bacteria.

Another frightening possibility is that terrorists may threaten to destroy nuclear power plants or chemical industrial stores, even if that is not easily done.

Finally, big accidents resulting in a large number of causalities and environmental pollution are increasing threats in our more and more technical and urbanized world society. Accidents in nuclear power plants, such as in Tjernobyl, or in chemical industries, such as in Bhopal, will happen again with both acute and long-term effects.

Another environmental threat is the known and unknown dumped chemical ammunition in many places around the world. The care and eventual destruction of the old, and often leaking, ammunition are safety and economic burdens.

The equivalent to accidents in the biological area is the threat of emerging or re-emerging diseases due to climate changes, global urbanization, and increased travel all over the world. Also, the importation to industrialized countries of apes and monkeys for animal experiments is a problem that has resulted in outbreaks of exotic diseases.

In many countries, decreased living standards have resulted in re-emerging infectious diseases, which until now have been rare in our modern society. Multiple antibiotic resistance has occurred in some of these, e.g., in tuberculosis-C (TBC).

Finally, there is also an increasing concern that a new influenza pandemic, such as the "Spanish Fever," will in the future, again sweep over the world.

International treaties
One important question is how will existing and future international treaties affect this widened threat scenario. There are several conventions agreed upon in the N-, B- and C- area, e.g., the Geneva Protocol (1925), The Non Proliferation Treaty, NPT (1970), The Biological and Toxin Weapon Convention, BTWC (1972), The Chemical Weapon Convention CWC (1993) and The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, CTBT, (1996).

In July 1996 China made the probably last nuclear test explosion in the world before they declared that they would refrain from further tests. France had made the same declaration after their last test explosion series at Mururoa. A few of months later the CTBT (Fig.2) was opened for signatures in New York as a complement to the existing NPT. The CTBT probably will be signed and ratified by most State Parties in the world (only India, Bhutan and Libya voted against it in the UN), and, a world-wide control system will be built up with the main office in Vienna. From a technical point of view, this system will consist of four different techniques to cover different kinds of test explosions.

As a complement to these technical verification systems, the possibility of on-site inspections is included in the treaty text. This may never be needed. Nuclear test explosions are violent events, so there is a very good probability that at least one of the technical verification systems will unveil a test explosion anywhere in the world. However, during the last year questions have been raised about a "nuclear-like" test in USA and an "earthquake-like" seismic signal from the waters not too far from the Russian test center.

The CTBT demonstrates a strong political will for a global disarmament of nuclear weapons. It will probably stop a continued development of new types of advanced nuclear weapons by the existing nuclear powers. A test ban, however, may not hinder other state parties or even terrorist organizations to covertly develop primitive nuclear weapons. Technical principles are today relatively well known and simple, so the difficulty is perhaps rather to produce or get hold of enough of the pure raw materials. As only tenths of kilos are enough to produce a bomb, and hundreds of tons of weapons materials have been produced in the past, there is always a risk that small amounts of materials may be stolen to be used somewhere in the world.

On 29 April 1997, the CWC entered into force and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) became effective as a control organization. (Fig.3). This means that inspections will start at chemical defence establishments and chemical industries around the world. The realization of the CWC after two decades of negotiations shows that there is now a real global interest to get rid of this whole category of weapons.

In March 1997 in Helsinki, Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin signed a joint statement on CW, in which they stressed the commitment of Russia and the United States to implement the objectives and goals of the convention. US ratified the CWC just before it entered into force, while Russia did not, citing the huge costs for destruction or conversion of their chemical weapons. Russia has since ratified the CWC (Nov. 5, 1997).

However, despite the convention, there may still be possibilities to continue with covert production and developments without being discovered, especially as many of the possible CW interested countries have not yet ratified or even signed the treaty. Owing to the fact that many of the so-called Arab front-line countries are among the non-signatories, Israel announced recently that they would not ratify the convention at this stage. *

The BTWC entered into force in 1972, but it still has no verification regime (fig.4). Although negotiations are now going on with an increasing priority in Geneva, there are still some years to go before a technically and politically acceptable verification regime is ready. During the last review conference of the BTWC last fall, it was agreed to put forward a verification proposal at least before the next review conference to be held within five years. In comparison with the verification possibilities of nuclear or chemical offensive activities, biological activities are much more difficult to reveal. One example is the offensive activities in the former Soviet Union that continued for twenty years after the BTWC was signed. In 1992, President Yeltsin prohibited further offensive activities in the Russian Federation.

When it comes to the possible future use of BW, two different categories of scenarios can be discussed. One involves the "classical" BWs that are very simple to produce and could possibly be used by nations, terrorist organizations, or even single persons. The second involves the possible development of advanced BW, using the knowledge from the very rapidly growing civil gene and biotechnology.

Technical development
In very broad terms, it could be said that the offensive development of advanced new types of weapons in the nuclear area will be very limited because the CTBT will stop further test explosions in the world. On the other hand, modifications and modernization of existing weapons can still be foreseen. The "classical" BW and CW agents are well studied, and, there seem to be few advantages in developing and testing other similar agents, as long as the protective equipment used today will function.


Chemical agents with new properties, however, can be developed where the present detection and protection systems are not sufficient. However, for battlefield use, the aggressor also must develop expensive detection and protection systems for that agent.

In comparison with N- and B- weapons, there is a real possibility for protection against CW, and new generations of detection and protection devices are being developed. The interest for such equipment has not lessened during the last years. The Iran-Iraq war made many nations realize that CWs are real threats - not only in a less probable war between super powers, but also in local conflicts. As a consequence, protection systems will be built up in many countries that today have a low level of protection.

The protection and detection systems currently available have been developed against the relative few "classic" CW. Other chemical agents however could be developed that the present systems may not be effective against. The possibility of chemical agent use by terrorists will result in the need for preparedness also in peacetime, and then, not only by military forces, but also by civil defence, police forces and medical organizations.


There are many pathogenic microorganisms that theoretically could be used as weapons. Again, there must be an advanced development and testing program, both offensive and defensive, before these organisms could be used in large scale biological attacks.

In the past, the BWs have been regarded as very unpredictable, both from a political and a military point of view, and thus of less value to use. This has resulted in limited efforts to develop effective protection and detection methods, especially as these are technically difficult. The lack of such systems became evident to the militaries during the Gulf war when they realized that an attack with BW could be a reality. Subsequently, this has led to increased R&D activities to develop detection systems and protection against the "classical" types of BW.

The development of biotechnology, including gene technology, for civil applications in medicine, agriculture and materials is very rapid. Many of these R&D results could relatively easy be misused to develop new types of CBW.

The genetic information of many toxins, e.g., from bacteria or snakes has been described in scientific journals, mostly for medical and pure scientific reasons. The piece of DNA coding for a toxin could easily be introduced into a fast growing microorganism. This heterogeneous production could give a hundred to thousand times increased productivity per culture volume. This means that many toxins could now be produced in amounts sufficient to be used as weapons. In the same way in the future, peptide bioregulators could be grown in amounts sufficient for weapon production.

It has been possible for some years now to genetically modify bacteria. The best-known example is to make a pathogenic bacteria antibiotic resistant. This could also happen in nature. Multi-resistant strains of bacteria, very difficult to treat, e.g., tuberculosis-C, have become a growing problem for the world.

Beside antibiotic resistance, other types of possible genetic manipulations include:

In the future, the misuse of new genetic techniques, e.g., gene therapy, may occur. Instead of adding DNA into cells to correct deficiencies, e.g., by viral vectors or liposomes, harmful material could be added.

The International Human Genome Project is an effort to map and sequence the human genome. The data generated will lead to a better understanding of the function and expression of human genes. In the Human Genome Diversity Project, variations in the genome of different human species will in the future be characterized. There have been speculations that the results from these projects could be misused to produce ethnic or population specific weapons. Finally, all the above mentioned technical possibilities are clearly forbidden by the CWC and BTWC.

Most countries wish to prevent future use of NBC weapons. The global conventions and verification systems in different stages of development will reduce the future risk of a large scale offensive weapons development and also development of new and still more technically advanced weapons.

The existing knowledge however will remain and could be proliferating to other countries or terror organizations inadvertently in our modern IT society, but also purposely by non scrupulous persons. This type of hidden development could be very difficult to reveal. From a technical point of view, we can predict that such a development might include "classical" CBW, and, possibly, primitive nuclear weapons. Theoretically, technically well-developed countries, and terrorist organizations, could develop new types of CBW, e.g., using the rapidly expanding gene and biotechnologies.

From the protection point of view, the technological gap between offensive and defensive possibilities may be reduced in the future. This will be due to developing international conventions with their verification systems that may hinder the offensive, but not the defensive, development. Again the gene/biotechnology threat may be an exception.

There is also an increased need for a peacetime preparedness against NBC incidences, due to possible terrorist or sabotage attacks. Increased involvement in international operations could also increase the risk for NBC exposure.

In summary, the risk for a massive use of NBC weapons may be reduced in the future, while the risk for local use may increase both in war and peacetime. This means that protection will continue to be needed through the distant future, and not only for the military, but also for the police and the medical and civil defence, and for the general public.

*Editors' Note 1: This could become less of a crutch as more Arab States ratify. As of Nov. 21, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, and Oman have ratified the CWC.

Editors' Note 2: Ake Bovallius was formerly Director of the Defence Research Establishment (FOA) - NBC Defence in UmeŒ, Sweden from 1984-1996 and he now works as a consultant and adviser in the NBC area both in Sweden and internationally. He is Chairman of the 6th CB Symposium which will take place in Stockholm from 10-15 May 1998. A biochemist and microbiologist with over 50 papers and reports, Ake Bovallius is an esteemed professional amongst his fellow professionals in NBC defence and disarmament.

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