The potential for the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons is widespread. Any state with nuclear reactors has the technological resources needed to produce radiological weapons or to start a nuclear weapons program. For chemical and biological weapons in particular, the potential for proliferation is almost unlimited. Any state with a basic chemical, petrochemical, pharmaceutical, biotechnological, or related industry can produce basic chemical or biological agents.

Similar points hold for many of the chemical and biological production facilities found throughout the world. While there has been significant NBC proliferation, all of the available proliferation potential has not been translated into publicly announced or deployed NBC weapon systems.


Given a decision by national leaders to develop NBC weapons capabilities, a range of outcomes involving different decisions, actions, and political and economic costs can result. The most common situation today is one in which proliferants stop short of announcing their status as an NBC weapons state.

DoD proliferation prevention activities are directed at all stages of proliferation. The absence of directional arrows on the following chart entitled Stages, Decisions, and Actions Involved in NBC Proliferation is deliberate; one of the objectives in proliferation prevention policy is to encourage movement to stages of less capability. This policy involves positive measures that allow leaders of other countries to respond to legitimate national security requirements without engaging in NBC proliferation. It also involves negative measures to impede proliferation. There have been successes in proliferation prevention, including situations in which national leaders have opted to eliminate NBC weapons or to halt work on their development.


Rationale of Nations for Acquiring NBC Weapons

NBC materials are dangerous to process and store, and there are international political costs associated with violations of arms control conventions. Although development of nuclear weapons can be expensive, chemical and biological weapons can be made rather inexpensively, especially if the proliferant does not develop and test its weapons to U.S. standards.

In the United States, rationale for nuclear weapons-related programs is stated in detail and publicly debated. This is not the case in most proliferant states, whose leaders have not been willing to articulate, on the record, the factors that have prompted them to incur the costs involved in NBC proliferation. Hence, motives must be inferred.

In some cases, self-defined security requirements appear to be the motivating factor, particularly if regional adversaries are perceived to have NBC weapons. Some of these situations have been successfully addressed through proliferation prevention policies; other cases have not yet been amenable to such solutions.

States may try to acquire or develop NBC weapons or missiles because of a need to deter hostile neighbors that have similar capabilities. Prestige and the ability to intimidate less powerful states also could be factors. There also are situations where one of the motivations appears to be to develop NBC military capabilities as a means of offsetting the conventional superiority of the United States or other states with more capable conventional forces. The result can be paradoxical, with proliferation resulting in more risks than would otherwise be the case.

Military Effectiveness


NBC weapons can have devastating effects, particularly when employed against unalerted, unprotected forces or populations. Some of these effects were explained and compared in the technical annex provided in the 1996 edition of this report; that information is not repeated here.


The deployment or use of NBC weapons by a proliferant entails significant strategic risks and costs, particularly in confrontations or conflicts in which opponents have capable conventional forces. A proliferant nation is likely to disperse both the locations of the production facilities and the weapons deployment. This will increase the logistics strain on the proliferant, but also will make targeting of these sites more difficult.

Significant collateral hazards can result if NBC production and storage facilities are attacked with conventional weapons. The spillover effects produced by the NBC targets can be much more dangerous than those induced by the conventional weapons involved in such an attack.

In some cases, it may be possible to ameliorate (but not completely eliminate) such risks by dispersing NBC weapons and delivery systems. This can result in NBC weapon security risks, particularly in regimes in which leaders exercise power based on domination, not shared values and trust.

NBC weapons use can involve significant risks to a proliferant’s own forces and population. For example, dispersal of some NBC hazards depends partly on meteorological conditions that can vary unpredictably over time, and partly on other conditions that cannot be controlled.

Notwithstanding the significant risks associated with possession or use of NBC weapons, situations may occur during a regional contingency in which a proliferant considers using such weapons against U.S., allied, or coalition forces and facilities.

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Novel Threats

Biological weapons have the greatest potential for lethality of any weapon. Biological weapons are accessible to all countries; there are few barriers to developing such weapons with a modest level of effort. The current level of sophistication for many biological agents is low, but there is enormous potential—based on advances in modern molecular biology, fermentation, and drug delivery technology—for making more sophisticated weapons. While there remains a tendency to say biological weapons are too hard to deal with, a vigorous and productive defensive program is possible and will do much to mitigate the risk to the United States and its allies.

Advances in biotechnology and genetic engineering may facilitate the development of potentially new and more deadly biological warfare agents. The ability to modify microbial agents at a molecular level has existed since the 1960s, when revolutionary new genetic engineering techniques were introduced, but the enterprise tended to be slow and unpredictable. With today’s more powerful techniques, infectious organisms can be modified to bring about disease in different ways. Many bioengineering companies (both U.S. and foreign) now sell all-in-one kits to enable even high school-level students to perform recombinant DNA experiments. The availability of free on-line gene sequence databases and analytic software over the Internet further simplifies and disseminates this capability. It is now possible to transform relatively benign organisms to cause harmful effects. Genetic engineering gives biological warfare developers powerful tools with which to pursue agents that defeat the protective and treatment protocols of the prospective adversary. Genetically engineered micro-organisms also raise the technological hurdle that must be overcome to provide for effective detection, identification, and early warning of biological warfare attacks.

The future likelihood of infectious agents being created for biological warfare purposes will be influenced by several technological trends, of which four of the most significant are:

Genetically engineered vectors in the form of modified infectious organisms will be increasingly employed as tools in medicine and the techniques will become more widely available.

Strides will be made in the understanding of infectious disease mechanisms and in microbial genetics that are responsible for disease processes.

An increased understanding of the human immune system function and disease mechanisms will shed light on the circumstances that cause individual susceptibility to infectious disease.

Vaccines and antidotes will be improved over the long term, perhaps to the point where classic biological warfare agents will offer less utility as a means of causing casualties.

Classic biological warfare threat agents pose the greatest concern for the near and mid-term. Long-term threats are not so easily predicted. Section II of this report includes a chart that lists biological warfare threat agents. Despite revolutionary developments in biotechnology, technological barriers still block the ready development of novel biological warfare agents. A detailed understanding of genetic structures does not automatically convey an ability to control these genetic mechanisms. For example, scientists cloned and sequenced the entire human immunodeficiency virus genome in 1984. However, despite tremendous efforts, an effective vaccine has not yet been developed.

The question of what disease-causing organisms might supplant classic biological warfare agents is critical to understanding future biological warfare threats. Biological warfare agents may emerge in two likely categories: man-made manipulations of classic biological warfare agents and newly discovered or emerging infectious agents that result from natural occurrences. In a 1992 report on emerging infectious diseases, the Institute of Medicine found that "Pathogenic microbes can be resilient, dangerous foes. Although it is impossible to predict their individual emergence in time and place, we can be confident that new microbial diseases will emerge."



Desirable Characteristics

Consistently produce a given effect (death, disability, or crop damage).

Be manufacturable on a large scale.

Be stable during production and storage, in munitions, and during transportation.

Be capable of efficient dissemination.

Be stable after dissemination.

Possible for the using forces to protect against.

Difficult for a potential enemy to detect or protect against.

A short and predictable incubation period.

A short and predictable persistency if the contaminated area is to be promptly occupied by friendly troops.

Capable of infecting more than one kind of target (for example, man and animals) through more than one portal of entry, being disseminated by various means, producing desired psychological effects.

Source: Adapted from U.S. Departments of Army and Air Force. Military Biology and Biological Agents. Departments of Army and Air Force Technical Manual 3-216/Air Force Manual 355-56, March 12, 1964.


Examples of recent new pathogens (though not necessarily ideal biological warfare agents) include streptococcus pneumoniae S23F, a recently discovered naturally-occurring strain of pneumonia resistant to at least six of the more commonly used antibiotics. The increasing awareness of new biological diseases prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1995 to begin publishing the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases as a means to focus awareness on the problem of naturally occurring biological hazards that threaten humans and as a forum for discussing solutions.


Certain characteristics are required for an organism to be an effective biological agent. Additional characteristics that enhance their value under varied conditions of use are desired. The selection of a particular biological warfare agent will be governed not only by the effect desired but also by the agent’s characteristics and its ability to withstand environmental conditions. All these conditions cannot usually be fulfilled by any one agent; therefore, in making a selection, some compromise may have to be made.


The revolution in biotechnology facilitates an evolution in the biological warfare threat. The revolution in biotechnology began in 1977 with the successful cloning of a protein using a synthetic, recombinant gene. Scientific and technological advances have facilitated the development of genetically engineered agents.

The extreme lethality of biological warfare agents has long been known. The most lethal biological toxins are hundreds to thousands of times more lethal per unit than the most lethal chemical warfare agents. However, lethality is only one of many characteristics necessary to consider in the development, production, and employment of a biological warfare agent. Numerous characteristics need to be controlled for a highly effective biological warfare agent. Historically, the accentuation of one characteristic often resulted in the attenuation of one or more other characteristics, possibly even rendering the modified agent ineffective as a weapon. Advances in biotechnology, genetic engineering, and related scientific fields provide increasing potential to control more of these factors, possibly leading to the ability to use biological warfare agents as tactical battlefield weapons.

The potential types of novel biological agents (microorganisms) that could be produced through genetic engineering methodologies are:

Benign microorganisms, genetically altered to produce a toxin, venom, or bioregulator.

Microorganisms resistant to antibiotics, standard vaccines, and therapeutics.

Microorganisms with enhanced aerosol and environmental stability.

Immunologically-altered microorganisms able to defeat standard identification, detection, and diagnostic methods.

Combinations of the above four types with improved delivery systems.

It is noteworthy that each of these techniques seeks to capitalize on the extreme lethality, virulence, or infectivity of biological warfare agents and exploit this potential by developing methods to deliver more efficiently and to control these agents on the battlefield.

Ongoing scientific research into the functioning of disease organisms also should provide insights for the development of advanced medical defenses against new and emerging biological warfare threats. Current examples of infectious organisms that are attracting particular attention are hantaviruses; other hemorrhagic fever-causing agents, such as Ebola; and the bacteria invasive Group A streptococcus (commonly known as flesh-eating bacteria). The streptococcus example is illustrative. While not a new medical problem, the particular strain involved can produce a combination of toxins that results in simultaneous toxic shock and rapid spread of tissue breakdown. Once it is well established, the infection is very difficult to control with antibiotics. Although the natural form of this organism may not have significant potential as an aerosol threat agent, those seeking new infectious agents for military use could investigate its mechanisms of action.

DoD Resources for Responding to Novel Biological Threats

One of the tenets of DoD’s science and technology program is the prevention of technological surprise. Technological surprise historically occurs when new technologies are employed to maximize surprise. Countering this requires good intelligence on capabilities and intentions of potential adversaries. It also requires that the U.S. science and technology community maintain a continuing awareness, through its own scientific investigation, of emerging technologies that could have military applications. Maintenance of a strong biological defense technology base within DoD is essential to ensuring that the nation will be prepared to respond to future biological threats. Defense scientists and engineers must be poised to react rapidly to an innovative use of technology by potential adversaries.

To counter potentially new and more effective biological warfare agents, a broad array of countermeasures is available or being developed. Within the DoD chemical and biological defense program, biological defenses are developed as a system-of-systems architecture. The research, development, and acquisition of non-medical and medical biodefense capabilities is supported by five capability areas: avoidance, individual protection, collective protection, decontamination, and medical programs. All capability areas are interrelated and critical to the defense of U.S. forces.

Avoidance consists of three essential elements: early warning, detection, and warning and reporting. Early warning enables U.S. forces to avoid contamination or to assume the optimal protective posture. Detector development is the cornerstone for this area. The program is pursuing technological advances in remote detection, miniaturization, increased sensitivity, decreased false alarm rates, and improved logistics supportability. Biological detection capability has the highest priority. To counter novel and previously unknown agents, detectors are being developed that identify methods of delivery (e.g., aerosol and particulate detection) and the toxicity of agent rather than specific structure and genetic make-up of the organism.

When contamination cannot be avoided and units are forced to occupy or traverse contaminated areas, protection provides survivability and continued operational capability in a biological warfare environment. Biological agents pose hazards by the routes of inhalation, ingestion, or direct contact. Diseases are caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites, or toxins. Biological warfare would require intentional exposure to a biological agent in concert with the correct route for maximum effectiveness. Few agents are lethal by contact. Thus, individual protection is focused on the development of lightweight respiratory protection. Technological advances are being pursued to produce mask systems fully compatible with vision and weapons’ sighting systems. Collective protection equipment includes shelters for command posts, rest and relief, vehicular collective protection, and safe zones aboard ship. Technological improvements will reduce weight and size and increase filter lifetime to improve deployability.

When contamination cannot be avoided, forces must decontaminate personnel and equipment to reduce or eliminate contamination hazards. Biological warfare agents are generally highly susceptible to the ultraviolet wavelengths of sunlight and to simple oxidants and disinfectants (e.g., bleach, Lysol, and others). For biological warfare agents, technological improvements focus on the development of systems for disseminating the decontaminant over a large area.

The medical biological defense research program has three broad goals:

Protect U.S. forces’ warfighting capabilities during a biological attack.

Treat casualties to prevent lethality and maximize return to duty.

Maintain state-of-the-art research and development efforts to provide timely medical countermeasures.

To meet these three goals, the Army executes the Medical Biological Defense Research Program, which provides medical countermeasures to deter, constrain, and defeat the use of biological threat agents, as well as advanced diagnostics. Research efforts are exploiting advances in biotechnologies and genetic engineering to develop new vaccines and other preventive medicines, including recombinant vaccines and monoclonal antibodies.

The most effective way to protect individuals against biological warfare agents is to immunize combat forces. Current priorities are to develop new or improved vaccines against validated biological warfare threat agents and to increase the vaccine stockpile. Long-term efforts include development of multivalent vaccines to protect against a broad spectrum of biological agents. Also, improved casualty care practices doctrine will increase the return-to-duty rate for troops exposed to biological agents, thus adding to force sustainment.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing medical countermeasures against biological warfare agents by identifying virulence mechanisms shared by multiple pathogens and developing therapeutics to block these fundamental disease-causing pathways. This high-risk, high-payoff approach complements the more conventional approaches of other DoD programs to develop biological warfare therapeutics. The DARPA approach is expected to be effective against bioengineered pathogens, including seemingly innocuous bacteria that have had a toxin-producing gene inserted into them. The DARPA strategy expects to give DoD therapeutics that work against multiple agents, that work against previously unknown or bioengineered agents, and against which it will be extremely difficult for an adversary to develop resistant strains.


The DoD response to novel biological warfare threats, improved capabilities for delivery of NBC weapons, and other technological developments associated with NBC proliferation involves initiatives to provide forces with better defenses against such threats and actions to inhibit the development of such capabilities. Part of the DoD response is to work with other U.S. government agencies and with allies to halt the diversion of technologies needed for indigenous development of NBC programs.

The DoD response also involves capabilities to respond forcefully, effectively and, where appropriate, overwhelmingly against those who might contemplate the use of NBC and their means of delivery so that the costs of such use will be seen as outweighing the gains. To minimize the impact of proliferation on American interests, it is the policy of the United States not only to prevent and deter NBC use, but also to operate and counterstrike successfully when faced with NBC threats or use.


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