Biological, Chemical, & Other Non-Nuclear Threats

Biological, chemical and other non-nuclear threats, such as cyber and drone attacks, constitute a class of weapons that may not cause as much mass physical destruction as nuclear weapons can, but can result in significant mass effects on, and/or mass disruptions to, a targeted populace. Weapons experts still debate whether these non-nuclear weapons can truly be considered weapons of mass destruction; however, certain types of biological weapons, such as weaponized smallpox or anthrax, could in principle harm millions of people depending on the scenario and the extent of the population’s exposure to the biological weapons. Chemical weapons under almost all circumstances would not result in massive harm to millions of people. Nonetheless, from a cost perspective, chemical weapons and even biological weapons are considerably less expensive than nuclear weapons. Still, chemical and biological weapons could have similar deterrent effects as nuclear weapons. Thus, from the viewpoint of many nation-states, chemical and biological weapons are so-called poor man’s nuclear weapons.

The Challenges of Reducing and Detecting These Threats

Addressing these threats is difficult because the weapons can be manufactured in ways that use civilian technology and materials. Furthermore, manufacturing them does not typically require large observable infrastructures to be established, thus making it hard to detect their production. While chemical and biological weapons are banned internationally via the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention with the vast majority of nations as adherents, the world has witnessed that certain states, for example, Syria still have chemical weapons as well as suspected biological weapons. As of late 2013 through early 2014, the Syrian government has promised to dismantle its chemical weapons program.

FAS has had a long history in bringing leading chemical and biological experts to analyze these threats, educate policymakers and the public, and make recommendations to reduce the risks. For instance, FAS in recent years has created the Virtual Biosecurity Center (VBC) to provide a platform for education. FAS has also convened legal, scientific, and political experts in workshops such as a January 2014 workshop on bio-forensics to examine state-level options for response to biological threats or attacks. FAS seeks to further this work in chemical weapons assessments, as well. In particular, FAS has had expert analysis during the early phases of the chemical weapons crisis in Syria.

Other Non-Nuclear Threats

Weapons technologies other than nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons will most likely increasingly pose challenges for international security. For example, the increasing use of drones for both surveillance and armed attacks by the United States and a growing number of additional countries might lead to global and regional arms races in drone use or might result in asymmetric means of targeted opponents striking back. In addition, cyber-attacks as demonstrated by the use of Stuxnet to destroy and disable about 1,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges in Iran have raised concern about counter-cyber-attacks against the United States and its allies. Also in this threat area, we at FAS will investigate the use of prompt global strike advanced conventional weapons to achieve strategic purposes or to target terrorists and other non-state actors. FAS is expanding its network of experts to assess these and other non-nuclear threats can are present or could emerge in the future.