Undersea Arsenal, Poisoned Oceans is a 9-part series on the history and consequences of decommissioned unconventional munitions disposed at sea.
Part 1: Chemical, Biological and Radiological Arms is an look into the development of various classes of unconventional arms, including their strengths and weaknesses from a strategic standpoint.
“All this gas business need not be taken seriously.”
– French General Headquarters, just prior to loosing 6,000 men in a gas attack during the Second Battle of Ypres, 1915.
Weapons of Mass Destruction—that is to say chemical, biological and radiological arms and munitions—occupy a strange nexus in the philosophy of warfare and public imagination. As nations, we feel forced to develop the most morally unsettling weaponry ever envisioned as our enemies have, might, or could create the same. Even if these opponents choose not to, we must ourselves do so, as possession of the same may lend to us some strategic advantage.
When our conflicts inevitably subside, whether by victory or the inexorable passage of time, only then do we reflect on what was possibly the most important question all along. What do we now do with these terrible inventions? After all, we can’t actually use them.
Radiological weaponry and waste are presently taken very seriously by governments, despite their haphazard and spotty record of storage, utilization and disposal. Much time and money is spent to make up for past recklessness—consider the installation of expensive and sensitive radiation detectors in ports, well-funded transnational regulatory and security agencies, even the very secret (and quite successful) effort to catalog and secure loose radiological materials in the destabilizing wake of the Cold War. Beyond that fact is the simple truth that, generally speaking, splitting an atom requires a brilliant mind, a type of mind not eager to actually utilize such a weapon.
Biological warfare, though theoretically less difficult to wage, comes with a number of significant caveats. First and foremost, biological warfare is dominated by a simple inverse relationship, one of which decades of research has not been able to entirely overcome. The more virulent the disease, the less likely it is to be transmitted… and visa-versa. For instance, take the extraordinarily communicable common cold, which conservatively kills between 250,000 and 500,000 people each year, millions in the occasional outlier season. While widely transmitted between people, nations, even continents, it is not regarded as particularly deadly, except to the infirm or those with pre-existing medical complications.
Compare this with the Ebola virus, one of the most terrifying diseases to ever afflict the human species. The virus attacks every organ in the victim’s system in as little as two days, leaving them walking, virus-spreading disassociate shells with an 80% or higher chance of dying of massive blood loss. This terrible illness, through exceptionally communicable and largely fatal, has infected just 1,850 people since the mid 70’s, killing just 1300 of them. Simply put, diseases that burn hot, burn out.
Setting aside the moral qualms of weaponizing the greatest adversary ever faced by human biology, diseases generally don’t make good weapons. Strategically speaking, they do not discriminate between soldier and civilian and they cannot be controlled once unleashed, making them nearly as hazardous to the attacker as the attacked. Truth be told, we don’t even need to develop diseases to be threatened by them—our own worldwide transportation infrastructure may prove to be the most dangerous innovation in the biological arms race, linking people and places in an unintended worldwide laboratory.
Among the frightening ranks of WMD’s, chemical weapons are possible one of the most dangerous and least understood. Unlike the other categories, they are now largely stored in the world’s largest unsecured arsenal, hundreds of millions of tons of the most dangerous chemicals ever developed resting under no lock, no key, not even within the security of national boarders. It’s a Pandora’s Box that’s already been opened—one so terrifying that we refuse to even look inside to see what we’ve unleashed.
For the amount of attention devoted to WMD’s in the wake of September 11th, 2001 and the invasion of Iraq, most categories have taken relatively few lives. In the week following the attacks, anthrax spores were mailed to media outlets and US Senators, killing five and wounding some 17 others. It was a frightening but isolated incident. We must cast an even wider net regarding radiological terrorism. The possibility of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons, while an intimidating proposition, appears to be relatively far-fetched. Some terrorist groups have been interested in a “dirty” bomb, radiological material or waste dispersed via conventional explosive, but most experts estimate the effectiveness of such a weapon as limited at best. In an analysis of all radiological incidents since 2001, accidental or not, one finds a single indirect death, a worker at the Fukashima Nuclear Facility struck by a tsunami in 2011. Sixty years old, the worker died of a myocardial infarction—a heart attack—unrelated to any radioactive release.
These numbers beg comparison to those who have died of exposure to chemical weapons. Pesticides, nearly chemically identical to the nerve gasses developed for military use, kill or severely sicken upwards of 300,000 people a year in India and Sri Lanka alone. Those affected in the period of 2001 – 2011 may top three million.