Skip to main content
Biology LibreTexts

10.5G: Biological Weapons

  • Page ID
    11754
  • Biological warfare (BW) is the use of biological toxins or infectious agents with the intent to kill or incapacitate.

    Learning Objectives

    • Recognize the characteristics of biological weapons

    Key Points

    • Biological weapons (often termed “bio-weapons”, “biological threat agents”, or “bio-agents”) are living organisms or replicating entities (viruses) that reproduce or replicate within their host victims.
    • Biological weapons may be employed in various ways to gain a strategic or tactical advantage over an adversary, either by threats or by actual deployments.
    • As a tactical weapon for military use, a significant problem with a BW attack is that it would take days to be effective, and therefore might not immediately stop an opposing force.

    Key Terms

    • Biological warfare: Biological warfare (BW) — also known as germ warfare — is the use of biological toxins or infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi with the intent to kill or incapacitate humans, animals, or plants as an act of war.
    • psychochemical weapon: Agents used within the context of military aggression.

    Biological warfare (BW) — also known as germ warfare — is the use of biological toxins or infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi with the intent to kill or incapacitate humans, animals, or plants as an act of war. Biological weapons (often termed “bio-weapons”, “biological threat agents”, or “bio-agents”) are living organisms or replicating entities (viruses) that reproduce or replicate within their host victims. Entomological (insect) warfare is also considered a type of BW.

    image
    Figure: Biological Bomblet: The E120 biological bomblet was one of a number of spherical biological bomblets that were developed before the United States discontinued its offensive program in the 1970s. The vaned outer shell of this spherical bomblet was designed to provide rotation during flight. On impact, the outer shell would shatter; the bomblet was asymmetrically weighted so that agent would then be sprayed from the top of the bomblet. The E120 bomblet was developed in the early 1960s. Its 11.4 cm diameter carried 0.1 kg of liquid biological agent.

    Biological weapons may be employed in various ways to gain a strategic or tactical advantage over an adversary, either by threats or by actual deployments. Like some chemical weapons, biological weapons may also be useful as area denial weapons. These agents may be lethal or non-lethal, and may be targeted against a single individual, a group of people, or even an entire population. They may be developed, acquired, stockpiled, or deployed by nation states or by non-national groups. In the latter case, or if a nation-state uses it clandestinely, it may also be considered bioterrorism.

    There is an overlap between BW and chemical warfare, as the use of toxins produced by living organisms is considered under the provisions of both the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Toxins and psychochemical weapons are often referred to as midspectrum agents. Unlike bioweapons, these midspectrum agents do not reproduce in their host and are typically characterized by shorter incubation periods.

    Offensive biological warfare, including the mass production, stockpiling, and use of biological weapons, was outlawed by the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). The rationale behind this treaty, which has been ratified or acceded to by 165 countries as of 2011, is to prevent a biological attack which could conceivably result in large numbers of civilian fatalities and cause severe disruption to economic and societal infrastructure. Many countries, including signatories of the BWC, currently pursue research into the defense or protection against BW, which is not prohibited by the BWC.

    A nation or group that can pose a credible threat of mass casualty has the ability to alter the terms on which other nations or groups interact with it. Biological weapons allow for the potential to create a level of destruction and loss of life far in excess of nuclear, chemical, or conventional weapons, relative to their mass and cost of development and storage. Therefore, biological agents may be useful as strategic deterrents in addition to their utility as offensive weapons on the battlefield.

    As a tactical weapon for military use, a significant problem with a BW attack is that it would take days to be effective, and therefore might not immediately stop an opposing force. Some biological agents (especially smallpox, plague, and tularemia) have the capability of person-to-person transmission via aerosolized respiratory droplets. This feature can be undesirable, as the agent or agents may be transmitted by this mechanism to unintended populations, including neutral or even friendly forces. While containment of BW is less of a concern for certain criminal or terrorist organizations, it remains a significant concern for the military and civilian populations of virtually all nations.