How likely is a biochemical or nuclear attack? Is it worth the resources to prepare for such an event?
There is growing concern among scholars, public health officials, defense experts, politicians, and emergency personnel that the United States is ill prepared for a biochemical or nuclear attack. These same people argue for substantial U.S. investment in defense systems, detection equipment, planning, and emergency preparedness training to stop or minimize the damage from a biochemical or nuclear attack. Proponents of such a program argue that changes since the Cold War have worked to increase the likelihood that the U.S. will come under attack. Such attacks could come from other nations, internal terrorist organizations, or external terrorist organizations.
While the risk of conventional war has been minimized since the end of the Cold War, the threat of attack from fringe groups or countries of concern using weapons of mass destruction has grown. Shifts in the global strategic environment have motivated the United States to re-evaluate its national security priorities. The dissolution of the Cold War combined with rising ethnic and religious nationalism has intensified regional conflicts. The centralized control and discipline associated with the Cold War has given way to power vacuums and decentralized globalism. Add to this situation the continued rise of extremist groups, both within and outside the United States, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the blurring of national boundaries as globalism takes hold. These factors lead to destabilization and increase opportunities for countries of concern or terrorists to attack the U.S. with biochemical or nuclear weapons.
Russia's unstable transition to democracy along with its severe economic problems has made the country's arsenal vulnerable to leaks, theft, and illegal transportation of key weapons technologies. Despite the best efforts of major military powers, weapons of mass destruction continue to spread. Recent tests in Pakistan and India indicate that the nuclear arms race is not over. Nations such as Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Syria are developing or have developed weapons of mass destruction that threaten U.S. security.
Most experts consider the threat of a biological and/or chemical weapons attack much more likely than a nuclear attack. Nuclear attacks require highly advanced technology and complex delivery systems. Nuclear weapons are bulkier and much more difficult to smuggle into the United States than biological or chemical weapons. Biochemical weapons, on the other hand, are easier to obtain, distribute, convert into weapons, and deliver in an effective and potentially catastrophic manner. However, a nuclear attack with a "dirty bomb"-a conventional explosive bomb that scatters nuclear materials to contaminate a site and expose people in the area to radiation sickness is much more probable than a fission or fusion nuclear bomb.
One could argue that a biochemical attack is very unlikely given the various international treaties, conventions, and enforcement mechanisms in place to control and limit their production and distribution. The international community has made strides in eliminating stockpiles, restricting further production, and instituting monitoring and inspection mechanisms. Those who argue against substantial biochemical defense and preparedness in the United States also point out that groups are less likely to release biological and chemical weapons because they can not be strategically deployed. A biological weapons release such as smallpox could just as easily decimate the party releasing it as the intended target. The effects are neither predictable nor controlled, and the use of such a weapon is seen by all civilized nations as morally unacceptable. Therefore a biochemical weapon is unlikely to be used to further a political agenda. On the other hand, so-called "apocalyptic" groups for whom destruction is an end, not a means, as well as interstate conflicts or national factions wanting to "cleanse" an ethnic population are not only extremely likely to use biochemical weapons, but may have already done so. The use of sarin by Aum Shinrikyo is the most famous example, but chemical weapons are believed to have been used in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. The apartheid government of South Africa may have used biochemical weapons against native tribes. Examples of biochemical weapons use are uncommon compared to conventional weapons but have definitely occurred.
Proponents of a coordinated federal program to prepare for weapons of mass destruction point not only to changes in the international strategic environment, but also to the devastating health, economic, and societal impact such weapons can have. The price of being unprepared is incalculable. The initial infrastructure, technologies, and knowledge base to deal with an attack are already being developed and implemented. It is now simply a matter of devoting enough time and resources to implement a full-scale program. Proponents also point to recent studies that prove early intervention, proper training, and rapid medical response are the keys to limiting the casualties, economic costs, and security risks associated with a biochemical or nuclear attack.
a number of approaches the United States can employ individually or in
concert to defend against a biochemical or nuclear attack. One is to prevent
and reduce the spread of weapons of mass destruction along with the technology
necessary to manufacture them. This goal can be accomplished through treaties,
monitoring, and international enforcement. A second option is to deter
the threat of attack through adequate defensive measures and the threat
of retribution. There is growing sentiment for the U.S. to renegotiate
the ABM treaty currently in place and to begin developing a fully operational
anti-ballistic missile defense system. The third possibility is to prepare
fully operational emergency response systems for biochemical and nuclear
attacks. This is where proponents of an overall program see the greatest
need. Local, state, and federal authorities must be properly trained and
funded if the U.S. is to withstand biochemical and nuclear attacks on
1. A key
first responder group is the medical personnel who are first to diagnose
and treat the injuries and illness that result from a nuclear, biological
or chemical attack. The most effective preparation is continuing education,
staged attacks and simulations. However, we live in a complex environment
with rising cancer and heart disease rates, injuries from accidents, and
other threats to national health. How important is additional training
for a nuclear, biological or chemical attack response, compared to the
competing claims for continuing education in other areas, such as cancer
3. At the end of the 20th century, there have been a flurry of anthrax hoaxes, which have diverted emergency resources from possible response to actual emergencies. At first, reactions were strong and the press publicized the attacks heavily. Recent hoaxes received much less media attention. This question is twofold: Does the attention paid to WMD use by terrorists encourage dangerous hoaxes? Is the decreasing media and public attention to hoaxes a good thing that will discourage pranksters or a sign of dangerous complacency that will lead to inadequate response to a dangerous emergency?
5. The Clinton administration considers protection against a weapons of mass destruction or information warfare attack to be a critical priority for funding and federal agency attention. This emphasis can change with a new administration. In any event, adequate protective measures are expensive and time-consuming, possibly diverting agency resources from other responsibilities. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency must prepare to identify and handle hazardous biochemical materials for a WMD attack, but its ongoing responsibilities are clean air, clean water and safeguarding natural resources. The Department of Energy must work to safeguard the command and control facilities of energy supplies from attack and yet also manage the country's scarce energy resources and actively search for alternative energy resources for the future. Other departments have similar competing demands for their attention, such as Health and Human Services, the Federal Emergency Management Association and the Department of Transportation, to name a few. Adding national security issues to agency agendas will mean increased staffing and funding or else departments will be forced to overcommit their resources which can result in inadequate performance. Should we devote serious funds and attention for national security in this volatile first decade of the new millennium, or should we concentrate our federal agency resources on well-known problems and issues that we still have not adequately resolved?