Book Reviews

"Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security," by Gregory Koblentz

By Book Review Editor
Saturday, May 16, 2015, 7:44 PM

Published by Cornell UP (Paperback 2011)

Reviewed by Matthew Sprinkel

Biological weapons are often referred to as “the poor man’s atomic bomb.” We all know what that means – a weapon of mass destruction because of its potentially uncontrollable effects but, unlike nuclear weapons, relatively cheap to create and deploy, at least by reference to the cost and technical sophistication required to build and deliver a nuclear weapon. Lots more countries, much poorer countries, can do biological (or chemical) weapons even if they probably couldn’t do nukes.

Gregory Koblentz, a professor in public policy at George Mason University in Virginia, doesn’t think “poor man’s atomic bomb” is actually true of biological weapons – at least, he doesn’t think that the policy implications the phrase invites are correct or a useful guide to international security policy. In Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security, he argues that, in sharp contrast to nuclear weapons seen from a strategic perspective, biological weapons have features that complicate international security strategy. This is so, he says, for a variety of reasons, but particularly the “multi-use” nature of the biological agents and their precursors, as well as the necessity for secrecy in protecting biological weapons programs.

Koblentz uses “multi-use” to convey several distinct roles for biological agents and biological weapons programs; these distinct roles for essentially the same biological agent help create the ambiguities that are a feature of biological weapons and biological weapon programs. A defensive biological weapons program, for example, can easily become an offensive biological weapons program. The precursor chemicals and biological compounds used for biological weapons have essential civilian uses. Ambiguity and secrecy, specific to biological weapons, are at the core of the dilemmas of verification, oversight, and intelligence-gathering that undergird attempts to prevent the proliferation or use of biological weapons.


Living Weapons is divided into three sections: a brief history and primer on biological weapons, and a description of the unique characteristics of biological weapons; international security challenges posed by biological weapons; and recommendations on how to thwart intelligence failures in the future. The first section introduces biological weapons, to ensure that the reader grasps their essential characteristics. It is in the second section of Living Weapons (the most important of the three) that the complexities of monitoring biological agent development are explained and debated. In this part, he uses two cases, UNSCOM’s experience verifying Iraq’s biological weapons program from 1991 to 1998 (and its dismantling), and the Soviet Union’s highly secretive biological weapons program from the mid-1980s into the 1990s, to illustrate how difficult it is to oversee, gather intelligence about, and verify that the production of biological agents, whether in governmental or private entities, is limited to peaceful purposes and not weaponized.

The first section's general introduction to the language and characteristics of biological weapons is lucid and and useful, especially for non-experts. Koblentz also offers a historical timeline of the development of biological weapons, and goes on to address the commonplace, but mistaken, running together of biological weapons and nuclear weapons (and, for that matter, chemical weapons) within such categories as “weapons of mass destruction.” Biological weapons, he says, are drastically different from their nuclear counterparts for three basic reasons. First, while nuclear weapons can destroy their targets instantaneously, biological weapons destroy in a delayed, variable, and unpredictable manner. Second, there are no guaranteed defense mechanisms for nuclear attacks, unlike for biological ones. Third, biological weapons are not strategic deterrents in the way nuclear weapons are, because states shroud their biological weapons programs in secrecy, making it difficult to make credible threats, and because the unpredictability of the effects of biological weapons makes deterrence less stable.

Koblentz uses these three differences to highlight some of the basic strategic traits of biological weapons. The first characteristic Koblentz describes is biological warfare’s bias in favor of attackers. He argues that it is “easier and more cost-efficient to develop biological weapons than it is to develop defenses against them,” on account of what Koblentz calls the “diversity of threat agents,” and the ease of surprise attack. Indeed, he goes on, biological weapons necessarily rely on surprise to achieve their devastating effects, because once the biological threat agent and the location where the threat agent will have its effects, in at least some cases the defender can seek to establish defenses, such as medical treatments or cures, vaccines to limit susceptibility, and area quarantines or similar measures to prevent the threat agent’s spread. In cases of genuinely novel or unknown biological agents, or agents that spread with great rapidity, of course, these measures are far from assured to defend against the attack. But in either case, surprise attack is a core element of the success of the attacker . The second characteristic, the limited deterrence capability of biological weapons, follows on the first – i.e., surprise and attack bias –and he goes on to explain the contrast, in his view, between the two weapons, biological weapons and nuclear weapons, with regards to deterrence. While biological weapons are lethal, he says, they rely on secrecy and surprise, which makes them poor choices as deterrents. Moreover, he adds, they do not grant states an “assured capability for unacceptable damage.” Uncertainty abounds.

These points can be disputed, to be sure. Given earlier statements, for example, that it is not very efficient to develop defenses against biological agents (given, among other things, the wide range of potential threat agents), one might ask how consistent this is with the point made later that the defender can develop defenses in at least some cases, making surprise an important quality to an attacker. It appears to be a matter of degree, with a lot of uncertainties arising from the facts specific to each situation; a known agent, such as anthrax, might be more easily defended against, even with the element of surprise, than a unique, previously unseen agent. In addition, a core difference between a nuclear weapon and a biological one is the predictability that a nuclear weapon will go off if deployed, whereas biological weapons, even if deployed successfully, can go in many different directions, with many different effects. The difference is that biological agents are not very suitable for predictable, stable deterrence. But the unpredictable, even if low, infection or harm rates, striking here or there, leaving some alone, infecting others, killing some in horrible ways, but sparing others – that's a recipe for a terror weapon directed against the population. Terrorism depends in part upon leveraging fear and uncertainty, and the unpredictability of biological weapons provides an important element for terrorizing a population. Terror or its threat is not ordinarily conducive to stability or deterrence.


These points largely and persuasively establish the special characteristics of biological weapons. Koblentz then turns to the book’s second section, the two case studies, in order to highlight the challenges biological weapons pose for international security. The first of these is the Iraqi biological weapons program dating back to the 1970s and 80s, which came under intense scrutiny by the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) from 1991-1994, following the end of the First Gulf War. While UNSCOM was successful in verifying the hostile nature of Iraq’s biological weapons program, the case study demonstrates just how difficult it can be to monitor and call out biological weapons development, under a weapons treaty regime calling for verification by outside parties.

The fundamental problem, Koblentz says, is the “multiuse nature of biotechnology.” As with biological weapons’ cousin, chemical weapons, the precursor biological and chemical agents have wide, legitimate, and indeed essential roles in modern society. In addition, he says, the overlap between offensive and defensive activities (i.e., prohibited offensive weaponization, but vital roles for the same agents to create biological defenses), the need for secrecy, and the lack of “signatures” for offensive biological weapons programs,” creates formidable difficulties for accurately verifying the nature of a biotechnology program.

The conditions required for UNSCOM to achieve success in Iraq in the 1990s, when technology was far more primitive, “cast serious doubt on the ability of an international organization to achieve similar results in the context of a multilateral biological verification treaty” with many state parties, rather than intense focus on a single party, Iraq. In short, the restrictions required for similar successes across many state signatories to multilateral treaty verification regime are simply too severe and the level of scrutiny too high to be workable, Koblentz suggests – at least on the core metric of success of a verification regime, at any rate: an acceptably high level of certainty. This conclusion, from someone as expert as Koblentz, should be taken as sobering.


Living Weapons’ second case, the highly secretive Soviet Union biological weapons program that existed in the 1980s and 1990s (and earlier), illustrates the many issues secrecy creates, or exacerbates, with respect to civilian political control of military (or state security services) biological weapons programs. Invoking principal-agent theory, Koblentz observes that in the Soviet program, secrecy produced large information asymmetries as between the nominal principals (civilian political officials) and their nominal agents (military officials and program managers). As standard economic accounts of agent-principal failure would predict, nominal subordinates, such as military officials or biological weapon program managers, exploited their superior information position relative to their civilian political superiors to act in their bureaucratic as well as personal self-interest. The actions of these subordinates, unsurprisingly, often run counter to the interests of superiors or civilian overseers.

This information asymmetry would exist in some measure if only on account of the gap in technical expertise between non-expert civilian superiors and technically expert subordinate agents. But it is heightened in the area of biological weapons, as the Soviet programs illustrate, by the “wall of secrecy” that Living Weapons persuasively describes, because it protected programs and their managers from real scrutiny by outsiders. Of course, secrecy has these effects in many national security endeavors. But, whereas the fundamental stability of the Cold War’s bilateral nuclear standoff depended greatly on the one side credibly knowing of, and believing in, the other’s nuclear deterrent, biological weapons are often conceived as an offensive weapon in which ambiguity as to existence and capabilities have frequently been part of the equation. In that way, secrecy is not merely to preserve technological secrets; it becomes part of the strategy of ambiguity as such.

In the case of the Soviet programs, Koblentz says, both these aspects of secrecy leveraged the ability of the military and managers of these programs to maintain and exploit the essential information asymmetry. The oversight and accountability structures within the Soviet and post-Soviet state found it difficult to carry out fundamental political policies, including decisions to shut down programs – a policy, after all, with potentially negative effects on the agents both institutionally and personally. The general lesson of this case study, according to Koblentz, is that while biological weapons programs operate under extreme secrecy and compartmentalization for “legal, normative, and strategic reasons,” the high degree of autonomy inevitably conferred obstructs civilian oversight and distorts decision-making. Additionally, the lack of oversight increases the risk of such programs, or remnants of the programs, becoming the “source of expertise, materials, or weapons for terrorists or other states.”


Intelligence-gathering with respect to other states' (possible) programs encounters much the same problems as verification of a state's possession of biological weapons. From Koblentz’s perspective, states often incorrectly assess other states’ biological weapons capabilities and intentions, in part because offensive biological weapons programs can easily be mistaken for, or claimed to be, defensive biological weapons programs – or vice-versa. The precursors have both civilian and military uses that can’t easily be disentangled. Further complicating matters, these programs are always hidden underneath a protective layer of secrecy. Insufficient information, ambiguity, and fear cloud states’ judgments and decision-making based upon their own intelligence, whether human intelligence or signals intelligence.

The final section of Living Weapons offers six policy prescriptions to counter the increasing threats biological weapons pose in the arena of international security. Koblentz does not go into much detail on his broad policy changes, and slots them into his concluding chapter almost as an afterthought. His broad policy proposals are: (1) strengthen defenses against natural and man-made diseases (2) increase the transparency of defensive and multiuse biological activities (3) improve intelligence and forensic capabilities (4) enhance cooperative nonproliferation programs (5) revitalize the Biological Weapons Convention (6) reinforce the norm against the development and use of these weapons. These all seem like decent proposals, but their brief exposition doesn’t really make the case for them in relation to the detailed presentation of the earlier chapters.

Those concerns aside, Living Weapons provides a comprehensive introduction to the complicated world of biological weapons and international security. It lays out the unique characteristics of biological weapons in a format easily digested by the non-expert, and it effectively deploys its two case studies to demonstrate how the two main dilemmas of biological weapons – their multi-use nature and the secrecy shrouding them – can cause trouble domestically and internationally.

(Matthew Sprinkel is a 2015 graduate of Rice University, where he studied international relations and biochemistry; he begins work in June 2015 for a medical device firm in Silicon Valley.)