History of Bio-Warfare & Bio-Weapons
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The military use of living organisms to cause casualties to the enemy is as old as warfare itself. From biblical times, water holes have been poisoned, infected corpses fired across enemy lines and diseased prisoners returned to infect their colleagues. Bio-warfare is not a new phenomenon; in fact it is older than the written word and bio-weapons are almost as old as mankind. Throughout history, many powers during conflicts have strategically deployed bio-weapons.

This chapter is concerned with the history of military applications of biological weapons. It also takes stock of some diverse biological weapons and the weapon delivery platforms manufactured by major powers in the past.

From the Medieval Era

The ancient Greek god Apollo is best known as the god of beauty, light, and art and in later myths, of the sun. In addition to these spheres of influence, Apollo was also known as the god of giving and taking disease. In antiquity, and as described by Homer in the Iliad, to be struck by a plague was to be struck by one of Apollo’s arrows, quite possibly the earliest known bio-weapon.[1]

In the 14th and 15th centuries, little was known about how germs cause disease. But according to medieval medical lore, the stench of rotting bodies was known to transmit infections. So when corpses were used as ammunition, they were no doubt intended as biological weapons. Following are the most well documented cases from the history of that era:


Attackers hurled dead horses and other animals by catapult at the castle of Thun L’Eveque in Hainault, in what is now northern France. The defenders reported that “the stink and the air were so abominable… they could not long endure” and negotiated a truce.


As the Tartars launched a siege of Caffa, a port on the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea, they suffered an outbreak of plague. Before abandoning their attack, they sent the infected bodies of their comrades over the walls of the city. Fleeing residents carried the disease to Italy, furthering the second major epidemic of “Black Death” in Europe.


At Karlstein in Bohemia, attacking forces launched the decaying cadavers of men killed in battle over the castle walls. They also stockpiled animal manure in the hope of spreading illness. Yet the defence held fast, and the siege was abandoned after five months.[2]

In the 1767 French and Indian War in North America, the English used blankets contaminated with smallpox virus to spread the disease among the native population.[3]

In the spring of 1811, two Indians, a man and a woman, appeared at the Pacific Fur Company’s post at the mouth of the Columbia river. While the man, a Crow Indian named Qanqon, provided the inhabitants of the post with “much information respecting the interior of the country,” he quickly became an object of fear. Qanqon, as the post-inhabitants discovered, was not all that he appeared to be. To begin with, Qanqon was actually a woman who had adopted male dress and taken a wife. But for the inhabitants at the Pacific Fur Company, this was a minor concern – the real problem with Qanqon was that he claimed to be able to infect others with smallpox.[4]

During World War I, the Germans hoped to gain an advantage by infecting their enemies’ horses and livestock with anthrax.[5] In 1915, the Germans launched a small and very rudimentary bio-warfare programme. Under this programme, German agents infected animal shipments being sent to the Allies from five neutral countries: Romania, Spain, Norway, the United States and Argentina. The goal was to disrupt both food supplies as well as transportation networks, which relied on animals. Targeted livestock included sheep, cattle, horses, mules, and in Norway, reindeer. Animals were infected by having anthrax injected directly into their blood or by being fed sugar laced with anthrax. Obviously, the programme was only marginally effective – in a war which killed millions, the deaths of a few thousand animals meant little. Looking back at the war from the hindsight of the 1920s, the lesson must have seemed clear: bio-weapons were not a significant threat. Ironically, it was this belief that biological warfare posed no real threat that set the stage for the rise of this type of warfare. Because most nations felt that these weapons were ineffective (especially when compared with chemical weapons, which had left millions dead or disabled) there was little concern regarding biological warfare. In 1932, Leon Fox, a medical officer in the US Army, wrote, “bacterial warfare is one of the recent scare-heads that we are being served by the pseudo-scientists who contribute to the flaming pages of the… nation’s press… it is highly questionable if biologic agents are suited for warfare.”[6]

However, it was only after the discoveries of Koch, Pasteur and Lister on the microbial basis of infectious disease in the 191h century that biological weapons research really began. Despite the signing of the Geneva Protocol in 1925 banning offensive use of biological weapons, a number of European countries developed bio-weapons during the 1930s and 1940s. To date, the only fully documented modern use of biological weapons by a state has been in Japan’s attacks against China during World War II.[7]

Japan took the lead in development of bio-weapons during the early 1930s. The effort was directed by a single domineering figure, an Imperial Japanese Army officer and medical doctor named Shirou Ishii. Ishii returned from a European tour in 1932, bringing with him a conviction that BW was the way of the future.

Ironically, the fact that the Geneva Protocol had banned BW helped draw his attention to it, since the ban implied that people found such weapons unusually dangerous and frightening .

The Japanese invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria in 1932, a rid set it up as the Japanese puppet state of “Manchukuo”. In 1935, Ishii managed to convince his superiors of the potential usefulness of BW, and so they set him up in a hospital in Harbin, Manchuria, to conduct small-scale experiments with dangerous pathogens. By 1937, Ishii’s work had proved promising enough for the Japanese War Ministry to approve the construction of a full-scale BW research and development complex, at a small town named Pingfan, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) south of Harbin.

The Imperial Japanese Army had attacked China itself in that year. The Japanese were able to win almost every battle they fought, but they were completely outnumbered by the numerous Chinese. The Japanese turned to BW as a potential equaliser. It is also possible that they hoped to exterminate the Chinese in areas Japan intended to colonise.

The Pingfan Institute was completed in 1939. Ishii, now a General, was in charge of the research organisation, which was given the cover designation, “Water Purification Unit 731.” There was a certain scientific challenge in this effort. Unit 731 also worked on defensive measures, primarily the large-scale production of vaccines.

Unit 731 studied almost every major known pathogen for its utility as a BW agent or “bio-agent.” Some of the more significant included anthrax, plague, gas gangrene, tularemia, glanders, etc. Other pathogens investigated included typhus, typhoid, cholera, tetanus, smallpox, and tuberculosis, but these agents proved difficult to “weaponise.” The Japanese also experimented with exotic bio-toxins, such as blowfish poison. To determine the effectiveness of pathogens, Chinese prisoners were used. In most cases, the tests were very successful. Various platforms for weapon delivery were also tested. For this purpose, some Chinese prisoners were even tied to poles out in the open and forced to look into the sky as airplanes flew over and sprayed bacteria on them. The prisoners were carefully observed and their condition recorded with coloured drawings as they sickened and died. Others were tied to stakes or panels and arranged around fragmentation bombs containing Clostridium perfringens bacteria. The bombs were detonated, and the test subjects were studied as they developed gas gangrene from their wounds. When the test subjects died, their corpses were burned in a crematorium.

By 1940, Unit 731 had developed a ceramic anthrax bomb and manufactured 4,000 of them. They were also considering ways of delivering bubonic plague. Researchers at Pingfan bred plague-infested rats in quantity and then gathered the fleas from the rats. The fleas could then be distributed as a bio-agent vector, using tubular baskets strapped to the bomb pylons of the aircraft. In October 1940, a Japanese aircraft flew low over the city of Ningpo, which was still held by the Nationalist Chinese, and dispersed a spray containing plague-infested fleas. The results were appalling. Roughly 500 people died and the city was panic-stricken.

The researchers at Unit 731 went on to even more imaginative BW studies. They decided to use Chinese prisoners not merely to test pathogens, but to actually act as production incubators to breed them. The researchers believed that pathogens that managed to overcome the body’s defences were likely to be more virulent. The prisoners were injected with pathogens. When the victims reached their limit, the prisoners were chloroformed and all the blood was drained from their bodies. When the blood flow from a prisoner slowed down, a soldier would jump on the man’s chest to force out the last drops of blood.

The Japanese BW researchers not only investigated pathogens to attack people, they also studied chemical herbicides and pathogens to destroy crops. The most intensively studied plant pathogens were “fungal smuts” and “nematode worms” intended to attack Soviet and North American wheat fields. Smuts in particular, were potentially highly effective bioagents. The head of a wheat plant infected by wheat smut turns into a blackened mass of spores that are released into the air to infect other wheat plants downwind. The Japanese developed a production facility that could generate about 90 kilograms of smuts annually.

The Japanese example motivated Western nations to indulge in bio-weapon development programmes. In the immediate post-war period, at least three countries – Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States – continued large, ambitious programmes of bio-weapons development, building upon their wartime work.[8]

The British leadership was toying with the idea of bio-weapons since 1934. The prime mover was a Whitehall bureaucrat named Sir Maurice Hankey. However, the bio-weapon programme started taking shape post 1942 when Winston Churchill commenced taking active interest. In the summer of 1942, the British conducted their first large-scale

BW experiment on Gruinard Island, off the coast of Scotland. By this time they had mastered the skill of producing anthrax bombs and they subsequently conducted the tests by using a Vickers Wellington bomber.

By 1941, the Americans had also started considering the option of bio-weapons. Taking the help of British work on anthrax, the Americans designed a bomb by 1943 suitable for mass production. This munition weighed 1.8 kilograms (4 pounds). 106 of these “bomblets” were to be packed into a 225-kilogram (500 pound) cluster-bomb canister and dropped over enemy population centres. The Americans had also investigated anti-crop bio-agents, including “potato blights” and “wheat rusts”; “sclerotium rot”, which can attack soybeans, sugar beets, sweet potatoes, and cotton; and “blast diseases” to attack rice.

Very little authentic information about the Soviet BW programme during World War II is available. Ken Alibek (original name – Kanatjan Alibekov), a senior official of the Soviet “Biopreparat” BW organisation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, emigrated to the United States in 1992 and provided a history of the Soviet BW programme.

According to Alibek, the Soviet BW effort began in 1928; three years after the USSR signed the Geneva Protocols. The initial focus was to “weaponise” typhus; the prime testing ground was at Solovetsky Island, in the Arctic, north of Leningrad in the White Sea. When Hitler’s forces invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, they relocated BW facilities in the west to the east, in the Ural Mountains. The town of Kirov became the main BW facility after the move. The Soviets also found a new testing ground, at Rebirth Island in the Aral Sea.

During the summer of 1942, when the Germans were pushing through the USSR towards the Caucasus and Stalingrad, there was an outbreak of tularemia of unprecedented magnitude among both German and Soviet troops. Alibek felt certain that the outbreak had been a BW attack that had gone wrong, and “old-timers” in the Bio-preparat organisation told him stories that reinforced his suspicions.

There was also an outbreak of “Q fever” among German troops on leave in the Crimea in 1943. Alibek never investigated the matter in detail, but believed it might well have been a BW attack or test.

Germans themselves were not much interested in production and use of bio-weapons. The German disinterest in BW was partially due to the fact that Germany was situated in the middle of Europe, and the countries that would be logical targets for BW attacks were right on Germany’s borders. Since pathogens are poor respecters of borders, the Germans had strong reasons for not developing biological weapons.

However England, separated from potential enemies by the English Channel, was in a better position to conduct BW, and the Americans were in an even safer position, with their enemies being oceans away. Similarly, as an island nation, Japan had a degree of separation from China that made BW attractive to the Japanese.[9] In a way, Japanese scientists did much pioneering work in the areas of development of biological weapons and delivery platforms, however, with very little success.

As the Cold War intensified, American research into BW accelerated. In 1948, the US built a huge sealed spherical test chamber at Fort Dietrich, Maryland, to test the aerosol dispersal of pathogens. This test chamber was known as the “Eight Ball.” Initial American BW production in the post-war period focused on the plant pathogens investigated during the war: smuts, blights, blasts, rusts, and rots. At the same time, the American BW developers were not ignoring human pathogens. They were working on agents like anthrax, Q fever, VEE and toxins like botulism. On 25 November 1969, President Nixon formally announced that the US would abandon offensive BW The Eight Ball was shut down and hundreds of researchers taken off the programme. In hindsight, Nixon’s decision, though largely forgotten, was one of the most significant and positive actions of his administration.

However, more than the Americans it was the Soviets whose biological weapons programme was more researched, developed and reputed. The Soviets were actively interested in BW since the 1930s. Unlike chemical weapons, in which non-Soviet Warsaw Pact countries were involved, this was one area in which the USSR had a total monopoly on all research and development activities.[10] The Soviets found the information on BW captured from the Japanese much more useful than had the Americans. The Soviets used Japanese plans to build a new and sophisticated BW plant in Sverdlosk in 1946. In the mid-1950s, responsibility for BW research and development was transferred from the KGB to the Red Army, and the programme expanded dramatically. BW research facilities were built in cities to help conceal their purpose. Even the Ministry of Agriculture was brought into the task, setting up a branch to develop bio-agents to attack crops and livestock.

At its peak, the Soviet bio-weapons programme employed 60,000 people at more than a hundred facilities in eight different Soviet cities; it stockpiled thousands of anthrax, plague and smallpox bombs, and it had an annual budget of close to a billion dollars.[11] The most chilling aspect of this massive programme was not its dependence on traditional bio-weapons but rather its work on increasing the potency of existing biological agents. Using gene manipulation, the Soviets created both a highly lethal form of anthrax (against which vaccines were ineffective) as well as more potent smallpox germs.

After signing the BTWC in 1972, the Soviets did not abandon their offensive BW effort. The Soviets justified their secret BW effort, with the certainty that the Americans were also cheating on the BTWC. After Yeltsin became the first Russian President, he ordered the complete destruction of all existing bio-weapons and ordered the shutdown of BW research and manufacturing facilities. In 1992, Russia signed an agreement with the US and Britain to obtain cooperation in converting or dismantling the offensive BW apparatus.[12] Some concrete measures were taken, such as the dismantling of the Stepnogorsk plant using American funding, and many Russian researchers who had worked on the BW programme opened up and spoke freely to Western investigators. They felt guilty about their work, while simultaneously proud of their technical accomplishments.

Other than the superpowers like America and erstwhile USSR a few other countries like Iraq, Syria, China, etc were involved in the development of biological weapons programme even after 1972.

Biological Munitions

In the world today, officially, no so-called conventional biological weapons exist from the Cold War era. In all probability, in the near future, biological weapons will not be used in a conventional war between two nation states (barring a war between a state and a rogue state). It is predicted that the terrorists will use unconventional techniques to spread bio-threats (like using postal services to transmit anthrax infection). However, there are fears that a crude bomb may be used to spread the germs. Also if terrorists are able to duplicate the Cold War era technology, say with the help of Russian technicians, then they may use improvised versions of old weapons. Hence, it would be of interest to know the status of weapon development and delivery platforms in the past.

Pre Cold War era biological weapons mainly constituted of two categories viz. agent specific weapons and general type weapons. Agent specific weapons were manufactured to deliver a particular type of a germ on the proposed target. In case of a general type weapon, the nature of munitions and the delivery platforms remained the same irrespective of the germ agent. The following description covers the significant agent-disseminating devices that were developed into weapons. These devices are mainly bulk dissemination devices, probably manufactured from the point of view of fighting a conventional war.

Anthrax Weapons (Agent Specific Weapons)

Any biological munitions should be capable of converting a payload of bulk solid or liquid agent into dispersion of particles, droplets or vapour. Hence the nature and characteristics of the different germs put certain restrictions on the design parameters of that individual germ weapon. To appreciate the use of anthrax spores in manufacturing of a biological weapon, it is essential to understand the technical strengths and weaknesses of that virus from weapon manufacture and delivery point of view.

Till 1972 the US had the following anthrax weapons in its stockpile:–

  • Type & Designation of Weapon: Special Munitions E 2 

Agent: Bacillus anthracis, (this anthrax bacterium can be cultivated in ordinary nutrient medium under aerobic or anaerobic conditions)

Mechanism: Bursting

Remarks: 7.62 mm rifle shell with dry agent fill.

  • Type & Designation of Weapon: Disseminator, dry agent, E 41 R 2

Agent: Bacillus anthracis

Mechanism: Dispersion

Remarks. Small rectangular can using carbon dioxide propellant.

  • Type & Designation of Weapon: Spray tank, dry agent, E 41

Agent: Bacillus anthracis

Mechanism: Dispersion

Remarks: 75 to 140 kg payload for F-100, F-4C, A-4D aircraft.

The American defence industry had developed the following general category weapons. These weapons were also capable of using anthrax as an agent for the warhead:–

  • Type & Designation of Weapon: Warhead, guided missile M210

Agent: BW Agent

Mechanism: M-143 bomblets

Remarks: Entered inventory in mid ‘60s with 139 km range.

  • Type & Designation of Weapon: Spray tank, liquid agent, NB 45-1

Agent: BW agent

Mechanism: Spray

Remarks: Payload for F-4C aircraft.

  • Type & Designation of Weapon: Spray tank, liquid agent, NB Y-1

Agent: BW Agent

Mechanism: Spray

Remarks: An expendable munition about 85 cm in diameter and 400 cm long, for high-speed tactical aircraft.

  • Type & Designation of Weapon: Spray tank, dry agent, A/B 45 Y-2,
    A/B 45 Y-4, A/B 45 4-4

Agent: BW Agent

Mechanism: Dispenser

Remarks: Developed mainly for rice-blast spores and PG toxin agent. Payload designed for F-100, F-1 05 and F-4C aircraft.

  • Type & Designation of Weapon: Bomb cluster, 750-1b, E 108 R2, E61 R4; Bomblet, spherical M-143

Agent: BW Agent

Mechanism: Bursting

Remarks: These weapons were under development during 1960s. The M-143 bomblet was developed for the Sergeant warhead.[13]

Smallpox Weapons

As per Jonathan Tucker of the Monterey Institute of International Studies (The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox), “Smallpox biological weapons were intended for use against US cities in a war of total mutual annihilation, with the aim of killing the survivors in the aftermath of a nuclear exchange.” So serious was the Soviet planning for such a war, Tucker reports, that warheads on at least four Soviet ICBMs: the SS-11, SS-13, SS-17 and SS-18 were equipped with the special biological weapon warheads over a 20-year period. Many of the missiles “were based in silos near the Arctic Circle on a launch-ready status.” The cold temperatures in the far north kept the smallpox agent viable for long periods. Tucker says Soviet engineers later developed special refrigerated warheads for the more modern SS-18s “to enable the biological payload to survive the intense heat of re-entry through the atmosphere.”[14] Also the American satellite reports had indicated that some of the S-11 missiles had an oddly shaped warhead and were suspected to be biological weapons.

As per some reports after 1986, the USSR also placed Chinese cities on the target list. In fact, some officials claim to have seen Gorbachev’s signature on a Soviet Politburo document authorising the production of smallpox for the war against the United States as late as in February 1986. Tucker says the Soviet Union may have been responsible for distributing samples of the smallpox virus to other countries including Iraq and North Korea, following the World Health Organisation’s eradication of the disease in the late 1970s.[15]

Other Weapons

The modern history of biological weapons indicates that along with anthrax and smallpox, many other types of germ weapons were produced between the 1970s and the 1990s. During these two decades, the involvement of the erstwhile USSR in designing and manufacturing various types of bio-weapons was much more than that of many other countries. The Soviets and some others manufactured broadly the following ‘germ category weapons’. This weapon development included the use of the following materials:

  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
    Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis (VEE),
  • Toxins

The Soviets were also involved in the manufacture of Anti Agricultural Biological Weapons. Also their programme had made significant advances in gene engineering, creating new strains of viruses and bacteria for biological weapons.[16]

In fact, the Soviets had invested heavily in the bio-warfare programme after they had signed the BWC in 1970s. Ken Alibek, has published an inside view of the erstwhile USSR’s lethal germs weapons programme after he defected to the United States. According to him, many serious tests were conducted by the Soviets during the 1980s and early 1990s and a tremendous amount of importance was given to the bio-warfare programme and many important political and technological departments were involved in this activity. The tests were generally conducted on an isolated island in the Aral Sea. Various agents like anthrax or tularemia, Q fever, brucellosis, glanders, or plague were tested on monkeys. During the tests, generally small germ missiles were fired to produce a germ cloud some 25 metres above the ground. On the ground, around 100 monkeys were tethered to posts set in parallel rows. Scientists wearing biological protective suits used to observe the scene through binoculars, taking notes. Subsequently, the surviving monkeys were kept under continuous examination for the next several days until they died.[17]

The break-up of the Soviet Union resulted in the break-up of the Soviet bio-weapons programme. Today, the Soviet Union’s elaborate programme and related infrastructure, which harboured it, are in a state of decay. Soviet scientists are unemployed and stocks of bio-weapons are poorly guarded and poorly stored. In the late 1990s as the Clinton Administration became aware of these problems, the United States moved to secure the programme by providing money to salvage and convert these facilities as well as to discourage the sale of bio-weapon knowledge to rogue states. However, this programme has received irregular funding and the fate of the programme is still uncertain.

There are a number of potential buyers for bio-weapons. The US State Department lists six “rogue” nations, which possess bio-weapons, including Iran and North Korea.[18]

Click to buy

Even before the break-up of the USSR, Iraq had acquired and developed biological weapons – often with the complicity of American, Japanese and European commercial suppliers (during the 1980s, Iraq bought anthrax from the American Type Culture Collection, a non-profit company in Maryland, a purchase cleared by the Reagan Administration). During the 1990s, Iraq produced at least 8,000 litres of anthrax. In the summer of 1999, Congress released a report, which claimed that Iraq possessed smallpox. Although there have been several inspections of Iraqi weapons sites by the United Nations and although Iraq has occasionally confessed to stockpiling bio-weapons – and although these weapons have been destroyed – UN inspectors suspect that the Iraqis have managed to successfully hide most of their bio-weapons. Recently, an Iraqi defector told a New York Times reporter “money was no object in Iraq’s quest for weapons of mass destruction”, and clearly, the Iraqis possessed both the money and the desire to expand their bio-weapons programme.[19]

Looking back over this long history of bio-warfare, several things seem clear. First, biological warfare is and has been a component of many twentieth century nations’ arsenals. Second, although bioethics and politicians have routinely condemned the use of bio-weapons, moral condemnations of biological warfare – whether in the form of treaties or ostracism – have not prevented the development or use of bio-weapons. And third, bio-weapons programmes do not die even when a nation abandons them- we have only to remember that Japan’s programme was picked up and expanded upon by the US and USSR in the 1940s to recognise this.[20]

In assessing bio-warfare, particularly in the post 9/11 period, we need to be careful and avoid overstating the possible risks. During the last decade, the threat of bio-warfare has gradually changed to the threat of bio-terrorism. It is difficult to predict the exact nature of this threat. But it is essential to graft the history of bio-weapons onto the future of bio-terrorism to analyse it more rationally.



[2], many other docum-
ented cases till recent time could be accessed at http:// of_ Biological_ Terrorism.asp

[3]    www. biologic.html

[4]    http:/ /I biowar pies.pdf

[5]    http:/ / = 184839

[6] Leon Fox quoted in Ed Regis, The Biology of Doom: The History of America’s Secret Germ Warfare Project, New York: Henry Holt, 1999, p. 9.

[7] http://www. nf.html

[8] The inputs related to Japanese programme are mainly taken from http://www. and Html

[9] and

[10]   Hemsley John, The Soviet Biochemical Threat to NATO, The Macmillan Press, London, 1987, p. 23.

[11]   Judith Miller et al, Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2001, p. 167; DA Henderson, “The Looming Threat of Bio-terrorism,” Science, 1999 p. 1280.


[13]   For the entire discussion on anthrax weapons, refer: Lele Ajey, “Biological Weapons and the US”, Strategic Digest, IDSA, New Delhi, November 2001 pp. 1488-1494 and “CB Weapons Today” (Vol II) Table 1.5, SIPRI, London, 1973.

[14]   Tucker Jonathan, “The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox”, Atlantic Monthly Press, September 2001.

[15] n 12 and Robert Windrem, “Soviets Planned Smallpox Attack”,


[17]   Alibek Ken and Handelman Stephan, Biohazard, Dell Publishing Company. New York, May 2000.

[18]   DA Henderson, “Bio-terrorism as a Public Health Threat,” Emerging Infectious Diseases, Vol. 4, No. 3, July-September, 1998, p. 489. The six nations characterised as rogue states, which may have bio-weapons, includes Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.

[19]   Judith Miller, “An Iraqi Defector Tells of Work on at Least Twenty Hidden Weapons’ Sites,” The New York Times, December 20, 2001 and pies.Pdf

[20] biowar_pies.pdf

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