Homeland Security

NBC Disasters: Prevention & Management
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Issue Vol 22.4 Oct-Dec2007 | Date : 19 Sep , 2012

Nuclear, Biological and Chemical weapons, fall in the category of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Each one of these is capable of causing major havoc, manifesting in unprecedented disaster.

Use of Biological and Chemical weapons is internationally governed by Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention of 1974 and the UN, Chemical Weapons Convention of 14 Jan 1993. India is a signatory to both these conventions and has declared that it does not possess any of these. Nevertheless, nuclear weapons are still being stock- piled by major nuclear powers of the world. However, it is strongly believed that nuclear weapons are weapons of deterrence rather that weapons of employment. The stated policy of India for example is “No first use”; however, it does retain the capability of a second strike.

It is estimated that to cause same number of casualties in a sq km, it may cost US$ 2000 with conventional weapons, US $ 800 with nuclear weapons, US$ 600 with nerve gas weapons and US$ 1 with biological weapons.

In our case, it is generally believed that:-

  • India’s recognised adversaries are unlikely to use chemical and biological weapons in a WMD mode due to technical difficulties involved in their delivery.
  • Biological & Chemical weapons are unsuited, as defending troops would most likely be protected, while attacking forces would need being immunized; hence the surprise element would be lost.Should the defending troops be dispersed in mountainous or desert terrain, the use of such weapons would not be cost effective. Theoretically, of course such attacks could be launched against discreet targets like naval bases, island territories or isolated military facilities.

On the other hand terrorists seem to be more willing to use NBC weapons and explosive devices against civilian targets with great lethality. Both the FBI and the CIA have publicly stated, recently that crude nuclear devices or biological or chemical agents could be the weapons of the future which terrorist groups around the globe could employ. Over the past few years there have been over 62 documented cases of nuclear smuggling world wide. The needle of suspicion points towards Pakistan, Libya, Iran, North Korea. Pakistan for example has been systematically violating with impunity all regulation relating to nuclear and missile proliferation. It poses a real danger of leakage or illegal transfer of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and related technologies to Al-Qaeda and other pan-Islamic terrorist organisations belonging to Osama bin Laden’s International Islamic Front (IIF) for jihad against the crusaders and the Jewish people.

NBC Terrorism and Challenges  

Terrorism may be defined as the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government or civilian population in furtherance of political or social objectives.

Terrorism has undergone, many ‘genetic changes’. In the earlier decades its agenda was mostly political, such as class equations, national liberation and urban or anarchic issues. Since 1990, religious motivation has captured the centre stage. This development introduces an abstract concept into the phenomenon. Terrorists of the new breed consider their acts sanctified by God and therefore, are not deterred by values of any society other than their own.

A bio terrorism strike will cause a nation-wide disaster.

Terrorist operate both at the strategic and tactical level. At the former level, his objective is publicity. Larger the number of victims, especially women, children and elderly, more is the publicity, and therefore, more is he pleased with his action. At the later level he operates to get a specific demand conceded, like release of compatriots, etc.

Nuclear  Terrorism. It constitutes the most spine-chilling scenario, because lakhs can die immediately and many more, including future generations, crippled or doomed to early death. Nuclear  Terrorism can take the shape of: exploding a device in a densely populated area, sabotaging a nuclear reactor from within, terrorist attack on a nuclear establishment and the use of nuclear substance with radiological material in a conventional bomb, i.e. “Dirty Bomb”.

The delivery systems for weaponised bio agents need not be sophisticated mechanisms,… bio-agent spores can be distributed to deadly effect, simply through letters, copy machines, air-conditioners and spread on railway tracks etc.

Bio Terrorism. In India it is no longer a myth, but a reality. It has no frontiers. The hinterland is equally vulnerable. Bio-terrorism is defined by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention as, “The intentional release of bacteria, viruses or toxins for the purpose of harming or killing civilians”. A bio terrorism strike will cause a nation-wide disaster. Biological warfare has obscure antecedents, which go far back in history. Poisoning of wells was frequently resorted to as a form of guerrilla warfare. In the 14th century, the forces besieging the Italian fortress in Crimea threw in the wells, the bodies of plague victims thereby forcing its abandonment. It is reported that in colonial days, European traders passed out the blankets of small pox victims to Red Indians is North America to reduce their fighting strength. There are also reports that limited biological warfare agents may have been tested by Japan during World War II. In recent times Bio-chemical arms are looked upon as “poor man’s” nuclear weapons. It is estimated that to cause same number of casualties in a sq km, it may cost US$ 2000 with conventional weapons, US $ 800 with nuclear weapons, US$ 600 with nerve gas weapons and US$ 1 with biological weapons. Biological agents are more efficient in terms of coverage per kilogram of payload then any other weapon system. Those who cannot afford to develop nuclear weapons opt for the technologically easier and economically cheaper option of producing bio-chemical weapons, because the future of bio-chemical weapons has come to be extricably linked to the nuclear weapons question.

Terrorism by means of weaponised bio agents such as anthrax is no longer theoretical. Anthrax spores can be milled to an unexpectedly fine degree, hundred times smaller than a human hair and size easily inhaled deep into the lungs. The delivery systems for weaponised bio agents need not be sophisticated mechanisms, such as crop dusters, explosive devices or missile warheads. Rather, it has now been shown that bio-agent spores can be distributed to deadly effect, simply through letters, copy machines, air-conditioners and spread on railway tracks etc.Under optimum conditions, infection may occur with exposure to only a few spores, instead of 8000 to 10000 spores originally estimated.

If this information is not chilling enough, there is now evidence that strains of bio agents bacterium can be effectively engineered to be resistant to some of the major antibiotics used to prevent infection after exposure including ciprofloxacin (Cipro). Experts believe that widespread release of potent anthrax spores would result in high mortality especially so in high human density areas in Indian environment.

Once disseminated, the NBC agents can remain in the air as vapours or aerosols or settle on surfaces. In each case a hazard can remain for hours to days or weeks if untreated, or for years in the case of some biological materials.

Terrorist organisations have shown a strong interest in the use of bio-weapons because these are inexpensive to produce, difficult to monitor and can produce illness and death in large numbers of people. Inhaling anthrax spores, the size of a pin head, would result in death rate of 95 percent. ‘BWs’ can be produced with minimal start up equipment and supplies and can easily be introduced into closed areas from aerosolized cans etc. About 15 to 25 countries are currently suspected of possessing bio-weapons. Five countries supporting terrorism may have bio-weapons, with something like 8500 litres of anthrax.

Chemical Agents. Are generally liquids that are disseminated as vapour or aerosols. They vary in persistence (ease of evaporation), have a onset time of a few seconds to hours and are designed to initiate, incapacitate, injure or kill. The chemical agents present an inhalation and dermal threat and are classified according to physiological effect.

NBC weapons can include nuclear weapons, radiological material and chemical and biological agents. The conventional wisdom is that a nuclear weapon will be very difficult for a terrorist group to obtain. However, radio-active material, chemical agents or biological agents are relatively easy to obtain, and thus pose greater threat. The availability and the impact of chemical and biological threat materials are both high and with potentially devastating impact.

Once disseminated, the NBC agents can remain in the air as vapours or aerosols or settle on surfaces. In each case a hazard can remain for hours to days or weeks if untreated, or for years in the case of some biological materials. This requires that facilities be monitored and decontaminated before being returned to service. Decontamination is a tedious, time consuming and resource intensive process, which requires that personnel doing the work be fully protected from the effects of the agent. Their psychological impact will extend far beyond their actual effect. The mere thought of imminent exposure to a chemical or bio-logical agent or radiation, causes a terror reaction in people. The picture of Israeli civilians boarded up in their houses, fearful of Iraqi chemical attacks during the Gulf War, is an example of the kind of fear these weapons can cause.

NBC agents can be obtained from many possible sources including home “breweries”, theft from laboratories, or commercial sources, or stolen from industrial sites. Rouge nations may supply agents as state sponsored acts. Research facilities have always provided a possible source of agents.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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Lt Gen Shankar Prasad

Lt Gen Shankar Prasad

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