Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Supplementary memorandum by Graham S Pearson[45], Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, Bradford, West Yorkshire BD7 1DP


  1.  I have been engaged in addressing the public awareness of biological and chemical weapons for over 15 years—first for 11 years from 1984 to 1995 at the Director-General and Chief Executive of the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment at Porton Down and then as Visiting Professor of International Security in the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford. It is very evident that the general public have only a limited if any appreciation of what biological and chemical weapons are or of the danger they pose to security and public health.

  2.  Although the older members of the population have recollections of the use of chemcial weapons during World War I with images of blinded and bandaged soldiers, there is, fortunately, little modern imagery to bring chemical weapons to mind. Although the images of Hallabjah showed the horror of the use of chemical weapons in the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s, there was uncertainty at the time as to who had attacked the inhabitants of Hallabjah with chemical weapons and, additionally, the Hallabjah attack came in 1988 towards the end of six years of war in which chemical weapons were increasingly used with little attention being paid by the international community apart from regular exhortations by the Secretary-general of the United Nations to the two sides to desist. Even more recently, the attack in March 1995 on the Tokyo subway when the Aum Shinrikyo sect released the nerve agent sarin in a co-ordinated series of incidents was also somewhat distant, and partly because of the ineffectiveness of the Aum devices and agent, resulted in only a limited number of fatalities.

  3.  In respect of biological weapons, public awareness is even less. The only extensive use was by Japan against China during the early years of World War II and there are no lasting images from those attacks. Today, public awareness is limited to some public understanding that the UK had a biological weapons programme in World War II involving the Scottish island of Gruinard and to some concerns about possible genetic weapons of uncertain nature.


  4.  As Director-General and Chief Executive of the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment at Porton Down, I sought to demystify the then perceptions of the role of Porton Down and to make the British public aware of the vital role that Porton Down played in ensuring that the UK Armed Forces had the best possible protection against the dangers that chemical or biological weapons might be used against them. I therefore sought ways in which to improve the public awareness of these weapons and of the dangers that they presented.

  5.  I developed the concept of a specturm of CBW agents ranging from the classical chemical warfare agents such as mustard and nerve agents through bioregulators and toxins to genetically modified biological warfare agents and thus to the traditional biological warfare agents such as anthrax and plague.


  The goal of the chemical and biological defence programme was, consequently, to develop broad-band protective measures capable of protecting against a range of agents rather than agent-specific protective measures.

  6.  The dangers of chemical and biological agents could be demonstrated by two half-pound (250 gram) jars containing a chemical and a biological simulant respectively. The first, if it were a chemical agent, would contain enough agent to kill everyone in a major town such as Reading whilst the second, if it were a biological agent, would contain enough agent to infect every man, woman and child on earth. As intended, these jars attracted immediate attention. However, it is essential to emphasise an important caveat—in both cases, exactly the right amount of agent has to be delivered to the target individual and to nowhere else, a clearly unrealistic situation unless one imagined a scenario in which the precise quantity was administered by a hypodermic syringe to each individual. An alternative analogy is to recall that a sharp sword can kill a lot of people—but the sword has to be taken to each individual.

  7.  In practice, delivery of the precise quantity of chemical or biological agent to the target population is difficult to achieve and requires, furthermore, efficient dispersion of the agent into the atmosphere either as vapour or fine droplets in the 1 to 10µ diameter range in the case of chemical agents and as fine particles in the 1 to 10µ diameter range in the case of biological agents. For a single chemical attack, typically about a ton of agent is needed to attack the people within about a on kilometre by one kilometre area whilst for a biological attack a number of kilograms would be required and, because the quantity needed is much less, this could cause casualties in a rather larger area. It is consequently useful to combine the concept of the CBW spectrum with an indication of the associated downwind hazard distance over which unprotected people would be harmed.


  8.  The final element is to make the comparison between the casualties that might be caused by chemical, biological or nuclear weapons under comparable conditions. For such comparisons, it is assumed that effective and efficient dissemination of the chemical and biological agent is achieved. The first comparison was of the effects of a missile with a one ton warhead in an attack against a large city with an average population density of 30 per hectare:

Warhead Type

Conventional (1 tonne of high explosive)
Chemical (300kg sarin)
Biological (30 kg anthrax)
Nuclear (20 kilotons)

  Fetter, International Security, Vol 16, No 1, pp 5-42, Summer 1991.

  The second comparison, by the Office of Technology Assessment of the US Congress, compared attacks against Washington DC.



Weapon Type
Agent Quantity

1 ton sarin nerve gas*
3,000 to 8,000
100 kg anthrax spores*
1,000,000 to 3,000,000
1 Megaton H bomb
570,000 to 1,900,000

*  Delivery by aircraft as line source.
  US Office of Technology Assessment Proliferation of WMD, August 1993.

  9.  It is therefore apparent that biological weapons, if efficiently and effectively disseminated, can cause as many casualties as a nuclear weapon—and, for that reason, because biological weapons are much easier to acquire than nuclear weapons, they are rightly regarded as the poor man's nuclear weapon. Given the weakness of the prohibition regime for biological weapons, it is for that reason that it can be argued that today biological weapons present the greatest danger from weapons of mass destruction. Similar recognition of the particular danger from biological weapons is apparent from the NATO Ministerial communique in June 1997 which said that "We therefore welcomed the increased attention which Alliance defence planning is now paying to the capabilities and concepts needed to deter and if necessary, respond to, the use of NBC weapons, with particular emphasis on enhancing protection for deployed forces at or beyond NATO's periphery and improving protection against biological weapons". [Emphasis added] and from the UK Ministry of Defence in July 1999 in their report "Defending Against the Threat from Biological and Chemical Weapons" which said that "The potential threat from biological and chemical weapons is now greater than that from nuclear weapons."

  10.  As the term "biological weapons" is not well understood by non-specialists, I have increasingly used the term "deliberate disease" to enhance public comprehension. The past decade has seen greatly increased public awareness and concern about disease—AIDS, Ebola, BSE, CJD—and there is a real horror that someone might deliberately cause an outbreak of disease to cause harm. It is worth noting that President Clinton in his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September 1996 said that "we must better protect our people from those who would use disease as a weapon of war, by giving the Biological Weapons Convention the means to strengthen compliance, including on-site investigations when we believe such weapons have been used, or when suspicious outbreaks of disease occur".

  11.  There is a real need to maintain public awareness and understanding of the dangers from chemical and biological weapons and thereby underline the political importance of strengthening the regimes against such weapons and so ensuring that they are completely prohibited and eliminated.

  12.  Another important strand in respect of public awareness is to ensure that the scientific and technical professions—chemists, biologists, doctors, immunologists, virologists and scientists and engineers in general—are aware of the total prohibition of the use of chemicals, toxins or biological agents as weapons, as it is through the vigilance of these experts that the successive Review Conferences of the CWC and the BTWC will result in extended understanding that all developments are embraced in the treaty prohibitions.

  13.  After all, the States Parties to the BTWC have at successive Review Conferences stated, as in the agreed consensus Final Declaration of the Fourth Review Conference held in 1996, that:

    The Conference notes the importance of:

—  Inclusion in text books and in medical, scientific and military education programmes of information dealing with the prohibitions and provisions contained in the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the Geneva Protocol of 1925.

  As the United Kingdom is a co-Depositary of the BTWC, it would be reasonable to expect the UK to show a lead in implementing this element of the Final Declaration.


  14.  The Foreign Affairs Committee is recommended to:

    (a)  To urge that the Government should take steps to increase public awareness of the danger to safety and security from chemical and biological weapons and that anyone working on the acquisitions, development or use of such weapons is guilty of a criminal offence;

    (b)  To encourage the Government to mount an initiative to ensure that the scientific and technical professions—chemists, biologists, doctors, immunologists, virologists and scientists and engineers in general—are aware of the total prohibition of the use of chemicals, toxins or biological agents as weapons. Such awareness needs to be incorporated into the training of all future members of the scientific and technical professions.

45   Professor Graham S. Pearson is Visiting Professor of International Security in the Department of Peace Studies. He was previously Director-General and Chief Executive of the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment, Porton Down. He is author of the book "The UNSCOM Saga: Chemical and Biological Weapons Non-Proliferation" (Macmillan, 1999). He has also written some 20 Briefing Papers and co-authored over 10 Evaluation papers for the delegations participating in the Ad Hoc Group in Geneva. Back

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