Tinkering around the edges – A reply to the winter-safe deterrence debate

In the article below Dr Kai ilchmann provides his own perspectives on the the winter-safe deterrence debate, which is being hosted on The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists website, and which is introduced here.

“It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine – a gun – which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a large extent supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease [would] be greatly diminished”.

So thought Richard Gatling, the inventor of the modern machine gun. In the 1940s the head of the UK’s biological warfare effort Paul Fildes suggested “civilians caught in a bombardment of high explosives would undergo “considerable mental disturbance long before he is buried under a pile of rubble”. This would continue, along with physical distress, upon removal to hospital where: the suffering he has undergone is often terminated by bacterial septicaemia similar to that which has the same effect as BW without the distressing preliminaries.” The history of innovation in warfare is frequently accompanied with moral justifications claiming to make warfare safer and more humane.

Seth Baum’s suggestion to reduce nuclear stockpiles and replace the deterrent with (non-contagious) disease and toxin weapons to avoid nuclear winter takes a similar line by claiming that “it is the morally right thing to do”. To be clear his paper explores ways to avoid the possibility of nuclear winter by looking toward other weapon systems which might offer deterrence without global catastrophe. In an excellent response to the paper Brett Edwards points out that damage to the BWC and CWC were “just collateral damage in his attempt to address the issue of winter-safe deterrence”. Indeed, Baum addresses this directly: the “Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions must be considered among the greatest successes of the international community. Many people would probably rather not even consider rescinding these conventions…”

Baum’s proposal, outlined in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, has caused a stir and drawn a number of well-reasoned responses. For example, here, a round table discussion, or some exquisite outrage here. The responses deal with different aspects of potential damage to the norm against biological weapons contained in the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), and the editorial decision to publish a piece that advocates biological armament and destroying a 40 year old international ban.

Curiously Baum’s paper deals with chemical and biological weapons as deterrence substitutes – however, only damage to the BWC appears to have caused concern – despite explicit reference to ricin, a category I scheduled chemical under the CWC, and the fact Baum addressed biological and chemical weapons jointly.

Most responses deal with the deterrence potential of biological weapons, dismissing their potential on the past experiences of accidents and small scale attacks, and technical aspects of biological weapons. The effectiveness as a strategic weapon is debateable, but it would be remiss to discount the wide variety of uses available from this diverse weapons category. Biological weapon utilities include immediate effects as seen with toxin weapons, long term and strategic effects as contaminants and carcinogens, resistances to counter-measures such as antibiotics, degradation of resources and materials, and possibilities to attack food supplies by attacking agriculture with immediate and long term effects.

I could now at length explain how chemical and biological weapons are not just ideally suited to kill, maim, disable, and contaminate; and how their very nature of interfering with life processes avails the ability to disrupt and manipulate cognition, development, and inheritance. Biological and chemical weapons threaten uniquely the essence of what it means to be human. They are ideally suited not just for extinguishing life but also to subjugate and repress. Other authors have written at length about the potential of biological and chemical weapons, in a more cogent and persuasive manner than I can offer here. The point of writing here is that the concept of winter-safe deterrence is tinkering around the edges of nuclear disarmament by suggesting replacing it with something that is internationally agreed to be ‘repugnant to the conscience of mankind’. This proposal does not present progress, it is not advancing the disarmament agenda, it just side steps the problem by shifting, substituting, and replacing.

However, Baum’s articles raise an important point of debate: ethical and moral considerations in the legitimacy of these weapons. Edwards rightly encourages further discussion, although these ethical and moral issues cannot be resolved with a “scientifically sound risk-benefit analysis”. Moral judgements have to be made, ethical dilemmas addressed. These choices cannot be circumvented by reliance on simplistic, reductive, and allegedly science-based solutions. These choices need to be acknowledged and resolved in debate and negotiated in international fora, however slow and painful that maybe.

WMD disarmament is not a zero sum game, it is a moral imperative. One weapon system cannot be replaced with another because it is marginally less catastrophic by some metrics. New approaches and solutions need to be found to the nuclear disarmament stalemate and the vast number of nuclear weapons which threaten global catastrophe. Any impetus stimulating and moving this debate is welcome. However, this approach of winter-safe deterrence through substitution with chemical or biological weapons – contagious or not – has no merit. This proposal does not offer a way forward, it is a dead end figuratively as well as literally by suggesting replacing one very bad thing with another ever so slightly less bad thing.

Solutions to avoid catastrophic escalations of armed conflict and wide spread human rights abuses need to be found elsewhere. The solution cannot be found in the threat of indiscriminate mass annihilation and euphemistically referring to it as deterrence.
The international system might offer such a way. This system is currently tragically failing in places such as Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Nigeria and its neighbours, Central African Republic, and many other places around the world. This failure should not be taken to justify maintaining security assurances through deterrence. Nuclear deterrence has failed to deter such heinous situations – despite insistence that a nuclear capability is a necessary safe guard in an increasingly dangerous world. No, these failings should renew efforts to strengthen the international system, not weaken it!

Dr Kai ilchmann
Associate Professor
Institute of International Relations
Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio)


Cover Image Gatling gun.