Chemical And Biological Warfare: Major Threat In The 21st Century?

Military exercises on emergency exercises in Russia. Editorial credit: Kovalenko Alexander /
Military exercises on emergency exercises in Russia. Editorial credit: Kovalenko Alexander /
  • Sarin is the most widely used chemical weapon, with its use being documented as recently as 2017 in Syria.
  • Many countries still have stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons, even though there is an international ban on their use.
  • The US has about 31,000 tons of chemical weapons.

The need to gain the upper hand in a conflict has been driving the arms race for as long as wars have existed. Resources that would otherwise have benefited essential facets of the society are diverted towards the creation of the ultimate weapon that will eliminate enemies once and for all. What humanity never seems to realize is that anything that harms another human has the potential to backfire on them with equal intensity. The kind of zeal displayed by heavily militarized nations on earth is what led to the creation of chemical and biological weapons, which have devastating results on the quality of life. The question of whether chemical and biological warfare are a threat in the current century has never been in doubt. Now, more than ever before, humans face the danger of a total wipeout if a full-scale war breaks out, and the adversaries choose to use these weapons. 

Chemical Warfare

Chemical warfare refers to the use of poisonous chemical substances as weapons. Chemical weapons, together with biological and nuclear weapons, are categorized as weapons of mass destruction. There has been a total of 70 chemical substances that have at one time been used as weapons. The first time a chemical weapon was deployed in the war was by Germany in 1924 when they released chlorine into the air. Since then, various forms of chemical agents have been refined into devastating killer weapons that have been responsible for untold pain over the years. Some of the most dangerous chemical weapons designed by humans include the following.

VX Nerve agent

The VX is a toxic synthetic compound that is categorized as a nerve agent that quickly shuts down vital body functions. As a result, victims die by asphyxiation within minutes of exposure depending on the amount of dosage. Developed in the UK in 1950, this lethal agent can remain potent on surfaces for days. It is widely believed that the VX agent was used in the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s. In 2017, Kim Jong Nam, who is the half-brother to the leader of North Korea, was assassinated using the VX chemical agent.


Sarin is the most common chemical weapon that has been used in recent conflicts around the world. It is a colorless and odorless liquid that kills within a minute of exposure to lethal doses. When absorbed in small quantities, it wrecks the neurological system rendering it permanently damaged. Discovered in 1938 by German scientists, Sarin has been used in attacks against Kurds in Iraq, where 5,000 civilians died after exposure. The most recent Sarin attack was used in Khan Shaykhun in Syria on April 4th, 2017 after an airstrike by the Syrian government, and more than 100 people died.

Mustard Gas

Mustard gas gained prominence in WWI, where it spread apocalyptic terror after Germany unleashed it in 1917. The gas instantly created blisters on the skin of the enemy forces, blinded others, and killed thousands. Mustard gas was developed in 1915 by Fritz Haber, a Nobel Peace prize winner. The most recent attack involving the gas was in 2016 when Islamic State militias launched a rocket filled with mustard gas at American troops in Iraq.


Phosgene is considered the most dangerous chemical weapon ever invented by mankind. It was first deployed by Germans in 1925 against the British, killing 120 people and severely affecting thousands. John Davy developed phosgene in 1812 by exposing a mixture of chlorine and carbon monoxide to sunlight.

Biological Warfare

Biological warfare involves the use of biological poisons and infectious organisms with the aim of incapacitating or killing humans, animals, or plants. Unlike nuclear and chemical weapons, biological weapons can be engineered to target a single entity without harming others. There are more than 1,200 biological agents potent enough to be utilized as weapons. The first time a conflict witnessed the use of a bioweapon was in the war by the British against American Indians, where smallpox was deployed against the natives. Biowarfare is not just limited to humans, and there are pathogens like fungi that have been engineered to attack plants with diseases. Plant diseases like rice blast, potato blight, eat smut, and cereal rust is evidence of bioweapons used on crops. Attacking crops leads to starvation, which in turn can alter the tide of the war for the ones with the upper hand. Unfortunately, biowarfare is gaining momentum as access to information grows because of the internet. The internet explains how terror groups that appear to be too small to mount any threat can get their hands on formulas that, in another age, would be highly classified and out of reach.

Most Common Biological Weapons

Anthrax has been the most used biological weapon in the last century. Caused by Bacillus anthracis, the disease attacks both humans and animals and is found in soils where they exist in the form of spores. These spores are hard to destroy and can stay dormant for almost 50 years. The botulinum toxin is another dangerous bioweapon agent that can be spread through the air, water, or food. A single gram of the toxin can kill a million people when inhaled. The Japanese used it against the Chinese in the occupation of the Manchurian region. Smallpox almost wiped out humans in the 20th century before vaccinations brought it under control. However, this did not stop humans from experimenting with it to create weapons. Russia is believed to house frozen weaponized smallpox within its borders. Tularemia as a weapon was used against the Germans by the Soviet army in Stalingrad during WWII.

Governments have since researched the tularensis bacterium in their bid to refine its potency as a weapon. The plague was first used on Chinese civilians in the Manchurian region, killing thousands. More research has been conducted with the most successful breakthrough being the creation of a new strain of Yersinia pestis by Russians. Yersinia pestis is resistant to conventional antibiotics. Other pathogens include the Ebola virus, which, fortunately, is hard to turn into a weapon of mass destruction as it requires too much time and resources to culture in large quantities. The Marburg virus has been weaponized before by Soviet-era scientists, although there is no known official record showing its deployment anywhere on earth.

Recent Cases of Biowarfare Attacks

Six terror suspects were nabbed in Manchester, England, for running a ricin laboratory in their apartment with the intention to cause harm. Ricin was also found in a mailroom that served the then US Senate majority leader, Bill Frists. Two people in Minnesota were caught with ricin in 1995 to use it against government officials. In 2001, about 22 people received letters stashed with anthrax powder through their mail addresses, five of them died of anthrax related complications. Three buildings had to be decontaminated, and the whole incident set back the federal government more than $1 billion. In 2014, a laptop belonging to a Tunisian chemistry graduate had a document that detailed the creation of the bubonic plague, with that kind of information in the hands of terrorists, it is only a matter of time before something terrible is unleashed.

Countries with the Largest Chemical and Biological Weapons Stockpiles

Despite signing numerous international treaties against chemical and biological weapons, many countries are still in possession of weapons or are actively developing them in secret as a defensive measure against future enemies. With over 190 members, the BWC has been unable to stamp out the development of these weapons of mass destruction. Only three nations have publicly declared their stockpiles of chemical weapons, and they are the United States, which claims it has 31,000 tons of chemical warfare agents, Russia has claimed to have 40,000 tons, and Iran arguing several hundred tons. Nations like China, Egypt, India, Cuba, and Albania are believed to be secretly developing bio and chemical weapons in protected facilities. There are about 16 countries across the world suspected of having biological weapons.

The Threat Still Exists

The fact that many countries are signatories to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and other international treaties, there is always a mistrust between countries. There is no way of affirming that countries are adhering to the commitments. The distrust is fueling and accelerating the development of even more lethal chemical and bioweapons. With nuclear weapons getting most of the attention, small groups of terrorists could take advantage of loopholes to acquire and stockpile these weapons, which they can use on innocent civilians. At this point, any hope of nations voluntarily destroying their weapons of mass destruction is impossible. This assertion is bolstered by the fact that every year the most militarized nations on earth keep increasing their military budgets. This begs the question, who is the enemy? America and Russia alone have enough weapons of mass destruction to annihilate all life on the planet, themselves included. The argument made for this standoff is that owning the weapons acts as a deterrent to any global-scale conflict. However, it is nothing but an excuse for the superpowers to maintain control of resources through the use of threats.


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