Research Article: Biological Weapons and Strategic Deterrence

Biological weapons have become a key concern in the field of international safety and security. Over the last several decades, major events have occurred that prompted deeper bio weapon research. Gregory D. Koblentz, Deputy Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program and Assistant Professor of Government and Politics in the Department of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University, lists three factors that have changed the bioterrorism landscape: 1.) the Soviet and Iraqi bio warfare programs; 2.) the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S.; 3.) the anthrax letters that were distributed to various media and U.S. Senate offices the same year. These events have alerted experts to the potential bio weapons hold and their role in the international security landscape.

Susan B. Martin, Lecturer at the Department of War Studies and the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King's College London, argues that biological weapons aren’t ideal for the battlefield but could benefit states as strategic deterrents. “Despite the advances associated with developments in biotechnology, biological weapons are not well suited to counterforce use, because the utility of biological weapons against military forces is extremely limited. Biological weapons, like nuclear weapons, can serve as a strategic deterrent to protect the vital interests and core values of states” (Martin, 2002). She points out that biological weapons are easier to attain and less expensive than nuclear weapons, and she predicts a “biological revolution” comparable to the Cold War era.

Koblentz recognizes that biological weapons have devastating capacities and agrees they should not be underestimated. “For the United States, the contribution of these weapons to achieving other missions was not worth the price of a heightened risk of proliferation. It is a mistake to extrapolate from this decision, however, that biological weapons are, in the words of Thomas Schelling, ‘ridiculous weapons that nobody is interested in having even if the other side is foolish enough to procure them’” (Koblentz, 2003). Koblentz argues that although most states have a desirable level of security and satisfiable place in the international system, disgruntled groups/states could use bio weapons to support war-based agendas. “Deeply dissatisfied states that are willing to use violence to achieve their goals are likely to view biological weapons as a desirable force multiplier. Similarly, among terrorist groups, only a limited number have the kind of radical religious philosophy or apocalyptic worldview that could justify the use of these weapons” (Koblentz, 2003). Martin, on the other hand, examines how small states could pursue bio weapons to help protect their interests and preserve values; she doesn’t limit these states to negative agendas or motivations.

Although Koblentz acknowledges the impacts of bio weapons and various ways they can be used, he does not consider them suitable for strategic deterrence. He argues that “despite their potential lethality, biological weapons do not possess the characteristics necessary for an effective strategic deterrent. They may, however, serve as an in-kind deterrent or contribute to a state’s general deterrence posture. Nevertheless, the spread of biological warfare capabilities is not likely to exert a stabilizing influence on international peace and security, as Martin asserts” (Koblentz, 2003). Koblentz points out that biological weapons do not offer the assurance that nuclear weapons do, and he sees this as the main drawback in the strategic deterrence argument. He asserts that there are two key differences between nuclear weapons and biological weapons that challenges the basis of Martin’s argument. “Biological weapons differ from nuclear weapons in two important ways that raise doubts about the applicability of strategic deterrence theory to biological warfare: The level of uncertainty associated with the employment of these weapons; 2.) there are no effective defenses against the effects of a nuclear attack…there are countermeasures that can be taken prior to or following a biological attack” (Koblentz, 2003).

Overall, while both experts express the importance of biological weapon research and potential destruction, they disagree on whether or not bio weapons are suited for a strategic deterrent and pose arguments in each direction. Both experts can help policy makers better understand biological weapons and their growing presence within international relations.


Koblentz, Gregory. “Pathogens as Weapons: The International Security Implications of Biological Warfare.” International Security 28, 3. (Winter 2003/04: pgs. 84-122)

Martin, Susan. “The Role of Biological Weapons in International Politics: The Real Military Revolution.” Journal of Strategic Studies 25, 1. March 2002. (pgs. 63-98)

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