Published on May 4, 2012 by Bryan Cohen
The Japan Ministry of Defense has ordered 19 AbleSentry systems from the Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin to provide early warning and detection of potential nuclear, biological or chemical attacks.
The AbleSentry is a system designed for tactical battlefields that can be simply deployed, operated and maintained. It uses a detection algorithm and a network of remote sensors to detect threats and minimize the possibility of false alarms. The networking of the sensors prevents the possibility of a system-wide alarm being caused by one sensor.
“The system’s ability to provide information on where the threat is coming from and how fast it’s moving gives battlefield commanders the advanced warning they need to make the decisions necessary to keep their troops out of harm’s way,” Daniel Heller, the vice president of new ventures for Lockheed Martin’s Mission Systems & Sensors business, said.
The AbleSentry system is the next evolutionary step after the company’s Biological Aerosol Warning System and its Enhanced Biological Aerosol Warning System platforms. The new system adds radiological and chemical detection capabilities. Lockheed Martin has delivered 24 BAWS and EBAWS systems to Japan’s Ground Self Defense Forces since 2005.
The AbleSentry also monitors temperature, wind direction and speed, humidity and location data, and collects air samples for the identification and confirmation of biological agents.
Japan will use the devices for counter-terrorism efforts.
With spores mailed inside envelopes, the 2001 anthrax attacks marked the first bioterrorist attacks in the United States. The spores killed five people, four of whom were not the intended targets. After considering Al Qaeda, draining ponds in search of evidence, and pursuing the wrong person, the FBI traced the letters to a domestic source — a scientist working in biodefense. He was one of the FBI’s own advisors on anthrax.
Besides proving deadly, the 2001 anthrax incident caused considerable disruption. Mail was stopped in several cities, and it cost more than $1 billion to clean up the spores
. And all of this was caused by just one man. The prospect of a larger attack is beyond frightening. Terrorists can hide biological weapons in pharmaceutical production lines and breweries. The biggest eyes we have for surveillance, like spy satellites, can’t inspect those very well.
So where does the U.S. stand if it’s attacked again? In 2005, the presidential commission on intelligence released a report saying that while the United States was building a reasonable defense of vaccines and other measures on the ground, it was rather clueless on which countries had what biological agents
. In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security predicted that the United States would see another biological attack in the next five years
Chemical weapons have the same potential for killing thousands of people in a city attack — and unfortunately, a long history of doing so. Thankfully, much of the world has at least pledged to disarm itself of chemical weapons. Under the Chemical Weapons Conventions, states representing 98 percent of the world’s population and the same percentage of the chemical industry are supposed to be rid of chemical weapons by 2012
. But there are enough routes around the treaties. States like North Korea didn’t sign them. And signatories may have undeclared weapons. Before they are actually destroyed, weapons marked for disposal could also be stolen or sold. Still, as of December 2008, more than 40 percent of the world’s declared chemical stockpile, led by the stockpilers Russia and the United States, had been destroyed
[sources: Cohen, Chyba].
For all of these reasons, it’s good to know what threats exist. This article will explain how chemical and biological weapons really work, how they might be deployed and what the actual threats are.
Feared Chemical Agents
An effective chemical attack would use chemicals that are extremely toxic to people in small quantities. From least to most threatening, the most commonly feared agents are:
Sarin — Sarin is a nerve agent. Once inside your body, nerve agents affect the signaling mechanism that nerve cells use to communicate with one another. Sarin is a cholinesterase inhibitor — it gums up the cholinesterase enzyme, which your nerve cells use to clear themselves of acetylcholine. When a nerve cell needs to send a message to another nerve cell (for example, to cause a muscle to contract), it sends the message with the acetylcholine. Without cholinesterase to clear the acetylcholine, muscles start to contract uncontrollably — this eventually causes death by suffocation since the diaphragm is a muscle. It acts in five to 12 hours
. It is not particularly difficult to manufacture, and if you were trapped in a one-cubic-meter closet with 100 milligrams of sarin in the air, inhaling it would kill you in 1 minute
Cyclosarin — Cyclosarin is another nerve agent. It works in the same way as sarin, but it is more than twice as toxic. You’d only need to be in the cubic-meter closet with 35 milligrams of airborne cyclosarin to die in 1 minute
. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq made cyclosarin during the Gulf War
Soman — Soman is also like sarin, but it acts faster, in 40 seconds to 10 minutes
. It’s about as toxic as cyclosarin
. The Soviet Union stockpiled soman in the 1960s
VX — VX works in the same way as sarin, but it is a liquid, while sarin vaporizes. It is also ten times more toxic than sarin. Ten milligrams on the skin will kill a person
. A sticky version exists that adheres to whatever it falls on
. The United States made VX during the 1950s and 1960s
Novichoks — Novichoks are nerve agents. To make them, two ordinary chemicals are mixed to form a toxic product. As recently as 1990, at least three novichoks existed (novichok-5, novichok-#, and novichok-7), but whether large quantities exist today is unknown. All novichok agents are more toxic than VX. Some may be up to 10 times more toxic
. They may also work differently than the nerve agents listed here, possibly rendering existing antidotes ineffective. The Soviet Union began making novichoks in the 1980s
. In Russian, novichok means “newcomer.”
Not all feared chemical weapons attack the nerves. Blistering agents, like mustard gas, blister the skin, destroy lung tissue and can kill people. But they are less deadly than nerve agents.
One of the problems with these chemical agents is that there is no easy way to protect yourself. On the battlefield, soldiers wear gas masks and complete skin coverings when chemical or biological attack is deemed possible. If a city were to experience a large-scale VX attack, people would have to be wearing a waterproof and airtight suit and a gas mask at the time of the attack in order to be protected.
There are many ways to implement a biological attack, but these are some of the most feared agents, from least to most threatening:
Ebola virus — The virus takes about a week to kill the victim, and it spreads through direct contact. The Marburg virus is just as deadly.
Botulinum toxin — Clostridium botulinum bacteria produce the botulinum toxin, and this toxin is deadly to people in incredibly small quantities (as little as a billionth of a gram). The toxin inhibits the release of the chemicals in nerve cells that cause muscle contractions, so it causes paralysis.
Tularemia — Bacteria cause tularemia. The most deadly forms, which cause fever or respiratory illness, kill 5 to 7 percent of people, but vaccines are an effective prevention, and antibiotics can clear the infections
Pneumonic plague — Plague is caused by a bacterium. In pneumonic plague, bacteria infest the lungs, and a person dies in three to four days if not treated. Pneumonic plague is also contagious, spreading through coughing and sneezing. The most recent pandemic, which lasted until 1922, killed 10 million people. Eventually, public health measures drove the bacteria’s hosts, rodents and fleas, out of cities, and antibiotics became available
. But even today, antibiotics must be delivered fast to prevent death from pneumonic plague. Plague is a weapon. Japan may have released infected fleas in China during World War II, and the United States and Soviet Union found ways to aerosolize the bacteria during the Cold War
Anthrax — A bacterium causes anthrax. It has a spore form that is very durable. If the spores or bacteria get into your lungs, they reproduce and create a toxin that can be fatal. See “How Anthrax Works” for more information.
Smallpox — Smallpox is a virus. It was a major killer until it was controlled with vaccinations in the 20th century. It has been eradicated worldwide, but the fear is that terrorists could release new strains. The main problem with smallpox, unlike with anthrax, is that it is highly contagious. It spreads and kills very quickly. Up to 40 percent of people who catch the virus die from it in about two weeks, and there is no good treatment for the disease. Vaccinations are the main protection, but they must be given prior to infection in order to work.
It would also be possible to cause significant problems by targeting the food supply. For example, foot-and-mouth disease has been a huge problem in Europe. Spreading the disease to the United States would be relatively easy and very disruptive.
The Spread of Biological and Chemical Agents
The previous sections listed 11 of the most-feared chemical and biological agents. There are dozens of others that aren’t as well known, either because they are not as toxic or not as easy to spread.
There are three ways to spread a chemical or biological agent so that it would infect a large number of people:
Through the air
Through a municipal water supply
Through the food supply
The most-feared scenario is through the air. Here are the techniques most commonly discussed:
A bomb or a missile explodes, spreading the chemical or biological agent over a wide area.
A crop-duster or other aircraft sprays the agent over a city.
A car or truck drives through the city spraying a fine mist along city streets in crowded areas.
Small bombs or aerosol canisters are released in crowded areas like subways, sports arenas or convention centers.