Small-Scale Chemical and Biological Production: Current Threats and Future Trajectories

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This paper explores scientific and technical trends in small-scale chemical and biological weapons production, and provides key recommendations for policymakers and diplomats to address the problem.

Recent years have seen brazen public assassinations using poisons. The general emphasis in arms control and non-proliferation debates has rightly focused on the threat of chemical and biological materials as weapons of warfare. However, the threat of such materials being used in situations other than war, such as terrorist attacks and assassinations, is clear. Chemical and biological weapons do not come out of nowhere. They are designed, developed and produced for specific purposes.

This paper analyses two central questions and makes policy recommendations to address the overall problem. First, it assesses what resources are required for small-scale chemical and biological weapons (CBW) production. The necessary inputs in terms of budget, facilities, labour, materials and other factors are small, meaning efforts can be easy to conceal.

Second, the paper considers scientific and technical trends, and their impact on potential small-scale CBW production efforts. There are a number of developments, such as microfluidics and automation, which make covert manufacturing of chemical and biological substances easier than in the past. Moreover, there are also a variety of specific technical advances, such as nano-encapsulation and improved dermal absorption of pharmaceuticals, that could make it easier to make or deliver chemical and biological materials as weapons. Developments in science and technology will simplify efforts by hostile actors to operate small-scale production of these materials for hostile use.

Given both the relatively modest size and scale of production efforts for small attacks and the trajectory of technical developments, no single policy prescription will successfully address the problem. This paper concludes with six recommendations for policymakers and diplomats:

  • Employ a coherent rubric to examine new technical developments.
  • Broaden and deepen existing non-proliferation and arms control efforts in the CBW area. This includes work to raise biological arms control to a standard of enforceability comparable to chemical arms control.
  • Fund and promote relevant law enforcement and security efforts.
  • Develop safeguards for decommissioned/replaced hardware and infrastructure.
  • Improve measurements and signatures intelligence capabilities.
  • Leverage open source intelligence efforts.


Dan Kaszeta

Associate Fellow

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