Mysteries of the Soviet Biological Weapons Program

by Alex Wellerstein, published July 23rd, 2012

This is a nuclear-themed blog, but as you probably could guess, I’m pretty equal-opportunity when it comes to being interested in weapons of mass destruction. (Heck, I find conventional weapons pretty important, too!)

I had previously read a two interesting reviews — one by Steven Aftergood, another by David Hoffman — of Milton Leitenberg and Raymond A. Zilinskas‘ new book, The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History (Harvard University Press, 2012). My prior knowledge of this topic came from reading Hoffman’s book, The Dead Hand (which is a disturbing and fascinating read in and of itself, and well-deserving of its Pulitzer), and from an association I had with Matthew Meselson as a graduate student at Harvard, but the reviews hinted that there was a lot of new stuff here.

So I was pretty excited to snag an invitation to hear Milton Leitenberg speak at the Wilson Center, at a small talk last Friday afternoon, organized by my friend Kathleen M. Vogel. I was one of maybe four “academics” in the audience; the rest of the people there were affiliated with the intelligence community in one way or another — I didn’t ask for details, but it was not a classified talk (obviously, or they wouldn’t have let me in there).1 Below are some of the things that really grabbed me about Leitenberg’s talk, with a preface that I’m working from notes here, and biology isn’t really my strongest suite, so if I write something outlandish, blame me, not the book.2

Two generations of BW

Leitenberg and Zilinskas periodize the Soviet biological weapons program into two phases. The first generation was from 1928 through 1971, and used classical genetic selection techniques — Mendelian selection and its subsequent variations. The very early program was an outgrowth of a chemical weapons program, and made the USSR the only country in the world at the time (the first?) to have a devoted BW program. (France may have had one at the same time; Japan would start its own up soon after.) In 1939 the Soviet BW program was taken over by none other than Lavrenty Beria, the security chief/rapist/executioner who also later ran the Soviet atomic bomb project.

“Inside the biological weapons factory at Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan, where the Soviet Union was prepared to make tons of anthrax if the orders came from Moscow.” Via National Security Archive/Andrew Weber

The second generation program, from 1972 until 1993, is the really interesting one. This one used new molecular genetics techniques — genetic engineering. The goal was to produce better and different “bugs” — with a high priority placed on changing the surface properties of the bacteria and viruses, so that not only would pre-existing antibiotics and vaccines not work, but even the detection methods would be erroneous.

What makes this especially surprising is that the USSR wasn’t exactly known as a genetics powerhouse, a inevitable result of their long foray with Lysenkoism. Leitenberg says that the second generation program was pushed by the biologists, who saw it as the way to quickly reboot Soviet genetics post-Lysenko. A new, high-tech BW program was seen as a way to re-build Soviet biology after a generation of persecution.

Twelve “recipes”

As with most Soviet R&D, the strategy was first copy whatever the US was doing, and then move forward with their own lines of research. It’s not a bad strategy in a world where you do know there’s a country that is throwing gobs of money at a scientific program. It was a strategy made somewhat easier because of the relative openness of the US; when the US declassified and published designs for biological bomblets, the USSR copied them and used them for their own program.

The US E120 biological bomblet, which was apparently copied by the USSR after it was declassified.

I would just note that we often, in this literature, making “copying” seem like an easy thing, but it’s really not — a huge amount of work still goes into replicating a basic design. In any case, I’m always surprised that we Americans acted personally offended when the USSR copied US technology — as if it were a form of high-stakes academic plagiarism or piracy. Hey, they were just going after solutions that were known to work, and it’s a pretty high compliment, is it not? I don’t think we should take this sort of thing personally.

The Soviet BW program had five major subprograms: 

  • Bonfire, the main program, which succeed in making multi-antibiotic resistance for bacteria and modified antigenic structures for viruses (bad things)
  • Factor, which sought higher virulence out of existing agents, as well as higher stability and new outcomes — which are basic goals for any BW program, but again, were being done with molecular genetics methods for the most part
  • Hunter, which attempted to make hybrids of bacteria and viruses — apparently they were trying to come up with agents that were essentially bacterial, but if you used antibiotics to kill the bacteria, they would then release viruses into the system, which sounds like something from a movie
  • Chimera, which were working on “exotic viral genes” (i.e. making better Ebola)
  • Flute, which were trying to attack neuropeptide regulators, bioweapons meant for targeted assassinations

All together they produced twelve “recipes,” as they called them, which were “type-verified” and ready to produce. Some of these were mass produced to the tune of hundreds of tons. Leitenberg and Zilinskas were able to identify eleven of them, and they’re scary — anthrax, plague, tularemia, and Marburg virus, to name a few ones that even I recognized — but the identity of the last one is still a mystery to them.

Unclear motivations

The million dollar question, though, is why the Soviets were doing it in the first place. I mean, post-1972 they were violating their own commitments to the Biological Weapons Convention — a treaty with no verification methods, but still a treaty. They were also completely convinced that the US must be doing their own BW work and violating the treaty themselves. Why? Because it’s what they’d do. (A nice illustration of the errors of assuming the enemy thinks like you do.)

“The inside of a 20,000 liter fermentor at a plant in Kazakhstan.” Photo via Center for Cooperative Threat Reduction.

But also, apparently, they were egged on in this idea by a collaborative Army-FBI operation in the late 1960s that fed them disinformation. Apparently the Soviets witnessed a test of a biological agent  near Johnston Island, in the Pacific Ocean, sometime in the 1960s, and the Army-FBI operation decided that would really throw them off if they, through a double-agent, made them think that it was the test of a different biological agent, and added on to that — oddly enough — the line that the US was continuing a vigorous biological program. In the early 1970s, when SALT and the BWC were on the table, someone finally realized that this was a very bad idea, and they “cancelled” the disinformation effort. But how do you withdraw disinformation? Issue a statement that says, “sorry, that part of your intel was totally fabricated?” Who is going to believe that?

Even more strange, though, is that the USSR apparently didn’t have any strategic delivery mechanisms for the BW program. That is, they couldn’t actually target them on the US, according to Leitenberg and Zilinskas. They couldn’t fit them on ICBMs (they looked into it, but the program went nowhere), and the only planes that could disperse them were slow and wouldn’t last five seconds in NATO airspace. And apparently they weren’t thinking about using them on the Chinese, either.

So who was the BW program for? What was it for? Why have a secret BW program that you couldn’t use? Why keep a BW program through the 1980s and even early 1990s? Leitenberg isn’t really sure.

A few obvious possibilities stand out 1. maybe they did have strategic delivery and L. and Z. are just wrong on that; 2. maybe they just thought they’d work that out later (in the same way that the US put off serious work on the nuclear waste issue for the future); 3. maybe they were planning to use them in a way we really aren’t considering (e.g. tactically, though Leitenberg says there weren’t any tactical munitions); 4. maybe it was just bureaucracy run amok, egged on by scientists and generals who were ever eager to keep the funding flowing. I’d like to believe number four, because it would be the most amusing to me, but that doesn’t really pass logical muster.

The program even persisted into Gorbachev’s time, and Gorby himself apparently lied his pants off to the United States on this point. During the Gorbachev era, apparently only four people in the higher echelons of the Soviet government knew the “full story” about the BW program. George H.W. Bush apparently didn’t push Mikhail on this point, even though he had intelligence which said, straight up, that Gorbachev was lying. Leitenberg describes this as a “terrible” thing to have done, to avoid that confrontation. (Leitenberg says that he thinks Gorbachev would have liked to mothball the BW program, but found his hands pretty full with everything else that happened during the USSR’s endgame.) The flagrant violation of the Biological Weapons Convention, though, created all sorts of diplomatic complications for the late USSR — even though the BWC lacked verification, and thus was easy to cheat, it did create huge headaches to be caught out in 20 year lie.

Lessons learned

The real take-aways, for me, were:

  • Treaties without verification are not worth the paper they are written on, but before violating one, keep in mind how much of a bind you’ll put your future, reforming leaders when they find out about it.
  • Disinformation that makes you out to be more scary than you are is a really bad idea.
  • Even though your country may not be weaponizing the coolest, newest scientific techniques (like genetic engineering), someone else might be. Be aware of that before proclaiming your field of research totally unnecessary for regulation.
  • Soviet WMD history seems like a super hard thing to do — a mixture of US intelligence reports, interviews with former participants who may or may not be interested in telling you the truth, and the occasional smuggled/given document which may or may not be true. In my experience, anyway, US WMD history is much more straightforward — there’s a real culture difference.

Anyway, it sounds like the Leitenberg and Zilinskas volume will bring a lot of enlightenment to our discussions of the Soviet biological weapons program, even while it raises deeper mysteries.

This post was updated later in the day to clarify a few points after a communication from Leitenberg.

  1. Note to future self: the dress code for summertime, lunchtime talks with intelligence community folks in DC is slacks, shirt, open collar, no tie, no jacket. I wore a tie and was conspicuously overdressed — a rare thing for unfashionable me! []
  2. None other than Raymond A. Zilinskas himself once got on me at a talk I gave when I conflated the terms “mutated” and “genetic engineered” — which was helpful, in a way, because I won’t make that error again! []

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12 Responses to “Mysteries of the Soviet Biological Weapons Program”

  1. John Blankenbaker says:

    What is Leitenberg and Zilinskas‘ take on Ken Alibek’s story? If I recall correctly one common reaction at the time his book was published was “Everyone knows Soviet biology was crippled by Lysenko and Stalin, so there is no way he’s telling the truth”.

    Of course he was advancing his own agenda as well, but it does seem like at least some element of truth was present.

    The notion that Soviet bureaucracy and paranoia allowed their military industrial complex be “hijacked” by biologists intent on catching up with the West is a fascinating one — and of course leads one to the question “Have similar things happened in the US?” (I’m looking at you Teller and Wood)

    • Leitenberg was asked this exact question during the talk. He said (more or less): “don’t believe press stories or books based on Alibek,” as “some of Alibek is right, some is not.” He says it requires a lot of careful sifting through to make sense of it. Big example: he thinks that Alibek’s story about the Soviets weaponizing BW on SS-18s is completely untrue: they did work on it, but the program never went anywhere and was eventually scrapped.

      Note: I don’t know anything about this stuff myself, and these are just my notes. I will say though that this jibes with my understanding of general methodological difficulties with Soviet defector accounts and “spy memoirs” — a huge amount of sensational disinformation mixed in with a lot of truth.

      As for a US “hijacking” parallel, the place where I’ve seen this argument made more or less explicitly is in the case of Cold War oceanography, where the oceanographic community quickly realized that they could get a lot of funding if they managed to make everything they were interested in look like it might have relevance for submarine warfare.

      • John Blankenbaker says:

        As I’m sure you’re aware, it recently came out that Ballard could only get support from the Navy for finding the wreck of the Titanic if he first surveyed the wreckage of the Thresher and the Scorpion. Maybe not a “hijacking”, but certainly a mutual back-scratching.

  2. Paul Guinnessy says:

    However, the reason there is no verification for the BWC and CWC is because its too easy to cheat. i.e. there is no technology available to do that sort of certification work. Of course, that could be an incentive to do R&D to come up with something, but that’s more or less what we pay the intelligence services for (find out stuff that you can’t easily verify).

    • I admit that I’m suspicious that we lack(ed) the technology to verify — obviously you can’t verify dual-use research programs, but we’re talking about production stockpiling of tons of anthrax, etc. That doesn’t fit under the mattress very easily.

      Interestingly, the “no verification” protocol has an interesting history in and of itself. The UK pushed for one, and it was originally part of the treaty draft. But the US and USSR axed it out of the final treaty. The UK representatives were apparently furious.

  3. Andy Leifer says:

    Hi Alex,
    I’d be interested in hearing more about the UK’s proposed plans for verification. Do you have any links on that?
    Great post.

  4. Steve Huntsman says:

    “» Disinformation that makes you out to be more scary than you are is a really bad idea.”

    …see Saddam Hussein, the bomber gap, etc.

  5. That the continuation of the BW project in seventies, eighties and even nineties was a result of military bureaucracy went amok was quite obvious to me immediately I read the question mark following “So who was the BW program for?”. And definitely before I read the list of options that followed. First of all, it is very difficult to kill project that is going for decades. And dangerous for people attempting to do so. It is much simpler – and safer – to let it go. Secondly, the privilege of policy making in the military in Soviet Union was restricted to very small circle of people. There were just few of them who led the scientific and technical military research. And they were fighting for power and so for resources for the fields their led. Sounds like a vicious circle. Right. But I think it was as simple as that. Air Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, responsible for Soviet ICB programme, could be a good example. General Jurij Tichonowicz Kalinin, though of much lower rank, was probably similar figure in the BW research. And finally, it is much safer to spent money without results than on purpose not to spend and so to risk lack of results when they are badly needed.
    Let me present myself as I show up here for the first time: I am astrophysicist turned magazine and book publisher. Among others, my company published Alibek and Handelman book “Biohazard” in Polish in 2000. It also publishes Polish translation of Scientific American (on a license basis).

  6. Michael Weber says:

    I have read chapter 10 of this book and would like to offer some information, and a comment or two. I believe that some of the information received for the book was incorrect and comments provided may not have come from a knowledgeable source when it comes to bio weapons.
    Though I know my way around a laboratory and understand microbiology and the various biological agents. I find that I am more interested in and familiar with the actual weapons systems or means of delivery. You can make all the agent you want, but if you can’t disseminate it effectively, you basically just have jars of agents setting on the shelf.
    The book states that the Soviet Gshch-304 was more than likely a copy of the US bio E 120 bomblet. Actually it is more of a copy of the US E-134 that became the M-143 bomblet. The M-143/E-134 were impact detonating bomblets (see document I last sent). The E-120 was a bio generator bomblet, in that when it impacted the ground it would shatter the outside covering right itself upward, then 3 or 4 seconds later a pyrotechnic charge would build up enough pressure to squeeze the agent blander spraying the agent up into the air. The E 120 was perhaps the most efficient biological bomblet designed until the Flettner Rotor, BLU-21, 22 and 28 were fielded.
    The E-130R2 of course was a nerve agent (GB) filled bomblet; it later became the fielded M-139 GB bomblet.
    In your description of the Soviet bomblet, you state it was designed to be propelled up into the air approx 3-5 meters, then function. However the design you show does not support that type of functioning. Most conventional bomblets that are designed to bound up then function normally have an additional carrier that contains the expelling charge. When the expelling charge functions it sends the fragmentation bomblet approx 3 to 6 meters then detonates. The only bomblet I am familiar with that “bounces” up after impact is the S. African 6.2 Kg APERS bomblet dropped from the CB470 cluster. Interesting, this cluster and bomblet were found in Iraq and some thought the bomblet could be modified to dispense chemical or biological agent.
    Your biological weapons expert stated that the design you showed him was the “most sophisticated that I have seen”. Evidently he has not examined many US biological bomblet or is aware of other Soviet bomblets that are light years ahead of this design. Most all US spherical biological bomblets had plastic outer coverings; agents were contained in a thin AL container or rubber type bladder. Some had cushioning features. The explosive charges were typically in the 50 to 80 grain size. Earlier bomblets had much larger charges.

    As for ICBM biological warheads, the Soviets had much the same problems as the U.S. did. Neither could fully overcome the extreme heat from re entry. The US dropped the idea a decade before Nixon’s order to do away with bio weapons. The size and complexities of the needed cooling units was too great, taking up valuable space for the biological delivery units. So much so the expensive ICBMs could not carry enough agent to be truly effective. However, as for missiles (and rockets) the US did load the Honest John, Sergeant, Matador, and Lance with biological bomblets. These were all considered theater weapons, being more tactical then strategic. The Soviets did the same with short to medium range missile such as the SCUD and the SS-21 to name a couple.
    Clearly Dr Alibek is an outstanding scientist, and I would not venture to challenge his science. But I must admit for some time now I have questioned his description of and types of Soviet biological weapons. I have read all I can find that he has published and attended 2 of his lectures. He always seems to be very vague on the subject, many times contradicting himself or making statements that just does not match up with the engineering of a weapon system, let alone a biological weapons system. He often described Soviet bio munitions as melon shaped, where in the beginning that was the way they were heading. However they later made a move to more football or oval shaped, then to what I would describe as a more conventional weapon style, copying their HE-Fragmentation bomblets. Same applies to their chemical munitions which share very very close similarities.

    Michael Weber, PhD
    SGM, USA (Ret)

  7. Gregory McKenna says:

    “and the only planes that could disperse them were slow and wouldn’t last five seconds in NATO airspace.”

    Um… would that still be true in the context of a global nuclear war though? I would imagine that both NATO air defenses in general and American air defenses in particular would have been heavily crippled by the barrage of ballistic missiles. While the remnants would be able to down the odd Soviet bomber, it seems the majority of the ~200 Soviet strategic bombers capable of striking the CONUS would be able to get through. In that case, doesn’t it mean the Soviets do have a viable means of strategic biological weapons delivery?