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Reader riposte: More on the PSI

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12 August 2009 09:36

Emma Belcher is a Research Fellow at the Belfer Center, Harvard.

My dialogue with Dr Christian Enemark about the merits of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which started here, continues below. First, Dr Enermark's email, and below that, my reply:

Your point about the PSI being just one tool among many is well taken. On the issue of biological delivery systems, however, I take little comfort from the PSI. A Scud missile with a biological payload is a highly unlikely threat scenario for at least two reasons.

First, ballistic missile delivery would probably kill all or most of the pathogenic micro-organisms contained in a warhead, either upon impact or explosive dissemination or (if the missile is intercontinental) re-entry to the atmosphere. Second, and more importantly, missile delivery would be relatively conspicuous and thus alert the target population that an attack was taking place. In order to maximise the human damage from a biological attack, the micro-organisms need to be given time (uninterrupted by medical intervention) to incubate inside the body until the onset of illness.

A determined bioweaponeer is likely to eschew the clumsiness of a missile in favour of unconventional delivery methods (such as bacteria-laced envelopes without an accompanying warning letter) against which the PSI, again, can offer little or no protection.

I fully concur that the PSI is not 'a panacea for every aspect of WMD proliferation', but I am also keen to see that the benefits of this initiative with respect to biological weapons are not overstated.

Dr Enemark is right that a determined bioweaponeer is unlikely to use Scud missiles to deliver biological agents. His point that the PSI probably has less impact in the biological weapon arena is well taken. Indeed, most of the success stories claimed by the PSI are in the nuclear realm.

The difficulty of controlling biological agents underscores the need for reliable intelligence and effective intelligence-sharing mechanisms that instill confidence and allow for timely action in all WMD areas. Without such intelligence, the PSI and other nonproliferation efforts will be greatly hampered.

Practitioners have noted that the cooperation fostered through the PSI has led to progress in other WMD areas. Whether or not this cooperation will translate into work on biological weapons remains to be seen. However, the manner in which the PSI has strengthened these epistemic communities, and the benefit it could have in all WMD areas, is a welcome development.

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