The Surreptitious Importation Strike
In today’s post-cold war world, conventional warfare no longer occupies central stage. Enter SIS – the surreptitious importation strike (SIS). It’s a phrase coined in the mid-1980s by Charles Harrison, writing in the Mensa Bulletin.
Modern warfare no longer is just large armies facing one another across battle lines, fighting ships in ferocious sea battles, or even exchanging intercontinental ballistic missiles from opposite sides of the Earth. Since September 11, 2001, SIS has become terribly real and immediate. Terrorism has become the biggest threat to life, liberty, and happiness. Its ugly implications are overwhelming: The New York World Trade Center, the Pentagon, Anthrax attacks, the USS Cole, our Embassies around the world, and so on.
Special Atomic Demolition Munitions (SADMs) are so small that they can go anywhere a man can. In the hands of terrorists, Mafia thugs, enemy infiltrators, or even several disgruntled nuclear lab technicians, it is entirely possible to discover one day that major industrial and cultural centers throughout our country have been blanketed with these devices. They would be nearly impossible to locate, would remain potent for years, and can be activated by a simple coded radio command from almost anywhere.
Fortunatel, SADM-like devices are very difficult to build. Even with actual plans in hand, most organized groups would not be able to produce the final product. In fact, good evidence indicates that the Communist Chinese government held complete SADM plans for ten years without being able to construct a working model, despite their relatively sophisticated technology. We can, therefore, discount the chance that a terrorist group will be able to build its own SADM devices in the near future.
Realistically, anyone wanting SADM devices must resort to theft. Our defense against SADM attacks, therefore, is absolute control of SADMs in the first place.
We know the location of all our SADMs, and we keep them under strictest possible control, with essentially zero chance that one could fall into enemy hands. We believe the Soviets developed similar devices, but suspect theirs lack our sophisticated miniaturization. Because of the disruption following the demise of the Soviet Union, a terrorist organization might be able to obtain one of the Soviet portable nukes, but it appears unlikely that they could detonate the device-at least, not without outside expertise. The task is formidable, but not impossible.
Chemical and biological weapons, on the other hand, are obvious choices for terrorist strikes. A small group with limited resources has essentially zero chance of obtaining a SADM, but most such groups can set up and operate a modest nerve agent manufacturing facility. A nerve agent can be released in a subway, inside a large building or concert hall with devastating effects.
Chemical weapons fall into four general categories: Choking agents, blistering agents, blood agents, and organophosphate nerve agents.
Choking agents, which were extensively employed during World War I, are gasses like chlorine and phosgene. In today’s world, these agents really are no alternative to the nerve agents discussed below. In order to be effective, they can only be used in an enclosed space, and it takes a very large amount of the gas to be anything other than annoying.
Similarly, blistering agents, like mustard gas (which was a frequent World War I weapon), do not have a meaningful place in today’s world. The one exception would be a circumstance where a terrorist organization wanted to tie up as much of an area’s medical facilities as possible, but without any widespread lethal results. The consequences of a blister gas attack is painful and very disruptive, but not usually fatal.
Most blood agents are based on cyanide, and are toxic when blood levels reach lethal amounts. Since lethal cyanide blood levels are similar to lethal levels of phosgene, there really is little difference between blood agents and lethal choking gases. Both require enclosed spaces to be effective, and neither are as effective as nerve agents.
Organophosphates originally were developed as insecticides. In the early part of the twentieth century there was even limited production and use of early versions of what are now called nerve agents-before their lethal effect on animals was fully understood. Currently, four substances occupy the nerve agent platform. Their ease of manufacture, their volatility, and their lethality all affect which of these are more suited to terrorist activities.
VX nerve agent is very lethal. Six to ten milligrams of this substance absorbed through the skin or ten milligrams breathed into the lungs as an aerosol will kill. For reference, a grain of rice weighs about ten milligrams. VX is stable; it sticks to things as a slightly sticky, oily film. Its high toxicity and ability to remain on surfaces for a long time make this agent an excellent killing weapon. Fortunately, it is very difficult to manufacture, so VX is unlikely to appear as the next terrorist weapon of choice.
A Soman nerve agent dose is three to five times the size of a lethal VX dose. Soman is more volatile than VX, so it dissipates more quickly; but its main use still is to coat surfaces rather than as a gas. Furthermore, it is just as difficult to manufacture as VX, so given a choice between Soman and VX, a terrorist will probably choose VX.
Both Sarin and Tabun are considerably less lethal, requiring about fifteen times the breathing dose and 200 times the skin dose of VX to be lethal. Sarin is very volatile so that it is most effective as a gas. This makes it excellent for use in enclosed areas like a large building or a subway. Because of restricted access to intermediate substances required in its manufacture, however, it is difficult to make. Tabun, the oldest nerve agent, while more volatile than VX and Soman, is significantly less volatile than Sarin, and it is very easy to manufacture. It is probable, therefore, that most terrorist nerve gas SIS operations will use Tabun.
Following World War II, the Allies seized over twelve thousand tons of Tabun. Much of this was subsequently destroyed, but there may still be large quantities stashed in some forgotten warehouse. Given the worldwide presence of terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, it is distinctly possible that World War II vintage Tabun nerve agent forms a significant part of the arsenals of these organizations.
On a scale of cost for the number of civilian casualties accomplished, nothing holds a candle to biological agents. Conventional weapons will cost approximately $2,000 per square kilometer of civilian casualties for a large-scale operation against a civilian population. The same damage over the same area using nuclear weapons will cost less than half – $800. Using nerve agents reduces the cost to $600. But if you apply biological weapons, the cost is a paltry $1.
What is an effective biological agent? In the aftermath of the New York Trade Center attack, the United States experienced a series of anthrax incidents. As of this writing their source remains unknown. What is known, however, is that handling anthrax is not particularly difficult. It is not contagious, so to become infected requires direct contact with the spores.
Furthermore, most infections are of the skin variety, that-while annoying-are not fatal. Even the inhaled variety is completely reversible if it is treated right away, and Anthrax is responsive to a variety of antibiotics. Its singular advantage is that it is easy to manufacture. Anthrax, therefore, can be effective in tying up medical facilities and generating widespread panic and disruption, but it is not very effective as a lethal biological agent.
Smallpox is another frequently mentioned biological agent. Smallpox is deadly, very contagious in the pox stage, and the only real treatment is inoculation either before or within three or four days after infection. Fortunately, despite these facts, smallpox is not really an effective biological agent for two simple reasons. The first is that there are only two known supplies of the virus, in the United States and in Russia.
We know where both are located, where they are kept under maximum security. There is very little chance that any more exists.
The second reason is that the infectious phase of the illness is also the phase where the victim is seriously stressed by the virus. A patient flat on his or her back is unlikely to infect other people.
Botulism is the organism responsible for food poisoning. It certainly can be spread by infecting food across the country at supermarkets and in buffets, but even more than Anthrax, botulism is rarely deadly, and less likely to cause panic.
Ricin is a very toxic white powder extracted from castor beans. While it certainly is dangerous when ingested, it is not a very practical weapon. In London in 1978, the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markow was killed by injecting this poison into him from the tip of an umbrella while he was waiting for a bus. One-on-one Ricin is an effective weapon, but as a biological weapon of mass terror it is ineffective.
Bubonic Plague killed millions in past centuries. Its effectiveness, however, was in large measure the result of cleanliness and life style. It is very unlikely that plague would propagate very far in modern America.
Tularemia is similar to anthrax in nearly every aspect, including its symptoms and treatment. And like anthrax, while it can instill panic and disruption, it will not be very effective as a weapon.
Ebola hemorrhagic fever can kill in just a few hours. It is highly contagious. There is no known cure, and no prophylactic vaccination. In the hands of a very sophisticated enemy, ebola can be a highly effective biological weapon. The need for sophistication arises from the extreme difficulty in maintaining the viability of the ebola virus. It takes the infrastructure of a major biochemical laboratory to manufacture and transport viable ebola. This generally is beyond the capability of a terrorist organization.
There is one other way to infect a target nation with Ebola: Assemble a sufficiently large number of simians so that you can sustain a loss of six or seven creatures daily. Isolate a simian infected with ebola, keeping in mind that it will die within three to four hours. Before the infected animal dies, pass the infection to the next creature, and so on, while transporting the entire batch to the target country. With a bit of luck, you should be able to pass the infection directly into the population. Once the infection gains a foothold, only the most draconian measures will bring it to a halt. Considering the logistics for pulling something like this off, however, it is very unlikely that an unsophisticated terrorist organization will be able to use ebola hemorrhagic fever as an effective biological weapon.
That pretty much covers the field of potential SIS weapons. While any disease can potentially be used as a weapon, realistically, anthrax and tularemia can cause significant panic and disruption, but only ebola will cause any widespread casualties. Since ebola requires greater sophistication than normally available to typical terrorists, biological attacks do not pose a meaningful threat.
The Cold War is behind us. Nevertheless, we still need a strong military and weapons that deter, precisely in order to deter what might otherwise happen. The real threat today, however, is the surreptitious importation strike – SIS. We need to retain all our options, including nuclear weapons, to combat this threat. We must be prepared to defend ourselves against the nerve agents sarin and tabun, and our general population should be educated regarding the limited threat posed by anthrax and tularemia.
The bottom line is that a free nation of individuals willing to defend itself decisively will maintain a viable presence in the world long after terrorist opposition has been relegated to an historical footnote.
Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor