Chemical Weapons: Are We Ready?

December 12, 2012

The "Arab Spring" has increased the probability of chemical or biological weapons finding their way into the hands of terrorist organizations. Are we ready for an unconventional war?

When one speaks about the threat of an attack with chemical or biological weapons, one should be aware of the protection and decontamination challenge. Furthermore, a clear distinction should be made between threats with strategic aspects, which could neutralize complete districts in Israel, and pin-point attacks against strategic installations, intended to damage the functional continuity of the IDF and Israel's critical infrastructure systems. Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Avigdor Klein, formerly the IDF Chief Armored Corps Officer (2001-2004), explains how to deal with the most horrible threat of all.

Chemical & Biological First
Contrary to the opinion that prevails among some of the decision makers, Klein claims that the threat of chemical or biological warfare weapons will be relevant at the outset of the war, rather than toward the end of it. "If someone wants to employ such a weapon, they do not do it for lack of other alternatives, as most people think. This is not the doomsday weapon. That is an outdated way of thinking that is no longer compatible with reality - and definitely not compatible with the character of our enemies.

"If someone understands that we have a strategic advantage and wants to neutralize it, they will do it at the outset of the campaign. Evidently, Syria has no moral qualms about the use of force, even against its own citizens. This means that if we engage in a confrontation with Syria, they will not wait for the moment of 'no choice'. Instead, the will employ these weapons at the outset of the war. Our strength relies on the airbases of the Israeli Air Force. Damaging the functional continuity of the IAF is the dream of every Arab strategist. The same applies to the Israeli Navy's shipyards. These are the areas they would like to neutralize at the beginning of the fighting."

A Terrorist Attack can be More Dangerous than a Missile
Klein explains that the focus on attacks by missiles carrying chemical or biological warheads notwithstanding, the threat of terrorism - the ability to release industrial chemicals and pollute the environment - is regarded as more dangerous than any military threat. "In the event of a terrorist attack where the national ammonia storage facilities are damaged, we are talking about the death of hundreds of thousands within a very short time. If the attack takes us by surprise, without warning, we are talking about less than one hour of dispersal time, and anyone who fails to acquire protection by immediately wearing gas masks will be in mortal danger.

"If you take the Haifa area, for example, the threat will apply to the entire northern region, including metropolitan Haifa, the Krayot and even further east, if the wind is westerly. No chemical event generated by a missile can reach such proportions. This threat is more dangerous and easier to accomplish, and the event would have extreme consequences as there will be nothing to decontaminate. The best solution, in such a case, will be provided by Mother Nature. No technology can restore the situation within a short time."

Klein points to another form of terrorist attack: contaminating the water supply sources. If this is done in a planned and methodical manner at multiple locations - it will also be more dangerous than a missile carrying a chemical warhead. "This threat can wipe out a whole municipality," explains Klein. "Dealing with the threat of water supply contamination involves continuous inspection and monitoring. I have the impression that this is not done often enough, and that the authorities rely on an intelligence alert instead. Possibly because this threat does not distinguish between population segments, the probability for it materializing is lower."

Klein says that terrorism also threatens strategic installations which could neutralize the entire country, if damaged by chemical or biological contamination. If an attack should be staged against the national energy production facilities using a biological agent - not using a missile or rocket, but by inflicting a permanent biological contamination - the entire country will be neutralized. "Some biological contaminants can never be decontaminated. You will never be able to use the facility again. Spores of such biological agents had found their way into the hands of terrorists in the past, and there were attempts to mail contaminated envelopes as well other incidents. Certain islands around the world, where experiments were performed with the use of such biological weapons, remain desolate and uninhabited to this day. No one can get close to them."

The Target: Civilians
"Contrary to the threat to strategic installations, intentional attacks against the civilian population, as an objective, are not highly probable. The threat primarily involves collateral damage as a result of the attacks against those strategic installations," says Klein. "If they wish to attack the Kirya compound, then obviously all the civilians around it will be hit. One should bear in mind that during a war, no decontamination activities will take place in areas that are not vital to the functional continuity of the state or the military, such as airbases, power stations or food manufacturing plants. The authorities will instruct the civilians to remain indoors and put on their gas masks."


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