Biotechnology and Biological Warfare – its Applicability to Indian Armed Forces
Maj Gen (Retd.) P K Chakravorty
What is Biotechnology?

The technology which is based on biology is known as biotechnology which harnesses cellular and bio molecular processes to develop technologies and products that help improve our lives and the health of our planet. The biological process of microorganisms has been used for more than 6000 years to make useful food products such as bread and cheese as also to preserve dairy products. The term was originally used to explain the commercial use of living organisms. However with increase in information on Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and with the creation of recombinant DNA technology, all activities associated with gene manipulations orb genetic engineering have been included in the domains of biotechnology.

Biotechnology is being used to heal the world, to provide energy to the world and finally to feed the world. It heals the world by reducing the rates of infectious diseases. Further it changes the odds of serious life-threatening conditions affecting millions around the world. It creates more precise tools for disease detection and combating serious illness and every day threats confronting the developing world.

Biotechnology provides energy thereby fuelling the world by the following measures:-

  • Streamlining the steps in chemical manufacturing processes.
  • Lowering the temperature for cleaning clothes and potentially saving $ 4.1 billion annually.
  • Reducing usage of petro chemicals.
  • Use of bio fuels to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 52% or more.
  • Decreasing water usage and waste generation.
  • Tapping into the fuel potential of traditional biomass waste products.

The biotechnology is also essential to feed the world. It improves crop resistance, enhances crop herbicides and facilitates the use of more environmentally sustainable farming practices. Biotechnology is helping to feed the world by:-

  • Generating higher crop yields with fewer inputs.
  • Lowering volumes of agricultural chemicals required by crops.
  • Using biotech crops that need fewer applications of pesticide.
  • Developing crops with enhanced nutrition profiles that solve vitamin and nutrient deficiencies.
  • Producing foods free of allergens and toxins. Further improve the oil content of crops to improve cardiovascular diseases.

Currently there are more than 250 biotechnology health care products and vaccines available to patients most of them for treatment of previously untreatable diseases. More than 13 million farmers globally use agricultural biotechnology to increase yields, prevent damage from insects and pests as also help to preserve the environment. It is interesting to note that more than 50 beneficiaries are being built across North America to test and refine technologies to produce bio fuels and chemicals from renewable bio mass which can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.1

Apart from this, there are speculations about misuse of such a technology and genetically engineered material particularly to strengthen military programmes.2 It is reported that the technology could lead to disasters which could be more dangerous than nuclear accidents. The reason being genes can replicate, spread and recombine indefinitely. The cloning of Dolly the sheep was visualised as a step which would lead to human cloning. Initially the United States imposed a five year ban on human cloning, while the British at that time wanted cloning to be made illegal.3 Currently in the United States cloning is permitted for bio medical research however, many states have passed laws on human cloning and some of them forbid cloning of children. The United Kingdom permits cloning for producing stem cells but are very tightly controlled by the Government.

As genetic engineering can boost horizontal gene transfer which is to transfer genes to unrelated species, it may be used to create new pathogenic bacteria and anti-biotic resistance among pathogens. It is reported that such horizontal gene transfers re already occurring due to improper handling, storage and disposal of genetically engineered material. It has been alleged that previously unknown bacterial strains responsible for outbreak of Streptococcus epidemic and E.coli in Scotland were the result of genetic recombination subsequent to horizontal gene transfer.4 According to WHO reports there are at least 30 new diseases including AIDS, Ebola and Hepatitis C which have emerged over the last 30 years. Genes for antibiotic resistance are also believed to have spread horizontally. Such microbes are cause of concern because infections with these and other similar strains will not respond to known treatments and therefore accidental or intentional release of such genetically engineered organisms into the environment may be disastrous.

Relationship Biotechnology and Biological Warfare

Biological Warfare is the use of disease producing agents to harm or kill adversary’s military forces, population food and livestock. This could be delivered by conventional warhead, a human being or other civilian means. The pay load would be any living or nonliving virus, microorganism or a bio active substance. This would result in the initiation and spread of communicable diseases such as anthrax and plague or an epidemic. Further contamination of food with an herbicide, pesticide or a heavy metal results in food poisoning. There after intentional release of pathogenic organisms can kill crops and destroy buffer stocks of food thereby causing panic and consternation for the adversary. This is known as anti-crop warfare and could cause famine, malnutrition, decline of economic conditions and unsatiated hunger amongst the people. Defoliants in the Vietnam War were primarily used to target sweet potatoes, sugar beets, soya beans, cotton, wheat and rice. 5

The implications of bio technology in warfare have been recognised by several countries. Currently it is reported that 17 countries are suspected of having biological weapons programmes. These are Canada, China, Cuba, France, Russia, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Libya, North Korea, South Africa, Syria, the United Kingdom and the United States.6 The progress of bio technology has made biological warfare more effective. Currently, many countries visualise that biological weapons could be useful as a poor man’s weapon of mass destruction which possibly could deter attacks from stronger nations and the second issue is that it is a relatively cheap force multiplier that can possibly compensate for asymmetry in conventional arsenals. As the same biotechnological equipment is utilised by modern pharmaceutical programme or laboratories associated with state of the art hospitals and can be used to start and run a biological weapons programme. Accordingly identification of an offensive biological weapons programme would be extremely difficult. To illustrate manufacture of vaccines for human or veterinary use can conceal the production of large quantities of biological weapons.7 Bio technology has made the biological warfare programmes more complex, target oriented and ineffectual for verification procedures.

Offensive Evolution

Attempts to use biological weapons date back to 400 BC. The Scythian archers infected their arrows by dipping them in decomposing bodies or in blood mixed with manure. The Romans were to follow and use biological agents in wars. They used dead animals to foul enemy’s water supply to make soldiers sick by drinking the same. Similarly, the Tartars tried to infect the enemy by throwing bodies infected with plague over the walls of the city of Kaffa in the 14th century. In the First World War the Germans developed anthrax, glanders, cholera and a wheat fungus. They allegedly spread plague in St Petersburg and infected mules with glanders in Mesopotamia. They also attempted to do the same with the horses of the French Cavalry. The Geneva Protocol of 1925 was signed by 108 nations. This was the first multilateral agreement that extended prohibition of chemical agents to biological agents. It is unfortunate that the Geneva Protocol did not include any clause or method for verification of compliance.

During World War II, Japanese forces operated a secret biological warfare research facility (Unit 731) in Manchuria that carried out human experiments on prisoners. They exposed more than 3000 victims to plague, anthrax, syphillis and other agents in an attempt to examine the disease. Autopsies were also performed for greater understanding of the effects of the human body. In 1942, the United States formed the War Research Service which developed bio logical agents by June 1944 to counter the use by Germany. The British also made similar tests for a possible German offensive.

Post Second World War biological warfare was used in Vietnam sporadically by the United States from 1960 to 1968. The agent was to ensure limited spread of pneumonic plague and this is evident from a report by the World Health Organisation. It resulted in 2158 suspected cases and 107 deaths.8 It was further alleged that the erstwhile Soviet Union supplied biological weapons mainly Mycotoxins to Government forces, to kill dissident tribal people and enemy soldiers in Laos, Cambodia and Afghanistan.9 These were issued by the US State Department in 1982 in two major publications. It is reported that Laos had 6504 deaths, Cambodia 981 deaths and the casualties caused in Afghanistan are not known.10

Meanwhile, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention banned the entire category of Biological and Toxin Weapons on 10 April 1972. This was to be effective from 26b March 1975. It was ratified by 22 countries and signed by 109 countries.11 Currently, there are 183 countries have joined the Convention and pledged to disavow biological weapons. United States and India have ratified the treaty. Despite this it is easy to produce these weapons due to bio technology. The treaty lacks any significant provisions for enforcement or verification. This has enabled a number of signatories to the treaty have maintained active weapons programmes. 12

On September 18, 2001and for a few days thereafter, several letters were received by US Congressmen and media outlets. These contained anthrax spores resulting in 22 people falling sick out of those five died. Iraq was suspected of having a Biological Warfare programme in 2003 and Libya was persuaded to terminate its biological programme in 2003.

It is interesting to comprehend a few issues of the Corona Virus which has become a global pandemic. The present pandemic was preceded by the SARS epidemic which spread from China from the third week of January 2002. SARS was also a contagious disease but the issue was delayed and China informed the World Health Organisation (WHO) on February 07, 2002. Despite the delay the disease was contained and casualties minimised.13

Brahma Chellany in his article in the Times of India on April 19, 2020 calls China a repeat offender. The Communist Party of China (CPC) treated the Covid 19 outbreak in Wuhan in November 2019 as a political embarrassment rather than a public health emergency delaying the start of containment, tracing, testing and treating to January 23, 2020. Thereby, CPC made two mistakes. First, it turned a local outbreak into a global pandemic and second they have provided false data of their casualties. The latter has resulted in a lack of effective response to the pandemic.14 This could lead to serious misunderstanding. China also blocked a discussion of the pandemic in the UN Security Council. There has been a total lack of transparency resulting in the pandemic affecting the entire world. The impact is greater than the two World Wars and serious thought has to be given to developing intelligence on these issues to avoid further casualties.

French virologist and medicine Nobel laureate Luc Montagnier created a scientific firestorm across the world. He claimed that SARS-Cov-2, the virus that led to the global pandemic is manmade as it’s the result of an attempt to manufacture a vaccine against the AIDS virus in Wuhan National Biosafety laboratory. He made the statement while being interviewed on a French news channel. He jointly discovered the AIDS virus and bagged the 2008 Nobel award in medicine. He alleged that there was presence of elements of HIV and malaria in the genome of coronavirus. He said it was suspected and the virus could not have arisen naturally. His allegation has come at a time when the US has started a probe into this issue. It is pertinent to note that Montagnier is a controversial figure as he had published two controversial research studies. These are electromagnetic waves emitted by DNA and on the benefits of papaya in AIDS or Parkinson cure. These attracted criticism from a section of the scientific community.15 The US Government is carrying out a full investigation and there are questions to be answered by the Chinese despite their repeated denials. The US Government is asking the Chinese Communist Party to allow experts get in to the Wuhan Virology Lab. 16 China has responded where they have denied permission and stated they are a victim and not the culprit.17 The moot point is such disasters need to be correctly investigated to make the process failsafe.


Delivery means form an important aspect of biological weapons. There are basically five different types of biological agents:-

  • Bacteria.
  • Rickettsiae.
  • Viruses.
  • Fungi.
  • Toxins.
  • Case X genetically engineered virus.

These agents can delivered through two traditional methods. The first is through spray devices and the second is incorporation with the help of explosive devices. Spray devices entails the use of aerosolized biological agent. Explosive devices include the use of cluster bombs and missile warheads with submunitions. While explosive devices were convenient and weak, aerosoliztion devices were better for dissemination of biological agents. Dissemination rates of efficiency in aerosol systems were in the range of 40-60 percent whereas in case of explosive devices the efficiency rate was 1 to 5 percent. Heat generated by explosive devices during their jouney could partially deactivate the biological agent. An aerosol device was a typical bomblet designed for spreading a dried preparation of the agent. The device comprised of a small cylinder of compressed air arranged to direct an air current up through the powdered agent. The clouds that would be generated by aerosol systems would be between 0.5 microns to 10 microns in diameter. 18 Human beings can also be good delivery agents. Sprayers can be carried on a back pack. Attackers can stand at a distance, attack and then relocate at considerable distance. Attackers are likely to attack, move, reload and attack again and again. This would possibly be a possible way for terrorist attacks. However, the difficult path is weaponisation. Currently, the technologies for weaponisation have not been integrated. However, over a period of time it would be possible to master these skills. At the present juncture only a thin wall of terrorist ignorance and inexperience now protects people. However, there is a dangerous category of biological weapons which do not exist in nature. With spread of biotechnology and their diversity it is possible to generate this Case X weapons. It will be more difficult to predict and harder to defend against their use than against pathogens that exist in nature. Preparing for them will be extremely difficult and would involve proactive research.19

Applications to the Indian Armed Forces

The present pandemic of Coronavirus has impacted the Armed Forces of all countries of the world. Currently, the immediate focus is on defensive measures with an aim of keeping personnel fit. Overall the Indian Armed Forces have to deal with the surveillance, diagnosis, offensive and defensive measures. First of all, we must understand what India’s position with regard to this subject is. During an event organised by the DRDO in July 2018, the former Defence Minister late Manohar Parrikar said India must be well prepared to deal with chemical and biological warfare in the wake of changing threat perception and security reasons. As a matter of fact he said we should be prepared for any kind of warfare. It is interesting that the current Chief of Defence Staff (at that time the Chief of Army Staff) who was also present for the meeting echoed the Defence Minister’s concern and said that the Armed Forces must be prepared for all kinds of threat. During the event DRDO handed over Nuclear, Biological, Chemical Reconnaissance Vehicle and NBC drugs to the Indian Army.20

On March27, 2020, on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) coming into force, India underlined the need for international cooperation, including institutional strengthening of the World Health Organisation. The Covid-19 issue was discussed in detail and ahead of the ninth Review Conference of the Convention in 2021. India reiterated its call for putting in place a comprehensive and legally binding protocol having a non-discriminatory, verification mechanism to strengthen norms to deal with biological weapons.21

A few issues which need consideration as far as the Indian Armed Forces are concerned. These are as under:-

  • Biotechnology industry surpasses the aerospace industry.
  • India is at a nascent stage in the field of biotechnology.
  • Biotechnology should not be seen in isolation. A biological weapon can be used easily.
  • BTWC does not provide enough space to control existing developments in the field of bio technology.
  • Issues need to be discussed by India at the regional level.
  • Biotechnology is likely to be a lead technology in the current century.
  • India has to be cautious on Agro terrorism and pharmaceutical companies spreading a biological agent for earning high profits.
  • The biotechnological threat is increasing exponentially and there is a need to analyse the threat to get methods to solve the problem.22

Prior to getting on to the tasks for the Indian Armed Forces it is important to note the process of Bioengineering. Essentially it comprises of the following:-

  • Identification of genes and the protein products that result from them, to prevent or remedy diseases and develop new medicine.
  • Understandings of what proteins do and how they interact to reveal how structure determines functions.
  • Production of microorganisms, cells or animals with new enhanced capabilities to generate bio products, such as new proteins and plants with special characteristics.
  • Development of biological sciences that can be coupled with computers to control bioprocesses and monitor biological systems. (Including Humans).23

The Indian Armed Forces must have a fresh look at Biotechnology and undertake the following measures:-

  • Department of Military Affairs should have a special project which could be headed by a three star General and have a two star Medical officer to assist him.
  • The Project should comprise of three services, DRDO a representative from the ministry of Health a representative from the Ministry of Finance and Representative from the Ministry of Defence.
  • The Project must have the capability of knowing the latest viruses and also details of Case X genetically engineered viruses.
  • The Project must keep in touch with the laboratories to keep ahead of impending biological weapons and genetically engineered products.
  • The Project must also look at the possibility of India’s crop and livestock being harmed and provide a response mechanism for the same.
  • The Project could suggest innovative ideas on the subject like ducks eating locusts.
  • The Project must be given the same importance as Atomic Energy Commission and ISRO. The powers should be such that results are produced at all cost.
  • The Project could function as a Biological Warfare Commission.
  • They would create a Biological Warfare Doctrine as also measures to be undertaken to develop Offensive and Defensive Biological Warfare.
  • The Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Allied Sciences (INMAS) would actively cooperate with the project.
  • Issues would be emerging as the project formalises and navigates itself in the biological warfare world.

We would definitely improve once the project takes off. This will enable us to be proactive while dealing with Biological Warfare. It is pertinent to note that the intelligence community in the United States had warned about Coronavirus for the last five years. Further, they predicted with uncanny accuracy many of the medical supply shortages which are troubling the US Government today.24 Our Projects have done an excellent job and the suggested model would perfect itself with the passage of time.

  1. BIO” What is Biotechnology?”, , Accessed on April 13, 2020.
  2. I.H. Miller,” UN based biotechnology regulation: Scientific and Economic havoc for 21st century”, Trends in Biotechnology, 1999, pp 17 and 185-190.
  3. J R Ferguson, “Biological weapons and US law”, JAMA, 1997, pp, 278, 357-360.
  4. J A Poupard & Miller, “Biological Warfare in Encyclopedia of Microbiology”, edited by J Lederberg , London Academic Press, 1992. Pp.297-308, www,, Accessed on April 14, 2020.
  5. L A Cole, “ The Eleventh Plague-the politics of biological and chemical warfare”, W H Freeman and Co, New York, 1997, p.289;, Accessed on April 15, 2020.
  6. “The Biological Threat”,, December 30, 2015. Accessed on April 15, 2020.
  7. R M Atlas, “Biological weapons pose challenge for micro biological community”, ASM News 1998, pp64, and 383-388., Accessed on April 17, 2020.
  8. SIPRI, “The Rise of CB weapons today”, pp. 63-64. Accessed from Manohar Parrikar IDSA , Animesh Roul, State Actors and Gem Warfare, A historical Perspective, CBW Magazine,, Accessed on April 18, 2020.
  9. Sean Murphy, “No Fire No Thunder: The Threat of Chemical and Biological Weapons”, 1984, pp 49-50, Accessed from Manohar Parrikar IDSA , Animesh Roul, State Actors and Gem Warfare, A historical Perspective, CBW Magazine,, Accessed on April 18, 2020 .
  10. Ibid. p. 52
  11. “ Convention on the prohibition of the development, production and stock piling of Biological and Toxin Weapons and their destruction”, April 10, 1972., Accessed on April 18, 2020.
  12. Mark Schwartz,” Biological warfare an emerging threat to the 21st century”, Stanford News Service, News Release, January 2001,, Accessed on April 18, 2020.
  13. Huang Y, “The SARS Epidemic and its aftermath in China: A Political Perspective”, NCBI Bookshelf, 2004, Accessed on April 18, 2020.
  14. Brahma Chellany, “China’s opacity contributed to spiraling corona infections and deaths. Its geopolitical effects will be long lasting”, The Times of India, April 18, 2020.
  15. Surendra Singh, “Coronavirus man made in Wuhan Lab: Nobel Laureate”, Times of India. April 19, 2020, . Accessed on April 19, 2020.
  16. Charlie Lanyon, “ US wants to enter Wuhan Virology Laboratory”, South China Morning Post, Hongkong, April 18, 2020,, Accessed on April 19, 2020.
  17. Press Trust Of India,” Wuhan virology lab chief denies COVID-19, originated from the institute, says virus cannot be manmade”, Economic Times, April 21, 2020,
  18. Shodhganga,” Delivery of Biological Weapons”, Chapter three delivery methods and systems, Accessed on April 19, 2020.
  19. Stefan Riedel, “Biological Warfare and bioterrorism: a Historical Review”, Proceedings, Baylor University Medical Centre, 2004, Accessed on April 20, 2020.
  20. Press Trust of India,” India must be prepared for biological warfare: Manohar Parrikar”, The Economic Times, July 11, 2018, . Accessed on April 20, 2020.
  21. Press trust of India, “ Ensure strict compliance of treaty on banning biological weapons: India”, The Economic Times, March 27, 2020, . Accessed on April 20, 2020.
  22. Gunjan Singh,” Role of Biotechnology in Defence”, Fellows Seminar, IDSA, September 05, 2008, Accessed on April 20, 2020.
  23. The National Academies Press, “ Chapter-2 Biotechnology band The Army”, Opportunities in Biotechnology for Future Army Applications, 2001, Accessed on April 21, 2020.
  24. Ken Klippenstien, “Exclusive: The Military knew years ago that Coronavirus was Coming”, Accessed on April 21, 2020.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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