Hezbollah’s UAV Biological Weapon Capability: A Game Changer?

by Jill Bellamy van Aalst1 (June 2013)

Unmanned aerial vehicles have similar flight characteristics to cruise missiles, but are under active human guidance and thus are more flexible. They would be especially attractive for biological weapons delivery.2

Recent events in Syria and international concern over Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile, one of the largest in the world, has overshadowed a far more dangerous clandestine military weapons program. On July 24, 2012, Syria’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, announced that Syria would not use chemical or biological weapons it retains against its own civilians. This announcement unintentionally acknowledged both the chemical and biological weapons programs Syria has run for years. This announcement riveted both the intelligence community and non-proliferation advocates who have sought to cast doubt on Syrian biological weapons capabilities. Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles have long been monitored. Chemical weapons are relatively easy to understand and as a result, media attention has focused on Syrian chemical weapon stockpiles.

In the shadow of this biological weapons are less well understood. Syria’s biological weapons programs run out of the Syrian Scientific Research (SSRC) in Damascus have not been the focus of much media attention. That despite these weapons are far more dangerous and more likely to be deployed. Perhaps less clear is Syria’s close relationship and support of Hezbollah and Hezbollah’s arsenal of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The merging of Syria’s biological weapon program with Hezbollah and/or Iran’s UAV programs could create an international public health emergency more catastrophic than a natural outbreak.

In an article by Arie Egozie entitled “Israel F-16 downs another Hezbollah UAV,” Egozie notes:

An Israeli air force F-16 has shot down an unmanned air vehicle launched from Lebanon by Hezbollah militants. The threat was detected over the Mediterranean Sea on 25 April 2013 and was destroyed shortly after by an air-to-air missile. The encounter occurred at 13:30 local time, and an air force helicopter transporting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for an official visit to the north of the country landed as fighters scrambled. Israel's latest interception of a UAV is the fifth such action to have been performed by its air force in the past decade.

Ababil Iranian UAV launch ready

Iran is believed to have supplied Hezbollah with 12 Ababil UAVs.3 The Ababil carries an 88 pound conventional payload, with a range of approximately 150 miles. Given the unique characteristics of UAV’s it is conceivable that Hezbollah, under orders from Iran, and provided with advanced technology could deploy biological weapons utilizing this platform.

Historic Precedence

Concern over the use of UAV’s as a possible platform for deploying biological weapons is not new. According to a classified version of the October 2001 US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) Iraq was “working with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which allow for a more lethal means to deliver biological and, less likely, chemical warfare agents.”4 The NIE judged that the UAVs were “probably intended to deliver biological warfare agents.” Further, it declared that “Baghdad’s UAVs could threaten Iraq’s neighbours, US forces in the Persian Gulf and if brought into the United States, the US Homeland.5 The unique characteristics of biological weapons put immediate geographic targets at risk. Due to lengthy incubation periods, rDNA, synthetic biology, transmissibility, and virulence could place the global community as a whole at residual risk. Ironically, the casualty risk to Israel from a UAV mounted with BW may actually be rather negligible compared to the likely impact on the larger global community. This is especially acute with regard to regions with limited health care infrastructures and low or non-existent bio-defence capabilities.

Could Hezbollah Acquire a UAV BW Capability?

Biological and nuclear weapons fall into the highest level of WMD threat, because their effect, for a given low weight, is far greater than for chemical and radiological weapons.6 As a consequence, they were given a priority, comparable to that given nuclear weapons.7 Hezbollah has acquired almost every type of conventional weapon Iran has ever produced and works closely with Syria. As Hezbollah is considered by some to run their own laboratories in Lebanon, it is likely that Syria has already transferred weaponized biological agents to these labs.

To put the threat Hezbollah’s potential BW program poses and the possible use of their current UAV stockpile as a deployment platform into clearer focus, in 2005, France's Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin, at an Interpol bio-terrorism conference held in Lyon, emphasized that nowadays terrorists are highly likely to use weapons of mass destruction including biological weapons. Given Hezbollah’s possible laboratories, they could easily maintain an advanced BW capability. Hezbollah’s state sponsorship by both Syria and Iran vastly increase their ability to successfully deploy BW using UAV’s.

Why a Biological Weapon Payload Poses a Unique Risk

Weaponizing biological agents suitable for a UAV payload requires stabilization and field testing techniques which are available to nearly all national military defence laboratories such as those that exist today in Syria and Iran. Technical thresholds such as stabilization, field testing and dispersal are factors which determine not only kill ratios of a weaponized agent, but the success rate a terrorist group or organization is likely to achieve. Hezbollah’s BW capability should be considered as synonymous with that of Iran. In this sense it would be far more lethal, more likely to go global and produce pandemic disease. 

On the technical side, Hezbollah has been trained by Iran’s Quds forces in Sudan on BW. The type of BW is likely to be highly advanced, not a homemade version of anthrax collected from soil samples. Additionally, BW received from Syrian programs running at the SSRC in Damascus, is technically very sophisticated. Iran would have the capability to provide Hezbollah with technical mounting of UAV’s with BW. Moreover, in contrast to a conventional payload which may present issues of accuracy, a biological payload does not.

Technical Considerations regarding Hezbollah’s BW Mounted UAV’s

It is important to understand the advanced technical knowledge Iran and Syria possess both in terms of their BW Complex and mounting a UAV BW payload. A New Yorker article notes ‘the vast majority of drones in the United States will probably be used for agriculture. Drones can be used to more precisely spray crops, keep track of growth rates and hydration, and identify possible outbreaks of disease before they spoil a harvest.’8

Among advanced BW agents, stabilization and deployment are significant issues due to the sensitivity of biological agents to environmental factors, not only during storage but during application.9 Stabilization is problematic due to the susceptibility of organisms to inactivation of biochemical compounds in the environment. The loss of viability can result from exposure to high physical and chemical stress environments such as high surface area at air-water interfaces, (frothing), extreme temperatures or pressures, high salt concentrations, dilution, and or exposure to specific inactivating agents.10 Stabilization of the BW agent for mounting, requires initial concentration of the agent; freeze drying (lyophilisation particularly related to anthrax), spray drying, formulation into solids, liquid or gas solutions; and deep freezing.11 Exact technical methods of concentration include: vacuum filtration, ultrafiltration, precipitation, and centrifugation. Freeze drying is the preferred method for long-term storage of bacterial cultures because freeze-dried cultures can be easily rehydrated and cultured via conventional means.12 Global Security. Org. offers an interesting analysis and details further the technical threshold which Iran and Syria have overcome:

A toxin agent is most effective when prepared as a freeze-dried powder and encapsulated. Such encapsulation, however, is not necessary for weaponization. Infectious biological agents are generally stabilized and then spray dried.13

Under appropriate meteorological conditions and with an aerosol generator delivering 1-5 micron particle-size droplets, a single aircraft can disperse 100 kg of anthrax over a 300 km 2 area and theoretically cause 3 million deaths in a population density of 10,000 people per km2. The mean lethal inhalator dosage is 10 nanograms.

Hezbollah’s BW Scenarios for mass casualty bio-terrorism

It is unlikely Hezbollah or either of their state sponsors would choose b. anthracis (anthrax), to use in a drone attack on Israel. It is more likely they would consider highly pathogenic strains of transmissible Category A or B agents. It is also likely they have war-gamed each scenario utilizing UAV’s as the delivery platform. 

The use of a UAV would likely increase probability of consistent dissemination and stability of the agent.14

Aerosolization of biological agents using spray devices is the method of choice since the extreme physical conditions associated with explosive dissemination can completely inactivate the biological agent. (Aerosol dispersal allows for control of particle size and density to maximize protection from environmental degradation and uptake of the enclosed biological agents in the lungs of targeted populations.)15

Dissemination efficiency rates of aerosol delivery systems are in the range of 40-60 percent. Cruise missiles, aircraft carrying gravity bombs or spray attachments, and fixed-wing or rotor craft with attached sprayers are all vehicles for delivery of biological agents. The delivery of biological agents by explosive devices is much less efficient (~1-5 percent).16

The preferred approach is dispersion via the use of a pressurized gas in a submunition. Other preferred platforms from an efficiency standpoint include small rotary-wing vehicles, fixed-wing aircraft fitted with spray tanks, drones, bomblets, cruise missiles, and high-speed missiles with bomblet warheads.

The Syrian biological weapons program, run primarily out of the SSRC in Damascus, Cerin, Homs and Aleppo, are designed to be highly agile and compartmentalized. They utilize such technologies which are far superior to maintaining and continually upgrading a BW stockpile. For this reason, Syria, Iran and other nations who now run BW programs generally do not stockpile these weapons. The lack of a stockpile, even the lack of signatures on UAV mounted payloads, makes it far more difficult to identify, than during the Cold War Era.

Additionally, the weaponized agents Syria and Iran possess are sophisticated. Much of their expertise is gleaned from joint scientific research and development between Syria, Iran and North Korea. The technical obstacles faced by non-state sponsored terrorist organizations does not exist for Hezbollah or Hamas. Unfortunately, in most major transit hubs current detection technologies are not going to pick up what either Syria, Iran or others are working on today. Detection technology has not been able to keep pace with advances in the life sciences. Even multi-agent analysis is complicated by interferences between assays and the large number of BW probes.17 Moreover if a UAV BW payload was launched from Lebanon, detection in airports, train and bus stations would be a moot point. Drones, especially swarms loaded with BW, would have an increased chance of success particularly if some were targeted on unpopulated areas. It is worth noting that due to biological weapons’ unique characterises, a relatively light payload could produce exceptionally high kill ratios compared to a chemical warhead. It is the quality not the quantity that counts. Thus making small drones the ideal deployment platform for BW.

Should Hezbollah decide to arm their arsenal of Ababil UAV’s18 or other drones, with biological warfare agents and target Israel, perhaps using a swarm of UAV’s, the likely and unfortunate casualties will be populations in nations who do not possess a bio-defence infrastructure. These are states that do not have the economic means to stockpile vaccines and medical counter-measures, who do not have the laboratory capacity or the health care capacity to conduct mass casualty care. With several BW agents such as smallpox, incubation periods can be lengthy. Some incubation periods would be over three weeks, transmission could occur several kilometres downwind given good meteorological conditions. This means a drone could lay down BW in an unpopulated area. The BW payload, should the drone be destroyed, could go undetected until populations become symptomatic. Lengthy incubation periods mean silent transmission which would come in waves. As A-symptomatic civilians travel to other regions of Israel and internationally.  A war game, called Atlantic Storm, illustrates the existential risk to the global community from BW verses chemical or nuclear weapons.

Should Hezbollah use a highly transmissible and virulent pathogen, it is still the international community and not necessarily Israel, who will bear the brunt of mortality and economic costs. It is therefore the international community who must confront this increasing threat. Future drone technology trends will no doubt make them more tempting for use as BW platforms.  As drones get smaller, making detection more difficult, small amounts of BW which could produce high kill ratios, may well be the technology of future BW warfare.19

[1] The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Jerry Gordon, Senior Editor of The New English Review in preparation of this article.

[6] Carter, Ashton B. (October 4, 2004), "Overhauling Counter proliferation Intelligence: testimony to The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction (The "Robb-Silberman" Commission)"Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, John F. Kennedy Center, Harvard University

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Song, Linan, Soohyoun Ahn, and David R. Walt, " Detecting Biological Warfare Agents, Emerging Infectious Diseases" www.cdc.gov/eid • Vol. 11, No. 10, October 2005

Dr. Jill Bellamy van Aalst is CEO of Warfare Technology Analytics. She advises private business as well as government clients on biological warfare and bio-defense within the EU and NATO. In her capacity as CEO, she develops and runs biological and nuclear war-games for EU MoD and NATO states. She is an SME on the Syrian and Iranian biological weapon complex.  

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