The Deadly Wind. An Alternative Platform for the Delivery of WMD

There were many reasons why terrorists were able to successfully attack the United States of America on September 11, 2001. But as the 911 Commission identified; the most important failure was one of imagination by US authorities.  There was an absence of creative thinking by intelligence, law enforcement and military agencies. The type of thinking that identifies all potential threat scenarios involving large scale terrorist attacks anywhere.  And while that might sound very critical of US agencies; I doubt any country in the western world at that time was focused on predicting the strategic thinking of al Qaeda.

The use by North Korean agents of sarin gas, a weapon of mass destruction, to kill the half-brother of North Korean President Kim Jong Un, raises international risk levels to a new high. Sarin gas is easy to produce.  For example, in 1993, the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo, a doomsday cult, developed and successfully tested sarin gas at a remote cattle station in Western Australia. On 20 March 1995, the sect released sarin gas into the Tokyo subway killing 12 people and injuring over 1,000.  That incident demonstrated the ease at which a terror group can develop a deadly weapon in a country’s backyard and use it.  Had the Aum Shinrikyo sect, combined the sarin gas with a better delivery system; they might have been more successful with their attack in Tokyo.  Development of or the use of poisonous gas by terrorists or by agents of rogue states, such as North Korea, in other countries such as the United States is not beyond possibility.    

One potential delivery system for weapons of mass destruction, particularly biological and chemical weapons are hot air balloons.   During World War 2, the Japanese were credited with developing the world’s first intercontinental missile threat.  In response to the US attack on Tokyo and other cities in Japan during what is known as the Doolittle Raids, the Japanese military and scientists identified that balloons could be launched from Japan and using Pacific wind currents, deliver bombs to the United States.   

US intelligence estimated that the Japanese launched over 9,000 balloon bombs during the war, of which only 290 were known to have successfully landed, including 73 in Canada.  Among the reasons for the poor success rate was the fragile construction of the balloons and the use of a weak anti-freeze solution that did not prevent their batteries from freezing. The balloons were made primarily of paper, but launched in the winter months when the jet stream is the strongest, they could travel at over 200 miles per hour at a height of between 20,000 to 40,000 feet.  The balloons could carry a thermite (incendiary) bombs and a high explosive anti-personnel bomb.

The balloon carrying bombs had two primary purposes:

1.     The incendiary devices they carried were designed to start fires in the vast North American forests; and

2.     Cause panic and casualties amongst the citizens of North America

Of real concern to US authorities at that time was the potential use of the balloons to disperse chemical or biological agents across the United States.  The Japanese were already experimenting in China with chemical weapons, but they were not deployed on the balloons. 

It is not beyond possibility that North Korea could already possess this simple means to deliver high explosive bombs, biological or chemical agents to the United States and its allies.  The recent assassination in Malaysia of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of the North Korean president, using sarin nerve agent suspected of being delivered by North Korean agents, confirms that the country has that weapon in its arsenal and is prepared to use it on foreign soil.

Balloon bombs if used by North Korea would have a number of tactical benefits to that country:

·       They are cheap and easy to acquire

·       Difficult to detect on radar and at night

·       Powered by the wind, they have a long endurance range and therefore the capacity to deliver weapons, particularly biological weapons over a wide area of a country as they travel

·       Can be launched from any location in North Korea or any ship particularly one positioned close to the United States

·       If they are bright and colourful they might not be seen as a potential threat by any person who observes them flying

·       Exponentially increases the number of systems available to deliver weapons of mass destruction.  The majority of balloons do not have to carry any weapons at all and merely act as decoys or dummies increasing the chances that the balloons actually carrying weapons make it to their intended targets.  If North Korea launched thousands of balloon bombs at North America in one massed attack; it would strain the resources of the US and Canadian military to track and destroy them all in time before some detonated or deployed their dangerous cargo.

And North America does not have to be and probably would not be the sole target of North Korea. Balloon bombs could be launched in a mass attack on Japan and South Korea, who would have less time to identify the threat and respond. 

In 2003, the Pong Su, a North Korean cargo ship delivered 125 kilograms of heroin onto a southern Australian beach, near the city of Melbourne.  It is not beyond the capability of the North Koreans to launch a balloon carrying a weapon from a boat sailing near the Australian coast or the remote coastline of any other country opposing it or allied to the United States.  An attack on any country including the United States could be part of a larger scale attack or counter-attack in response to US action involving multiple delivery systems. 

The potential use of balloons to deliver weapons does not have to be restricted to North Korea.  They are a potential delivery device of weapons of mass destruction by terrorists.  Balloons are easy to acquire in Western countries.  And many countries including the United States and Australia for example, have large numbers of commercial hot air balloon operators and host hot air balloon festivals in warmer months. In the United States, there are 15 hot air balloon festivals scheduled for April and May 2017 alone.   It would be easy for terrorists (or North Korean agents) to acquire a balloon or join a balloon flight either on a single flight or part of a large balloon flight festival and release biological agents or other weapons as they travelled.  Few, if any, people would suspect an attack was occurring and who was conducting it, until it was too late.

It is frightening to imagine, what might have happened if the Aum Shinrikyo Sect, having developed Sarin gas in remote Western Australia, had decided to test it in Perth or another Australian capital city, by flying over it and releasing the weapon from a balloon.  Thankfully, they tested it on sheep and killed hundreds with it.  Or delivered the weapon from a balloon flying above Tokyo, with the delivery mechanism and dangerous toxin carried only by the wind.

Al Qaeda’s capability to kill and destroy was underestimated which resulted in the death of thousands of people and billions of dollars being lost from the US and global economy.  It is imperative that the world remains vigilant and remembers the mistakes of the past by not suffering from a lack of imagination in identifying potential risks from terrorists and rogue states.


Chris Douglas, APM

Proprietor, Malkara Consulting

Perth, Western Australia

 19 April 2017



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