WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION
Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) have three major types: nuclear, biological, and chemical. Some people think that this range should be expanded to include Electromagnetic Pulse weapons (EMP), radioactive “dirty bombs” or recent developments like cyber-warfare, or sophisticated information operations. By any definition, all WMD are characterized by the potential to cause large numbers of casualties without distinction between combatants and civilians. The prospect of terrorists acquiring such weapons has renewed interest in them, and in defenses against WMD deployed by either states or terrorists.
Nuclear weapons cause the most general destruction because they can destroy structures as well as people. They were used twice in war, over Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945 and over Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945. These were relatively primitive, small “atom bombs” compared to modern “hydrogen” or thermonuclear bombs that can be 1000 times more powerful. Those two weapons destroyed both cities and about 200,000 citizens each when long-term radiation effects are included. Global warhead inventories peaked in 1986 at over 70,000 nuclear warheads, but they have since declined to about 15,000 held by nine countries, Russia, the USA, China, France, Great Britain, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.
Biological weapons have a longer history since medieval warriors sometimes threw plague infected corpses into besieged cities, and some American colonists shared smallpox infected blankets with local Indians with the goal of reducing their populations. The Soviet Union (and to a lesser degree the USA) developed “cocktails” of mixed smallpox and anthrax agents complete with delivery systems. The USA also used some biological weapons to attack Cuban agriculture during “Operation Mongoose” in the Cold War. This superpower rivalry frightened the world so much that comprehensive arms control legislation (both international and national) prohibited further development, production or stockpiling of biological weapons by nations in 1975.
Modern genetic engineering techniques raise even more fearsome possibilities of designer germs enabled to resist medicines and infect all people. Perhaps the worst nightmare of biological weapons is that they can reproduce themselves. Therefore, a disease organism that might infect everyone could, in theory, grow from the point of attack to damage the entire world. Despite such nightmare scenarios, biological weapons have actually killed less people in the last century than either nuclear or chemical weapons.
Chemical weapons became infamous during World War I, when mustard gas and other relatively primitive but deadly weapons were used by both sides during trench warfare in Europe. These gases were very efficient at killing or maiming large numbers of troops, but if the wind suddenly changed direction, clouds of deadly gas could turn back to kill the troops who deployed them. Indiscriminate deaths of civilians were also unintended but common effects. Germans in World War II also used chemical agents to kill some millions of Jews, Gypsies and other victims in concentration/extermination camps. This unpredictability, persistent lethality, and inability to stop the spread of effects on battlefields contributed to attempts to ban both chemical and biological weapons after World War II.
Despite the essentially total ban on chemical weapons in international law (Chemical Weapons Convention of April 29, 1997) and the presence of very sophisticated control institutions like the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) some modern “nerve agents” have been used in recent years to assassinate Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia (half-brother of North Korea’s leader, 2017) and in attempts to assassinate others by Russia.
Terrorist groups have expressed considerable interest in WMD. Therefore, better control of WMD before terrorists can build or buy any is a top priority for counter-terrorism today.
[Word count excluding “Further Readings” is 598]
Cirincione, Joseph, John B. Wolfsthal and Miriam Rajkumar, 2005. Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats. 2nd Edition. Washington, D.C.: The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Wright, Susan, 2002. Biological Warfare and Disarmament: New Problems/New Perspectives. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Osterholm, Michael T. and John Schwartz, 2000. Living Terrors: What America Needs to Know to Survive the Coming Bioterrorist Catastrophe. New York: Dell Publishing, Random House.
Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) at https://www.opcw.org/ maintains the most comprehensive collection of open source education resources in the world on chemical weapons. It is based in The Hague, The Netherlands.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, is a periodical founded by scientists who actually built the first nuclear weapons, and whose board includes many Nobel Laureates. Its website has great detail on global nuclear weapons inventories and issues, at http://thebulletin.org . Of special value is their “Nuclear Notebook” at http://thebulletin.org/nuclear-notebook-multimedia .
This is an encyclopedia entry on "Weapons of Mass Destruction." Therefore, it is quite short, <600 carefully edited words, but includes further readings on each of the three major categories of WMDs, nuclear, biological and chemical.
Andregg, Michael M..
Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy,
Content distributed via the University of Minnesota's Digital Conservancy may be subject to additional license and use restrictions applied by the depositor.