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Weapons of Mass Destruction

Weapons of Mass Destruction


The concept of Weapons of Mass Destruction appeared during War World II after the use of atomic bombs. In the mass consciousness, weapons of mass destruction are usually associated first with atomic weapons, although the concept includes certain chemical and biological weapons.

The atomic bomb was used only twice in World War II, in bombarding the Japanese cities of Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945) by the United States. The first bomb employed uranium-235 and produced an explosion equivalent in power to approximately 15 kilotons of TNT gunpowder. The second bomb employed plutonium and was equivalent in power to approximately 21 kilotons of TNT gunpowder.

On August 7, 1945 the General Staff of Japan received an alarming telegram from the Hiroshima region claiming that the city was completely destroyed by one bomb. Approximately 130 thousand people were killed because of the bombardments of both cities, and both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were completely destroyed. The number of injured also numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and the consequences of burns and radiation were apparent in bombardment victims for many years, often including the next generation.

The process of radioactive isotope (uranium-235 or plutonium-239) fission is the basis of the action of atomic weapons. A mammoth amount of energy is generated in this process. The dissipation of energy in an atomic bomb explosion occurs in the following approximate ratio: bomb blast and wind50%; thermal rays35%; and (radioactive) radiation15%. These are the three main striking factors of an atomic explosion.

An even more powerful weapon, the hydrogen fusion bomb, was created several years after the A-bomb, and was created practically simultaneously in USA and in the former Soviet Union. The power of the H-bomb is hundreds of times higher than the power of an A-bomb. The process of hydrogen isotope fusion is the basis of the thermonuclear weapon action. The start of this reaction, however, must be initiated by a nuclear fission explosion.

On November 1, 1952, a 10.4 megaton thermonuclear explosion code-named MIKE, ushered in the thermonuclear age (it was an explosion of a special model of the device). The island of Elugelab in the Eniwetok Atoll in Pacific was completely vaporized.

The first H-bomb was exploded in the USSR in August, 1953, followed on March, 1, 1954, by the American explosion of a more powerful hydrogen bomb (approximately 15 megatons). The Soviets responded with the most powerful H-bomb explosion yet, in the Soviet Union on October 15, 1961, over the Novaya Zemlya (New Earth) island (in the Polar Ocean) at a height of 4000 meters (approximately. 13,000 feet) over the Earth. Its power was almost 50 megatons. A gigantic fireball was created by the explosion that reached to the height of about 67 km (41.5 miles), and its light was seen for a distance of more then 1000 km (621 miles). The explosion also resulted in a blast of wind that was felt for hundreds of kilometers.

The creation of the atomic bomb in the USA during World War II was an exceptional scientific phenomenon. The interval between the discovery of the physical fusion process that is the basis of the weapon action, and the moment of its first test (July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert) was only several years, and up to the end of this test, its creators were not absolutely sure that the test would be successful. The United States committed an enormous amount of scientific and monetary resources towards the creation of the atom bomb, and a new branch of industry was formed.

In 1949, the A-bomb was also created in the USSR. Later, a big concern among American intelligence authorities arose about atomic espionage, which helped the Russians to create the A-bomb during such a short period. Several people who passed to the Russians secrets about atomic elaboration were revealed and arrested, including Claus Fuchs and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Although some thought that espionage was the crucial factor in the Russian's success, the main secret was whether the nuclear chain reaction of the A-bomb could be successfully created and controlled. As soon as the bomb exploded over Japan, this secret became clear. Additionally, in 1945, a noted report by American physicist H. D. Smith entitled "Atomic Energy for Military Purposes" was openly published, in which the principles of the bomb's action, the methods of isotope separation, and even some of the characteristics of its construction were described in detail. The post-war Soviet Union of 1945 still contained highly qualified scientists, and the totalitarian regime dedicated all possible resources to the high-priority project of atomic bomb development. Thus, the arms race of the 1960s and 1970s has its beginnings as far back as the early postWorld War II era.

Many chemical weapons are also considered weapons of mass destruction. Various lethal poisons were known and successfully used in warfare as long ago as ancient times. The creation of such substances for weaponry is much easier and cheaper than, for example, separating uranium isotopes as is necessary for a nuclear weapon. Chlorine gas, for example, one of the simplest poison gases, can be created in small amounts in a simple laboratory. The problem of delivering poison gases to a battlefield is also much simpler than delivering an atomic weapon.

During World War I, the Germans were the first to use poison gases on the modern battlefield. The Germans bombarded their enemies with artillery shells armed with poison gas, or simply ejected gas from their containers. The names of some poison compounds are reminiscent of World War I; for instance, the poison gas yperite (mustard gas) has in its origin the name of the Belgian city Yper, where the gas was used the first time. In 1915, the Germans also conducted massive attacks using chlorine. As a result of one chlorine gas attack, five thousand persons were killed and about ten thousand were injured. The Germans ejected chlorine from 5730 balloons containing about 168 tons of chlorine within the 5 to 8 minute duration of the attack.

Officially, the use of chemical weapons is forbidden by the Hague Conventions concluded in 1899 and 1907, and these resolutions were further clarified and strengthened by the Geneva Protocol of 1925. The first international disarmament treaty that banned the production and stockpiling of biological weapons, and provided for destruction of existing stores became open for signature in 1975. Almost 30 years later, the treaty is still the subject of regular debate and clarification and lacks wide spread ratification.

In the meantime, chemists of various governments have worked actively to create new chemical substances with various destructive factors. Additional chemical weapons have been derived from toxic industrial chemicals that were originally designated for useful purposes, such as pesticides. Chemical weapons can generally be divided among several groups, depending on their action on people, including vesicants, toxins, incapacitating agents, nerve agents, and irritants. The production of vesicants is not technologically complicated. The production of the nerve agents, however, requires significantly more sophisticated chemical processing. Some production processes require strict temperature control, and containment of the toxic substances and gases can pose problems. Depending on the immediacy of use, purity of the product can add a difficult dimension to production. In some cases, special equipment or handling is required to prevent corrosion of equipment and/or rapid deterioration of the product.

Chemical weapons were not used during World War II, although the main participants had large reserves of such weapons. Production of these weapons continued after World War II, and only recently the USA and Russia have stopped their production and agreed to begin to destroy existing stockpiles. Other nations and extremist groups have recently used chemical weapons. Iraq used chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war (probably a somewhat over-fluorinated DC, methylphosphonic dichloride) during the 1980s. Iraq additionally used Sarin gas on its own Kurdish population, killing thousands of citizens in the town of Halabja in 1988. Sarin gas was also the weapon used in an attack on the subway in Tokyo in 1995 by the Japanese extremist religious sect Aum Shinrikyo, in which 17 persons were killed and hundreds were injured.

Biological weapons are also capable of mass human destruction. The basic action of a biological weapon involves the use of pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria, viruses, fungi, or toxins produced by some bacteria. Biological weapons contain particular dangers because they can provoke perilous diseases in people and animals over large geographic areas, as the effectiveness of the weapon multiplies with the spreading of communicable disease. The destructive period can be lengthy with the use of a biological weapon, and it can have latent (incubation) period of action.

What makes biological weapons so dangerous are that the cost to produce such weapons is nominal as compared to the cost to make nuclear weapons. This is why biological weapons are often considered as the terrorist or poor nation's weapon of mass destruction. Also, the production of biological weapons can be easily hidden, as there are no special factories or highly specialized equipment needed for their production. Biological weapons can be deployed silently, through crude crop dusters, the mail, or even bug bombs, therefore allowing for the initial escape of their deployers. Unlike their counterparts (chemical and nuclear weaponry), biological weaponry products are living organisms and do not break down overtime, but in-fact can multiply and increase in numbers.

There is a long list of BW agents that could potentially be used in a war or a terrorist attack. Among those mentioned have been anthrax, cryptococcosis, Yersina pestis (plague, the Black Death of the 14th Century), tularemia (rabbit fever), malaria, cholera, typhoid, smallpox, cobra venom, and others. Some authors have also speculated about the possible terrorist use of new, genetically engineered agents designed to defeat conventional methods of treatment, or to attack specific peoples.

The idea of using biological agents in war is not new. In the 6th century b.c., Solon of Athens used the purgative herb hellebore (skunk cabbage) to poison the water supply during the siege of Krissa. In 1346, plague broke out in the Tartar army during its siege of Kaffa (at present day Feodosiys in the Crimea), after attackers hurled the corpses of those who died over the city walls. The plague epidemic that followed forced the defenders to surrender, and some infected people who left Kaffa may have started the Black Death pandemic that later spread throughout Europe. In 1797, Napoleon attempted to infect the inhabitants of the besieged city of Mantua with swamp fever during his Italian campaign. An attempted biological attack was undertaken in 1915 by the German-American physician Dr. Anton Dilger (in Baltimore) who attempted to infect a reported 3000 head of horses, mules, and cattle destined for the Allied forces in Europe. Nowadays, the specter of annihilation by killer pathogens or toxins has, in some sense, replaced the Cold War nightmare of extermination by massive nuclear attack.

Since 1972, the use of biological weapons is prohibited by the international treaty, as reflected in its formal title, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction. As of 2003, the agreement had 144 nation-state signatories.



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Anthrax, Terrorist Use as a Biological Weapon
Anthrax Vaccine
Anthrax Weaponization
Arms Control, United States Bureau
Biological Warfare
Biological Warfare, Advanced diagnostics
Biological Weapons, Genetic Identification
Bioterrorism, Protective Measures
Chemical Warfare
Manhattan Project
North Korean Nuclear Weapons Programs
Nuclear Detection Devices
Russian Nuclear Materials, Security Issues
USAMRIID (United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases
Vozrozhdeniye Island, Soviet and Russian Biochemical Facility
World War I
World War II

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Weapons of Mass Destruction

Weapons of Mass Destruction





Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have been used throughout history. While there are definitional ambiguities, all conceptions of WMD imply societally unacceptable levels or forms of destruction. Despite international efforts to curb their spread, concerns over WMD use have increased since the 1990s.


The term weapons of mass destruction was first used in a London Times article (December 28, 1937) in reference to the German aerial bombardment of Guernica, Spain, during the Spanish Civil War (19361939): Who can think without horror of what another widespread war would mean, waged as it would be with all the new weapons of mass destruction? (p. 9). While the Luftwaffe (the German air force) used only conventional weapons in the attack, subsequent definitions have emphasized weapons whose materials and effects violate a societal boundary of what is considered acceptable in wartime.

The United Nations Security Council Commission for Conventional Armaments (August 12, 1948) defined WMD as atomic explosive weapons, radioactive material weapons, lethal chemical and biological weapons, and any weapons developed in the future which have characteristics comparable in destructive effect to those of the atomic bomb or other weapons mentioned above. Since the Iraq War beginning in 2003, the United States has used the term to refer to chemical, biological, nuclear, and, increasingly, radiological (CBNR) weapons. This remains the most common use of the term, although sometimes it is defined more broadly to include any weapons, including conventional weapons, capable of inflicting mass casualties.


Chemical weapons include such agents as mustard, sarin, and VX nerve gases, as well as chlorine, hydrogen cyanide, and carbon monoxide. Most chemical weapons are designed to attack the nervous system. They were first used in modern times during World War I (19141918) when the French used tear gas during the first month of the war, and during the Second Battle of Ypres (1915) when Germany used chlorine gas in its attack against French and Algerian troops. By the end of the war, more than one million casualties and ninety thousand deaths were attributed to chemical warfare use by all sides. During World War II (19391945) the Nazis used hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide in the extermination camps, killing millions. More recent chemical attacks include the U.S. use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War (19571975); Iraqi president Saddam Husseins use both of sarin gas against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War (19801988) and of multiple chemical agents against the Iraqi town of Halabja in 1988, killing up to five thousand Kurds; and Aum Shinrikyos sarin gas attacks in Matsumoto (1994) and on the Tokyo subway (1995) in Japan.

Biological weapons are weapons of germ warfare; they include a large number of living agents such as anthrax, botulinum toxin, plague, ricin, smallpox, and typhus. A subclass of biological weapons that could be directed specifically at agriculture includes mad cow disease and swine fever. Although used throughout history, biological weapons have seen limited use in attacks in modern times due to difficulties in creating effective dispersal mechanisms. Exceptions include Japans use of biological agents during the Sino-Japanese War (19371945) and World War II, including a 1943 attack on Changde, China, that involved an attempt to spread bubonic plague. In 1984 members of the Rajneeshee cult infected a salad bar with salmonella in The Dalles, Oregon, sickening nine hundred, and anthrax was disseminated through the U.S. postal system in 2001, killing five.

Nuclear weapons produce their destructive effects through nuclear fission from chain reactions involving uranium or plutonium or from nuclear fusion (the so-called hydrogen bomb). Considered the most destructive of all WMD, nuclear weapons have been used on two occasions, both at the end of World War II. The bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, killed some 80,000 civilians immediately and another 60,000 from radiation by the end of the year. The attack on Nagasaki three days later ultimately killed 100,000.

Radiological weapons, unlike nuclear weapons, have no blast effect. They derive their destructive power from radiation alone and typically depend on an explosive device to disperse the radiation, although radioactive material could also be sprayed from crop duster planes. Radiological weapons have never been used, but Iraq is believed to have tested them in 1987 for possible use against Iran. The plan was abandoned after it was found that the radioactivity dissipated within a week of the weapons manufacture.


Due largely to their ability to indiscriminately kill and inflict harm on civilian populations even when the intended target is military, WMD, unlike conventional weapons, have traditionally encountered societal opprobrium. This has led to a number of international agreements to limit their development and use.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1970) seeks to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology beyond the states already known to possess them. A total of 187 parties have joined the treaty. At least nine countries are known or suspected to possess nuclear weapons as of 2006 (the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea). The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty seeks to deter development of nuclear weapons by banning all nuclear explosions. The treaty was opened for signature in 1996. As of 2006, the treaty had 176 members but would not come into force until all forty-four nations conducting nuclear research or possessing nuclear power reactors signed and ratified the treaty; eleven ratifications were still necessary in 2006.

The 1925 Geneva Protocol bans the use of biological weapons, and the 1975 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention bans their development, production, stockpiling, acquisition, or retention except for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes. The convention has been signed by 162 countries. The United States, Russia, North Korea, and Syria are known or believed to possess biological weapons.

The Chemical Weapons Convention (1997) prohibits the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer, and use of chemical weapons and requires all signatories to destroy their chemical weapons and chemical-weapons production facilities. The convention was signed by 140 nations; some seventeen nations are known or believed to maintain chemical weapons stockpiles.

Despite efforts to curb WMD proliferation, real concerns remain. One major concern involves their acquisition by rogue states or terrorist organizations. As of 2006, North Koreas and Irans nuclear programs were deemed threatening, and the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda was believed to be seeking some level of WMD capability.

SEE ALSO Hussein, Saddam; Iraq-U.S. War; Terrorism; Terrorists; Weaponry, Nuclear


Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. 1996.

Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction. 1975.

Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling, and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction. 1997.

Macfarlane, Allison. 2005. All Weapons of Mass Destruction Are Not Equal. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for International Studies.

Times. 1937. Archbishops Appeal. December 28: 9.

Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. 1970.

United Nations Security Council Commission for Conventional Armaments. August 12, 1948.

Weapons of War: Poison Gas. 2002.

Donna J. Nincic

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Weapons of Mass Destruction Control Act (1992)

Weapons of Mass Destruction Control Act (1992)

David A. Koplow

With the Weapons of Mass Destruction Control Act (P.L. 102-484, 106 Stat. 2569), Congress expressed its strong fear that, in a postCold War world, the greatest dangers to U.S. national security and global stability came from the threatened proliferation of advanced and extraordinarily lethal weapons. The act reflects the belief that American policy and funding ought to put a higher priority on efforts to impede those developments.

The act addresses several categories of modern armaments. The term "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD) includes nuclear weapons first and foremost. But it also includes chemical and biological weapons (which might prove cheaper and more accessible for poor countries and terrorist groups). The act also highlights missile systems that could be used to deliver WMD or other arms with great speed and precision while evading many countries' defensive systems for detecting and intercepting aircraft. Together, these weapons of extraordinary lethality threaten to undermine peace and stability because they could give an aggressor country a substantial advantage in a surprise first strike. Such a strike could deliver a devastating blow to an unsuspecting target country, deciding the outcome of a war in the opening moments.

Through this law, Congress sought to take greater advantage of the "unique expertise" of the U.S. Departments of Defense and Energy in international nonproliferation activities, including "(A) to detect and monitor proliferation, (B) to respond to terrorism, theft, and accidents involving weapons of mass destruction, and (C) to assist with interdiction and destruction of weapons of mass destruction and related weapons material." Although the statute declares it to be "the sense of Congress" that U.S. policy ought to "seek to limit both the supply of and demand for" WMD, most of the statute's provisions are aimed at limiting a country's access to, rather than its demand for, such arms.

The law has two key aspects of operation. The first requires a wide-ranging report to Congress from the secretaries of defense and energy regarding U.S. nonproliferation policy and activities. Congress specified that the report should address topics such as how the two departments coordinate their intelligence, military capabilities, and emergency response capacities, and how this integration could be improved. The statute also sought additional information about existing and planned departmental capabilities "to (A) detect and monitor clandestine weapons of mass destruction programs, (B) respond to terrorism or accidents involving such weapons and to theft of related weapons materials, and (C) assist with interdiction and destruction of weapons of mass destruction and related weapons materials."

The other key aspect concerns increased funding for a variety of activities in the category of the "nonproliferation technology initiative." Congress here authorized additional support for research, testing, and procurement of systems to sense chemical and biological weapons, to accomplish seismic monitoring of nuclear explosions, and to detect concealed nuclear materials. It also permitted further assistance to international nonproliferation activities, such as providing international organizations with money, supplies, equipment, personnel, and training to support security, counterterrorism, and related efforts. One example of such activity authorized by the act is the assistance the Department of Defense gave to the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) for its inspections in Iraq. The Defense Department provided U-2 surveillance flights and other intelligence and logistics support at a cost of $15 million per year. The U.S. support to UNSCOM was suspended after the December 15, 1998 UNSCOM pullout from Iraq.

See also: Arms Control and Disarmament Act and Amendments; Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act.

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