Weapons Of Mass Destruction Essay

The term weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is often used to refer to nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological weapons as a group. Yet there is no widely accepted scholarly or legal definition of WMD. Even the independent, international Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission did not define the term in its final (2006) report. In recent years, a number of scholars have abandoned the term because it glosses over important differences among these weapons. While it is vital to understand the differences among nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological weapons, it is also important to retain the analytic concept of WMD. Otherwise it would be easy to overlook the potentially similar military and political effects of nuclear and biological weapons.

WMD As An Analytic Category

The concept of WMD allows scholars to abstract from the attributes of particular weapons to consider three broad categories of weapons: conventional or relative weapons, which fight other weapons; unconventional weapons, which target entire populations or geographic areas; and absolute weapons, which, regardless of how targeted, have destructive effects that cannot be limited by offensive or defensive military strategies or operations. Only the latter are WMD.

Which Weapons Are WMD?

According to military strategist Bernard Brodie (who coined the term), an absolute weapon has “enormous destructive potency” that “concentrate[s] . . . violence in terms of time” (1946, 28–29). Today most scholars agree that the lethality, survivability, and deliverability of nuclear weapons make them absolute weapons. They further agree that, of the other weapons often classified as WMD, biological weapons are the most likely to have mass effects. Chemical and radiological weapons are more limited in their effects and thus best not considered WMD.

Nuclear weapons are clearly WMD. According to physicist Richard L. Garwin, a hypothetical one kiloton (kt) nuclear device exploded at ground-level in Manhattan would kill approximately 210,000 people “mostly from prompt radiation within a week or so. Of these, 30,000 would have died from the blast earlier, and about 100,000 from burns” (2002). The uranium bomb exploded by the United States over the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945 was thirteen kiloton; according to the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey (1946), that bomb killed 30 percent of the city’s population of 245,000 and seriously injured another 30 percent. Contemporary U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons are approximately 150 kt.

Radiological weapons, or “dirty bombs,” use conventional explosives instead of nuclear chain reactions to disperse radiological material. Because their blast is limited, the main effect of radiological weapons is to increase the long-term death rate from cancer. As a result, such weapons have little counterforce utility. Yet this does not make them absolute weapons. Radiological weapons are much less lethal than nuclear weapons. According to Garwin, after “a hypothetical attack on Munich with one kilogram of plutonium dispersed by high explosives . . . 120 people would die of cancer after 40 years or so. . . . For a lifetime of exposure in the contaminated area, an additional 1% of the population would die from cancer” (2002).

Chemical weapons disperse substances such as mustard gas (a blister agent), phosgene (a choking agent), and sarin (a nerve agent) to kill or incapacitate soldiers and civilians. Although such weapons can be deadly to individuals, their effects on populations are far from absolute for two reasons. First, it is difficult to control the dispersion of chemicals in air and water, which are the vehicles most likely to affect large populations. Second, authorities can protect populations by monitoring air and water, advising people to wear masks and protective suits, administering antidotes, and evacuating affected areas. The fundamental difference between chemical and nuclear weapons that makes these defenses possible is the concentration of lethality in time. As Thomas L. McNaugher explains, “there is no defense against nuclear blast. . . . In sharp contrast, . . . to the extent that chemicals spread their destruction relatively slowly rather than instantly,” it is possible to warn and evacuate “at least part of the target population” (1990, 31).

The limitations of chemical weapons were apparent in the 1995 sarin attacks on five Tokyo trains by the Aum Shinrikyo religious sect. Although the group had experience with aerosols, it chose to drop and puncture bags of liquid sarin, which limited exposure to those within evaporation range. As Jonathan B. Tucker explains, this “caused mass disruption but limited fatalities: twelve people died, fewer than would have been killed by an explosive device” (2000, 6).

Biological weapons use living organisms such as bacteria and viruses to kill or incapacitate target populations. Infectious biological agents such as anthrax have the same limitations as chemical weapons: it is hard to control their distribution and possible to protect people from exposure. Contagious biological agents are more potentially absolute in their effects, especially those such as glanders (Burkholderia mallei) for which there are no vaccines. To have mass effects, these agents must be kept alive in great numbers, dispersed widely, and allowed to incubate in unsuspecting populations. According to Garwin, high-efficiency air filters can reduce exposure by a factor of one hundred, and maintaining positive indoor air pressure can reduce it by a factor of one thousand. Yet, because contagious biological agents are difficult to detect, can be engineered to be drug-resistant, and can mutate and multiply, biological weapons have more potential than chemical or radiological weapons to act as WMD. Unlike nuclear weapons, biological weapons would not have immediate effects. But if a disease gained momentum, it could concentrate destruction in ways that could not be mitigated. Thus, as Susan B. Martin (2002) explains, biological weapons may have some of the same military and political effects as nuclear weapons.

Military And Political Effects Of Wmd

According to Brodie and other deterrence theorists, absolute weapons have revolutionary military and political effects. In particular, they make innovation and superiority in numbers and quality of weapons meaningless. Moreover, they transform the purpose of strategy from winning wars to averting them. According to Brodie, since the advent of nuclear weapons, militaries have “almost no . . . useful purpose” other than developing second-strike capabilities so potential aggressors will fear retaliation (1946, 76).

Scholars and policy makers who question the strength of deterrence fall into two camps. First, there are those like former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara who disagree with the distinction between conventional and absolute weapons and argue that offensive and defensive strategies remain viable. Second, there are those who agree with the distinction but worry that deterrence is weak. For Hans Blix and the other members of the WMD Commission, WMD designates a class of weapons that should be eliminated or controlled because, if used, their effects would be devastating.


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  10. Mueller, John. “Radioactive Hype.” National Interest 91 (September-October 2007): 59–65.
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  14. Schultz, George P., William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn. “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons.” Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007.
  15. Tucker, Jonathan B. Toxic Terror: Assessing Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000.
  16. S. Strategic Bombing Survey. “The Effects of the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”Washington D.C.: U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, 1946.
  17. Waltz, Kenneth N. “Nuclear Myths and Political Realities.” American Political Science Review 84 (September 1990): 731–745.

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