William Gay, “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” Global Studies Encyclopedia, eds. I.I. Mazour, A.N. Chumakov, and W.C. Gay (Moscow:  Raduga, 2003), pp. 533-538.


Weapons of Mass Destruction


William Gay

UNC Charlotte




Weapons of mass destruction typically refer to nuclear, chemical, and biological means for killing large numbers of people.  The target is generally civilians or noncombatants.  However, when nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons are used, they sometimes only kill a few persons or even no one.  Nevertheless, the intent of those who use such weapons is to strike terror into the population.

Nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons have all been used in war.  Nuclear weapons were used at the close of World War II.  Chemical weapons were used in World War I.  Biological weapons have been in use in warfare for over two millennia.  The United Nations and many countries have called for bans against such weapons, even terming them genocidal.  Several significant treaties have also been ratified that ban the use or even the production and stockpiling of various weapons of mass destruction.

Of course, nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons are not the only possible weapons of mass destruction.  In some police jurisdictions weapons of mass destruction can even be defined legally as ones that potentially can kill two or more people, and conventional explosives have been used for many years to kill large numbers of people.  More recently, the use of commercial aircraft on September 11, 2001 to attack the World Trade Center illustrates the difficulty of anticipating all the means that can be employed to strike terror or to function as weapons of mass destruction.  Furthermore, instead of targeting civilians, weapons of mass destruction can have military or political targets.  The attack on the Pentagon on September 11th can be viewed as a military target, while such an attack against the White House would be a political target.

While the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon took over 3,000 lives, some analysts deny that commercial aircraft, even when used as weapons to kill thousands, are technically weapons of mass destruction.  These attacks, however, underscore the variety of delivery systems that can be used.  The commercial aircraft involved in these attacks carried large quantities of fuel, and gasoline is a chemical.  In this case, both the chemical agent and the delivery system were hijacked.

Debate is likely to continue on what to include under the heading of weapons of mass destruction and on whether a minimum level of damage can be quantified for classifying an attack as involving a weapon of mass destruction.  However, given the current literature and for brevity, this article will focus on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.


Chemical and Biological Weapons vs. Traditional and Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear weapons represent a distinct type among weapons of mass destruction.  Leaving nuclear weapons aside for the moment, some very sharp contrasts can be drawn between chemical and biological weapons, on the one hand, and traditional (conventional) weapons, on the other hand.  Five key contrasts can be made.  From the point of view of maximizing damage and minimizing cost, although three of the differences favor traditional weapons, the two that favor chemical and biological weapons make them much desired by groups with limited resources that wish to inflict great harm.  First, while traditional weapons typically have to be used in large quantities to kill lots of people, chemical and biological weapons can require only a few weapons to kill large numbers of people.  Second, while traditional weapons can be used almost anywhere, most chemical and biological weapons require airborne dispersal that restricts their targeting and control.  Third, while traditional weapons can be used in almost any weather conditions, chemical and biological weapons are generally affected considerably by weather conditions.  Fourth, while traditional weapons typically can be focused on enemy targets, chemical and biological weapons can blur the distinction between the target and the attacker and can take as great a toll or even a greater one on the aggressor as they do on the “enemy.”  Fifth, while traditional weapons are relatively expensive and complicated to produce, chemical and biological weapons are typically much easier to produce and much less expensive to produce.

Nuclear weapons are like traditional weapons in four of the five areas.  Unlike traditional or conventional weapons, they do not have to be used in large quantities to kill large numbers of people.  Like other conventional weapons, they can be delivered almost anywhere, under almost all conditions, sometimes only against enemy targets, and are both expensive and technically difficult to produce.  Nuclear weapons also share some features with chemical and biological weapons.  All three have high lethality but are difficult to store and to deliver.  However, their differences are equally important.  While nuclear weapons are difficult to manufacture or procure and are easy to detect if stockpiled or deployed, chemical and biological weapons are much easier to make or buy and are much more difficult to detect when amassed and when dispersed. Moreover, whereas chemical weapons rely on toxic properties of chemical substances rather than explosive properties to produce physical or psychological effects and biological weapons rely on infectious agents such as bacteria, nuclear weapons produce large explosions and hazardous radioactive byproducts.


Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear weapons are the most grave among weapons of mass destruction.  Atomic bombs were first used in World War II and were targeted against civilians.  The 14 kiloton uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 7, 1945 and the 20 kiloton plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 each killed 50,000 to 100,000 people and ushered in the nuclear arms race.  The Soviet Union tested its first atomic or fission weapon in 1949, and the United States tested the first hydrogen or fusion bomb in 1952.  At the height of the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union each possessed about 10,000 strategic nuclear weapons with blast yields on the order of 150 kilotons to over a megaton and many times more tactical nuclear weapons deployed around the world with blast yields of roughly 0.1 kiloton to 15 kilotons.  Both countries could deliver strategic nuclear weapons by aircraft, from land based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and by submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and many of their conventional forces deployed in Europe and elsewhere were “dual capable,” meaning they could fire conventional or nuclear shells.  Throughout the Cold War, the United States retained an option of first use of tactical nuclear weapons in the face of a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe.  This era, with the development of vast nuclear arsenals under the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), has also been termed as being based on a “balance of terror.”  By unleashing its strategic nuclear arsenal, in only a few hours, either nation could obliterate 100 to 200 cities and kill 50 to 100 million civilians.  Moreover, either side, even after being so devastated by the other, could launch a second strike that would inflict equivalent destruction on the nation that launched a full-scale first strike.  Not surprisingly, throughout the nuclear age, many ethicists and scientists and even some political and military officials have voiced grave concern over the prospects of the intentional or even accidental use of nuclear weapons.  The end of the Cold War may have ended the “balance of terror,” but it did nothing in itself to end the terror of nuclear weapons.  In fact, the “balance of terror” may have fostered nuclear self deterrence by the United States and the Soviet Union.  The end of the Cold War could also end that era’s self deterrence; so, ironically, quite apart of the risks posed by continuing nuclear proliferation, the prospect especially of U.S. use of nuclear weapons could now even be greater.


Chemical Weapons

Chemical weapons are composed of compounds that have been artificially constructed, as opposed to compounds that exist naturally in either an inorganic or organic state.  In chemical facilities around the world, disabling and deadly compounds (such as phosgene, chlorine, and mustard gas) are engineered for use almost exclusively against human beings.  Unlike nuclear weapons and many traditional or conventional weapons, chemical weapons (in a manner analogous to the neutron bomb) destroy people rather than property, though clean up can be a significant problem.  Chemical weapons are heavily weather dependent; for example, rain can dilute them or wind can disperse them.  Especially since the Vietnam War, the definition of chemical weapons has also come to include as well the use of various herbicides for purposes of large-scale defoliation.

We know about the consequences of chemical weapons from their actual use.  In 1915 the British initiated the first “successful” allied use of gas.  Soon thereafter, pre-Soviet Russia, France, and the United States used gas.  In 1917 the Germans were the first to use mustard gas.  By 1918 the United States had produced 3,600 tons of gas projectiles.  During World War I, that witnessed the first large-scale use of chemical weapons, over 100,000 deaths and 1,300,000 casualties resulted from the use of chlorine gas and other chemical agents.  As a consequence, the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibits poisonous gases and bacteriologicals, though its implications for biological weapons have been given little emphasis.  Despite the Geneva Protocol, various countries subsequently used chemical weapons, especially during the 1920s and 1930s.  Countries charged with such use include Egypt against Yemen, Italy against Ethiopia, Japan against China, and the Soviet Union in Southeast Asia.  Remarkably, chemical weapons were not used during World War II.  The rather limited post-war use of chemical weapons is also surprising, since the United States did not ratify the Geneva Protocol until 1976.  In fact, a 1956 army manual and a 1965 army pamphlet noted that the United States was not a party to any treat that prohibited the use of chemical or biological weapons.  Even after the Geneva Protocol was ratified, a revised army manual still observed that the United States reserves the right to determine which chemicals are included in the ban and maintained that that the ban only prohibited first use.  Then, in 1987 the United States resumed making chemical weapons.  More recently, Iraq used poison gas against Kurds in 1988, while terrorists used nerve gas to attack the Japanese subway system in 1995.  So, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the prospects for slowing the drift back toward use of chemical weapons are not good.


Biological Weapons

Biological weapons are living microscopic organisms and are largely uncontrolled once they are released.  They use infectious agents, such as bacteria or viruses, to inflict physical or psychological damage or death on their victims; the diseases that they can cause include tetanus and diphtheria.  They are generated by microorganisms or plants or are animal in origination.  Like chemical weapons, they are heavily weather dependent; rain can likewise dilute them and wind can likewise disperse them.  A further problem with the use of bacteria, viruses, and toxins is that these poisons are usually unstable; so, their long-term storage often presents greater challenges than the storage of chemical weapons.  However, like chemical weapons, they too destroy people rather than property.

Biological weapons, which include ones for germ warfare, are actually much older than chemical weapons.  Toxins were used as poisons on arrows by aboriginal South Americans and by other neolithic peoples.  As is frequently noted in the literature, in the sixth century B.C.E. Assyrians poisoned wells with a fungus disease and in the fourteenth century C.E. a Tatar army that was attacking a city in what is now the Ukraine catapulted the plague-ridden corpses of their own troops over the city’s castle walls.  Some researchers charge that in the fifteen century C.E. the English intentionally spread smallpox to reduce American Indian tribes hostile to British rule.  According to former Soviet scientists, from 1973 to 1990 the Soviet Union had an extensive covert biological weapons program run by Biopreparat that had over two dozen biological weapons research facilities, about eight production facilities, and about four testing facilities.  The United Nations contends that, though on a much smaller scale, Iraq has also had a biological weapons program for at least twenty years.  Recently, the mailing of anthrax to government and media offices as well as other locations in the United States after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 has led to renewed responses to the threats posed to civilians by biological weapons.

Among biological agents anthrax (Bacillus anthracis) has received the most attention.  Cutaneous forms (malignant pustule) have a 20% mortality rate, while inhalational forms (which result in mediastinitis) have nearly a 100% mortality rate.  Concerns are also growing that highly contagious and frequently lethal diseases could be released.  For example, plague (Yersinia pestis) has a 50% mortality rate in the bubonic form and nearly a 100% mortality rate in the pneumonic form.  Among toxins, botulinum (Clostridium botulinum), which can be weaponized as an aerosol, can have a 60% morality rate for those who inhale or inject it.  (Iraq, in fact, weaponized this toxin prior to the Gulf War.)  The number of viral agents is staggering.  Among viral agents the possible reintroduction of small pox (Variola major) is currently receiving the most attention.  Vaccination against small pox ended in 1981 when governments thought it had been eliminated.  The mortality rate for unvaccinated individuals who are exposed to small pox is about 40%.  Some viral hemorrhagic fevers also have high mortality rates.  Included in this group are Ebola and yellow fever, and they can even be spread by aerosol.  Vesicants (Sulfur mustard) have been used in war, as have been pulmonary agents.  Beyond the warfare use of chlorine gas, the 1984 accidental release of 50,000 pounds of methylisocyanate (phosgene and methylamine) at the Union Carbide Plant in Bhopal, India affected 150,000 people, severely injuring over 10,000 people and killing around 3,300 people.  And the list goes on, even including a range of “riot control” agents, such as tear gas.  So, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the prospects for avoiding increased use of biological weapons appear to be even more bleak than efforts to restrain the use of chemical weapons.


Prevention of the Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction

Various treaties and agreements exist that aim to prevent the production, stocking piling, deployment, and use of weapons of mass destruction.  Government agencies can also set up procedures designed to thwart attacks which use weapons of mass destruction.  One of the tasks of the new Office of Homeland Security, created in the United States following the attacks of September 11, 2001, is to protect Americans from terrorist attacks including ones that might employ weapons of mass destruction.  Whether such efforts can be effective or whether they will be merely quixotic remains to be seen.  A quick review of past efforts to prevent the use of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons shows how far we have actually come but also how very far we still have to go.


Preventing Nuclear War

Despite the Nonproliferation Treaty, more than a half dozen countries now possess nuclear weapons.  Nuclear states include the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, China, Israel, India, and Pakistan.  South Africa had some nuclear weapons during the period of apartheid but dismantled them before Nelson Mandella became President.  Several more countries and terrorist groups have tried to develop or obtain nuclear weapons, including Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Al-Qaeda.  Some nuclear materials have been bought or stolen making possible at least radiological devices that could use conventional explosives to broadly disseminate radioactive contaminants.  So far, however, no further use of nuclear devices has occurred since the U.S. atomic bombings of Japan (if one excludes items such as the depleted uranium shells the United States used during the Persian Gulf War).

The Partial Test Ban Treaty, on the other hand, is one of the great success stories of citizen action in the twentieth century.  Although a Comprehensive Test Ban has continued to elude the global community, the very high compliance with a ban on above ground tests of nuclear weapons has protected both human life and fragile ecosystems.  Likewise, efforts to reduce strategic arsenals, both near the end of the Cold War and since the formation of the Russian Federation are a basis for some reduction in our worry over at least the prospect for large-scale thermonuclear war.


Preventing Chemical War

The fact that chemical weapons were not used in World War II serves as an illustration that humanity does not always continue to rely on every more pernicious weapons at its disposal.  While some use of chemical weapons has continued, other significant agreements have also been reached since the Geneva Protocol of 1925.  Significantly, in 1990 the United States and the Soviet Union signed an agreement to stop producing chemical weapons and to reduce their stockpiles to 5,000 agent tons.  The Chemical Weapons Convention, signed by over 165 countries, went into effect in 1997.  Nevertheless, the low cost and easy production of chemical weapons means that while agreement among superpowers may be necessary,  it will not be sufficient.  Unless militarily weak and economically impoverished states and subnational groups feel they have a voice in international decision making, the prospect for escalating use of chemical weapons will continue to haunt us.


Preventing Biological War

With respect to biological weapons, from the Middle Ages, Roman Catholic Church Councils have prohibited the use of poisons that indiscriminately kill noncombatants.  Nevertheless, agreements that constrain the production and use of biological weapons are less developed than ones pertaining to chemical weapons.  The most significant is the U.N. resolution entitled “Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction” which, by 1997, had already been ratified by 142 countries.  Despite this and related treaties, events at the beginning of the twenty-first century portend that biological weapons may increasingly become the weapons of choice for the weak to use against the strong.


Ethical Issues Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction

All attempts to protect populations from existing weapons of mass destruction face formidable challenges.  Once delivered to their targets little can be done for the immediate victims.  Admittedly, some measures can be taken for populations significantly downwind from nuclear fallout or airborne chemical and biological agents.  The best prospect for protection involves the eradication of such weapons.  However, since human beings know how to produce these weapons, eliminating them does not prevent their reintroduction.  What Jonathan Schell noted about nuclear weapons is also true for chemical and biological weapons—for all weapons actually.  The materials needed for their production and delivery, as well as the knowledge of how to produce them, remain.  However, philosophers have gone one step further in their assessments.  The obstacles are more than physical and epistemological; they are also moral.  For this reason, some of the most important work in preventing catastrophic use of weapons of mass destruction may not be what is being done by scientists and politicians but what can be done by moralists and ethicists.

Fundamentally, weapons of mass destruction are instruments of terror.  As moral philosophers have noted (Robert Holmes, in particular), both subnational groups and governments can resort to the use of weapons of terror.  Clearly, wars generally kill far more people than do what are generally termed terrorist attacks.  Principles of just war forbid the intentional killing of noncombatants.  Nevertheless, especially since the obliteration bombing in Europe and against Japan at the close of World War II, cities and their civilian populations have become targets.  So, one of the important ethical lessons about weapons of mass destruction is that they can be (and have been) used by individuals and by governments.  In this regard, the difference is not so much one of kind as it is of degree.  The end is the same in the terrorist acts of individuals and governments; the goal is to cause fear among civilians by doing violence to them or threatening them with violence.

Twentieth-century civilizations  engaged in barbarism—in  genocides, politicides, and ecocides that took the lives of well over 100 million people.  The beginning of the twenty-first century may well suggest that it will be the harbinger of even more violence, terrorism, and war.  With the advent of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, the scepter of species self-destruction has been raised. Philosophers have written passionately about the meaning and roots of violence, terrorism, and war, including actual and possible uses of weapons of mass destruction.  Many have written with equal passion on the need to take social responsibility.  From a moral perspective, more has been written about nuclear weapons than other weapons of mass destruction.  In this regard, see the entry on “Nuclear Warfare and Morality” in this encyclopedia.  More literature is becoming available on chemical and biological weapons and warfare.  An Encyclopedia of War and Ethics, edited by Donald Wells in 1996, has articles on biological and chemical weapons and war, nuclear deterrence and proliferation, and weapons of mass destruction.

Given the range of linguistic use, the term “weapons of mass destruction” needs some special philosophical analysis.  When we refer to weapons of mass destruction, we are drawing on a condemnatory connotation.  Moreover, the prospect for and reality of special pleading in using this term needs to be highlighted.  For example, the United States presented its use of nuclear weapons in World War II as a means to end the war and save lives, yet the United States condemns as weapons of mass destruction ones with far less destructive capability when they are possessed by “rogue” states or terrorist groups that are perceived as a military threat.  Perhaps, the time has come to realize that most violence, terrorism, and war needs to be condemned, regardless of whether we term the instruments of violence, terrorism, and war as weapons of mass destruction.

Philosophers and others have recognized that if we are to avoid devastating wars, especially ones involving weapons of mass destruction, we must first change our attitudes toward one another, especially toward what we regard as alien cultures.  Various activities can promote the pursuit of the respect, cooperation, and understanding needed for positive peace and social justice.  Open dialog, especially face-to-face conversation, is one of the most effective ways of experiencing that the other is not so alien or alienating.  Beyond having political leaders of various nations meet, we need cultural and educational exchanges, as well as trade agreements among businesses and foreign travel by citizens.  We can come to regard diversity in the expression of cultural and religious traditions and economic and political systems, along with the diversity of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation, as making up the harmonies and melodies that together create the song of humanity.  If we do not learn to respect the diversity and open-endedness of life, we are likely to harvest the sameness and senselessness of violence, destruction, and death.  Will the twenty-first century witness the escalation of violence, terrorism, and war and the use of weapons of mass destruction or will it usher in their renunciation?  The choice is ours, but casting our lot will not be easy.  Whatever we choose will involve struggle and hardship; yet, hope remains that we can avoid the wholesale slaughter of millions or even billions of innocent lives through reckless reliance on weapons of mass destruction.




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