Weapons of Mass Destruction

The term weapons of mass destruction (WMD) refers to weapons that can cause multiple deaths and severe damage to over a short period of time. They can be nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. In different sources the phrase may be seen as NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) weapons or CBR (chemical, bacteriological and radiological) weapons.

The phrase weapons of mass destruction was coined by the London Times in 1937 in an article describing the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica, Spain by German planes as support for the rebels in the Spanish Civil War. It was then used for traditional weapons which were used in a large amount or quantity. Its meaning was restricted to the modern notion of WMD in 1946 at the first General Assembly of the United Nations. The first resolution that it adopted regulated the establishment and functioning of the Atomic Energy Commission. The resolution stated that the Commission would work for the elimination of atomic weapons and all other types of weapons adaptable to mass destruction.

In 1948, the UN Commission on Conventional Armaments 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." After the terrorist attacks on September 11, the term was given a broader meaning to include suicide bombers who kill numerous people and deliberate directing of planes into buildings to cause substantial damage.

Generally, WMD are divided in four groups — chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons. Chemical and nuclear WMD are often delivered to the target by missiles. They usually require bases and stations from which to be launched and are therefore difficult to hide from planes or satellites. Underground storage of chemicals can also be detected by the use of underground radars. The destructive power of a chemical weapon is devastating as it is easily dispersed in the air and can cover a vast areas, affecting hundreds of thousands of people at once. A nuclear bomb can kill thousands in the initial blast and many more when the radiation dissipates.

Biological weapons need more time to disclose their presence. However, these weapons can be potentially the most threatening as it can affect millions of people. The contamination may spread to distant areas without being noticed and if the population has not been vaccinated, the damage could be overwhelming. Examples of biological weapons are anthrax, caused by Bacillus anthracis; plague, caused by Yersinia pesti, and smallpox, which is caused by the variola virus.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), WMD include biological toxins, such as any toxic substance of natural origin produced by an animal or plant. The other category given by the FBI is toxic industrial chemicals, which include chemicals developed or manufactured for use in industrial operations such as manufacturing solvents, pesticides and dyes. Others in this list include chlorine, phosgene and hydrogen cyanide; along with biological pathogens, which includes any organism such as a bacteria or virus capable of causing serious disease or death and chemical agents.

The possible use of WMD has become a major global concern, with numerous treaties signed over the years. The first document, The Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water, also known as the Partial Test Ban Treaty, was signed in 1963. This was followed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970, the Biological Weapons Convention in 1975 and the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993, which is the most detailed and comprehensive. The Chemical Weapons Convention has been signed and ratified by 190 countries.

Weapons of Mass Destruction came to prominence in the international news headlines in the run up to the Iraq War, which started with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he believed there was a major potential threat from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In the United States, President George W. Bush declared that one of the main reasons for going to war was to disarm Iraq of its WMD. The United Nations was given the task of searching for WMD in Iraq but no weapons of this kind were found. It emerged in 2010 at the Iraq Inquiry that Blair's government "intentionally and substantially" exaggerated the threat from Hussein ahead of the war in Iraq.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Terrorism, Asymmetric Warfare, and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Defending the U.S. Homeland
Anthony H. Cordesman.
Praeger, 2002
Iraq and the War of Sanctions: Conventional Threats and Weapons of Mass Destruction
Anthony H. Cordesman.
Praeger, 1999
The Greatest Threat: Iraq, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the Crisis of Global Security
Richard Butler.
PublicAffairs, 2000
Competing Western Strategies against the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: Comparing the United States to a Close Ally
David A. Copper.
Praeger, 2002
Future War and Counterproliferation: U.S. Military Responses to NBC Proliferation Threats
Barry R. Schneider.
Praeger Publishers, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "Principles of War for the WMD Battlefield"
Superterrorism: Assassins, Mobsters, and Weapons of Mass Destruction
Glenn E. Schweitzer; Carole C. Dorsch.
Plenum Trade, 1998
The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction
Walter Laqueur.
Oxford University Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: "Weapons of Mass Destruction" begins on p. 49
Caging the Genies: A Workable Solution for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Weapons
Stansfield Turner.
Westview Press, 1999 (2nd edition)
Disarming Rogues: Deterring First-Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction
Szabo, David.
Parameters, Vol. 37, No. 4, Winter 2007
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