Dismantling the Concept of 'Weapons of Mass Destruction'

By Panofsky, Wolfgang K. H. | Arms Control Today, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Dismantling the Concept of 'Weapons of Mass Destruction'


Panofsky, Wolfgang K. H., Arms Control Today


The world today faces a confused and potentially extremely dangerous situation in its current contradictory treatment of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons-commonly referred to collectively as weapons of mass destruction (WMD). A worldwide norm has been established which prohibits use and even possession of biological weapons (BW) and chemical weapons (CW), while possession and some uses of nuclear weapons by the five nuclear-weapon states remain legal, and the nuclear weapons potential of the "threshold" states-India, Israel and Pakistan-are tacitly accepted by the nuclear powers. Thus, nuclear weapons, which have been demonstrated to be by far the most destructive of the three classes of weapons, remain legitimate within certain restrictions while biological and chemical weapons, with more limited and problematic effectiveness, have been outlawed. In addition to their differing legal status, these three classes of weapons are very diverse in their technical nature and military significance. Progress in controlling each category of weapons and resolution of the contradictions in the existing non-proliferation regime is made more difficult by lumping biological, chemical and nuclear weapons together under the banner of WMD.

The contradictory nature of these international norms raises questions with farreaching consequences. First, what should U.S. policy be on the use, or threatened use, of nuclear weapons as a deterrent or response against possession or use of BW and CW? The United States has agreed to give up all biological and chemical weapons and, therefore, cannot threaten retaliation against the use of biological and chemical weapons in kind. Consequently, U.S. deterrence against the use or threatened use of such weapons has to be based either on conventional military superiority or through an expressed or tacit nuclear threat.

A second, more profound, question is: How will the role of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons evolve from the present situation, with its fundamental discriminatory nature and internal inconsistencies with regard to nuclear weapons. One can surmise four potential future paths; two are damaging to the security interests of the United States and the world, while the other two would potentially reduce the threat posed by the existing imbalance in non-proliferation efforts.

On the negative side, the United States faces the risk that the existing prohibitions over BW and CW will unravel as nuclear weapons remain in the hands of the nuclear-weapon states and possibly new nuclear proliferants; or, that the existing nuclear non-proliferation regime will be undermined as other states seek a nuclear option as a deterrent to BW and CW. On the positive side, the United States can hope that the present pattern, with its prohibitions against BW and CW will endure as the nuclear-weapon states and threshold states gradually reduce their dependence on nuclear weapons; or, that the international community will be persuaded to extend the norm prohibiting BW and CW possession and use to nuclear weapons worldwide as well.

Diversity of Military Roles

The three classes of WMD's differ greatly with respect to: potential lethality and destructive power; the feasibility of protection and defenses; and, the potential mission of these weapons.

Lethality and Destructive Power

Nuclear weapons can increase the total explosive power that can be delivered in military payloads by up to a factor of a million. The weapons detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed about a quarter of a million people, had an explosive power about one-tenth that carried by a modern nuclear weapon. Even after reductions from Cold War heights, today's arsenals still comprise over 30,000 weapons worldwide.

The destructive power of nuclear weapons is well understood. If a 1-megaton thermonuclear warhead exploded at optimum altitude over a large city, little would be left standing or alive within five miles.

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Dismantling the Concept of 'Weapons of Mass Destruction'
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