Weapons of Mass Destruction

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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) or "WMDs" (plural), refers to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons (collectively), and, more specifically, to "those weapons that are capable of a high order of destruction and/or of being used in such a manner as to create large numbers of casualties (more than 1000 people) during a single event or incident." This definition may include the use of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, high-yield explosives, high-energy weapons, or those improvised weapons such as "dirty (nuclear) bombs" that can realistically be expected to cause mass casualties or mass effects.

Some experts have noted that "destruction" is not necessarily meant to be taken literally. "Weapons of Mass Disruption" might be a more accurate term, particularly for non-nuclear weapons, since the effects of anticipated damage (such as a panicked mass evacuation) could be extremely damaging to our nation even when such weapons themselves produce little real damage.

Fuel-air bombs developed by the U.S. military have far more destructive and killing power than almost any other existing non-nuclear weapon. However, these weapons would leave behind no radioactive contamination. In contrast, even if the actual danger created by a dirty bomb or the release of a biological agent was relatively small, fear of contamination and subsequent attempts to flee could have severe effects.

While the United States and Russia possess the largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons in the world and several other nations have tested nuclear weapons — more than twenty countries are suspected of possessing or developing chemical weapons, and about a dozen are suspected of possessing or developing biological weapons. Other nations, such as Iraq, that once had active nuclear and/or biological weapons programs have since terminated those programs.

Several considerations weigh heavily both to encourage certain nations to seek possession of weapons of mass destruction, and also on certain nations to forego possession. Some political entities such as Taiwan have reason to fear military adventures by nearby nations yet shrink from (1) the likelihood that the weapons would be used against members of their own communities and even members of their own families and (2) the "lightning rod effect" of possessing those weapons under conditions of intense international tensions. In general, when one nation feels itself faced by a sea of adversaries (e.g., Israel and North Korea), then nuclear weapons present themselves as the fatal pill that would have to be consumed by an enemy intent on destroying them. These nations must take into consideration the likelihood that they would face oblivion at the hands of their massed enemies.

Besides the long-term deadlock situations posed by nations such as North Korea and Israel, there are the much more dangerous situations in which two powers of approximately equal capabilities face off under conditions of high tensions--and both sides contemplate the dual teeter-totters of first strike capability and mutually assured destruction. In the past, the United States and the Soviet Union were sometimes within minutes of a civilization-destroying conflict due to radar data that appeared to indicate a massed attack by the other side. Currently, India and Pakistan face much the same hair-trigger threat.

In cases where no nations seem to present an overwhelming threat, nations with the cability or near capability to produce atomic weapons have drawn back from the precipice voluntarily. Such nations include Libya and South Africa.

In cases where the weapons of mass destruction would, if used, be traced back to the nation deploying them, the threat of retaliation in kind has forced leaders to endure a cold analysis of what would transpire if they were to launch a first strike against another powerful nation. Using a massive enough attack to give reasonable assurance of knocking out retaliatory capability would, in the case of a powerful state such as the Soviet Union, produce a nuclear winter, not to mention creating levels of radioactive fall-out that would damage one's own nation and all of the people of the world. Added to those destructive potentials would be the very real possibility that one's opponent would have sufficient nuclear weapons aboard atomic submarines or in other virtually invulnerable places to wreak damage on one's own major cities.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union came an increased possibility that some existing weapons and/or weapons material would make its way into the hands of non-state actors, multi-national terrorist groups that might be so well dispersed that there could be no effective nuclear counterattack against them. A major factor staying the hands of traditional possessors of nuclear weapons would not be in operation in such cases.

With the proliferation of nuclear technology, both for legitimate reasons such as power production and for political and/or ideological reasons such as in the case of the Pakistani aid to certain nations desiring nuclear weapons, an additional possible source of weapons for terrorist groups has opened up.

Instability in leadership, both as regards the ego strenghs of relevant world leaders, and as regards the stability of their political bases, may play an increasingly important part in increasing the instability and lowering the flash point of world conflict situations. A second missile crisis,like the one in Cuba, may not find the firing buttons in the hands of clear headed leaders in stable positions of power as were Kruschev and Kennedy. How to avoid unnecessary actions that lower the flash points present around the world will become an increasingly vexing problem as world conditions deteriorate under declining energy resources, stable or declining agricultural production, and inexorably increasing populations.

Alternate Derrivates of the Term

"Weapons of Mass Distraction" (pejorative)

Wartime Uses

  • The Soviet Union also employed poison gas on its own people during the interwar period. Soviet commander Mikhail Tukhachevsky used chemical weapons in the 1921 suppression of a massive peasant uprising around Tambov.
  • British forces used poison gas during their occupation of Iraq in the 1920s.
  • Although chemical weapons were not used by the major powers against one another during the Second World War, the Axis Powers did use them when retaliation with chemical weapons was not feared:
In 1935 Fascist Italy used mustard gas during the invasion of Ethiopia in the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. Ignoring the Geneva Protocol, which it signed seven years earlier, the Italian military dropped mustard gas in bombs, sprayed it from airplanes, and spread it in powdered form on the ground. 15,000 chemical casualties were reported, mostly from mustard gas.
The Japanese Imperial Army used mustard gas and the recently-developed blister agent Lewisite against Chinese troops during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese also employed biological warfare by intentionally spreading cholera, dysentery, typhoid, bubonic plague, and anthrax. As of 2005, 60 years after the end of the war, canisters that were abandoned by Japan in their hasty retreat are still being dug up in construction sites, causing many injuries and deaths.
In 1944, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husayni, the senior Islamic religious authority of the Palestinian Arabs and close ally of Adolf Hitler, sponsored an unsuccessful chemical warfare assault on the Jewish community in Palestine. Five parachutists were supplied with maps of Tel Aviv, canisters of a German–manufactured "fine white powder," and instructions from the Mufti to dump chemicals into the Tel Aviv water system. District police commander Fayiz Bey Idrissi later recalled, "The laboratory report stated that each container held enough poison to kill 25,000 people, and there were at least ten containers." [2]
  • The only time that nuclear weapons have ever been used in war was in 1945 when the United States killed approximately 200,000 civilians with fission weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • The United States dropped massive amounts of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. BZ gas was also used by the United States during the war.
  • Iraq used poison gas against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. Saddam Hussein also used poison gas against his own people, mainly in Kurdish areas.

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