WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION INTRODUCTION Prepared by Laura Reed, Security Studies Program, MIT, Cambridge, MA, USA The dangers posed by weapons of mass destruction have come to occupy center stage in international politics. The term “weapon of mass destruction” (WMD) is used to characterize a variety of weapons that share two key features: their potential for large-scale destruction and the indiscriminate nature of their effects, notably against civilians. There are three major types of WMD: nuclear weapons, chemical warfare agents, and biological warfare agents.
In addition, some analysts include radiological materials as well as missile technology and delivery systems such as aircraft and ballistic missiles. ? ? While the mass killing of human beings is not a new feature of warfare, weapons of mass destruction (WMD) pose an unprecedented constellation of challenges to peace and security. Over the past century, various states have built and stockpiled lethal arsenals of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and the materials to produce them.
While states have officially committed to eliminating all stockpiles of chemical weapons and offensive biological weapons and to strive for the elimination of nuclear weapons, nine countries currently possess nuclear weapons – Britain, China, France, India, Israel (assumed), North Korea (claimed), Pakistan, Russia, and the United States – and several states are believed to possess chemical and/or biological warfare agents.
In addition to the dangers posed by existing stockpiles of WMD, significant problems arise from the spread (or “proliferation”) of WMD and related technologies to additional countries, nongovernmental actors, and non-state terrorist networks through clandestine programs and black-market sales of weapons and related technologies. Fears of the terrorist use of WMD increased in the United States and around the world following the terrorist use of the biological warfare agent anthrax in the U. S. ail in 2001 and evidence seized by U. S. forces in Afghanistan that Al Qaeda was actively seeking nuclear materials. The use of WMD by terrorists is generally viewed by security officials as a “worst case” scenario and thus attracts paramount concern. As former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry warned at a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences in 2004, “I have never been more fearful of a nuclear detonation than now. … There is a greater than 50 percent probability of a nuclear strike on U. S. targets within a decade. Linton Brooks, a top ranking security official in the Bush administration, recently reported to Congress in March 2005 that: “The convergence of heightened terrorist activities and the associated revelations regarding the ease of moving materials, technology and information across borders has made the potential of terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD) the most serious threat facing the Nation. Preventing WMD from falling into the hands of terrorists is the top national security priority of this Administration. Despite the inevitable uncertainty surrounding any effort to assess the myriad threats associated with WMD, experts are unanimous in their conviction that we face grave risks that are likely to increase as time goes on, barring fundamental changes in current policies at the local, national and international level. Yet beyond this broad consensus, a wide gulf remains between critics and supporters of current U. S. government policies concerning the U. S. nuclear stockpiles and strategies for WMD non-proliferation.
One such critic, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, stated in May 2005 that, ”If I were to characterize US and NATO nuclear policies in one sentence, I would say they are immoral, illegal, militarily unnecessary, very, very dangerous in terms of the risk of inadvertent or accidental launch and destructive of the nonproliferation regime that has served us so well. ” In contrast, senior Bush administration officials defend current U. S. nuclear policy and cite a variety of steps the government has taken to reduce the number of strategic nuclear weapons, tighten nuclear security, and dismantle U.
S. and Russian warheads, as well as various ongoing programs of cooperative threat reduction and support for the peaceful nuclear cooperation programs overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog agency. This section of the PAWSS website offers in-depth information on the basic characteristics and current threats posed by nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. It reviews their history, significant governmental policies and international agreements, and promising strategies to reduce the dangers of these deadly weapons.
For example, just one percent of the current U. S. defense budget could provide enough funds to secure all the nuclear bomb material in the world, removing it from the black market for good. Also included are a selected bibliography and additional useful links for further exploration. WHAT ARE “WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION”? Prepared by Laura Reed, Security Studies Program, MIT, Cambridge, MA, USA Although the term WMD provides a convenient shorthand for mass-casualty weapons, there are very important differences in the characteristics, effects and military roles of various nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.
Nuclear weapons stand apart in the public imagination because of their horrific and unmatched destructive power: an all-out nuclear attack could annihilate billions of people within hours. For this reason, some argue that nuclear weapons should be distinguished from all other types of weapons of mass destruction. There are approximately 30,000 nuclear weapons in national stockpiles of the eight nuclear weapons states: Britain, China, France, India, Israel (assumed), North Korea (claimed), Pakistan, Russia, and the United States.
Depending upon the yield and atmospheric conditions, a large thermonuclear weapon dropped on a densely populated city could kill millions of people in an instant. The detonation of just one “small” nuclear weapon could kill as many as 100,000 people. In addition, many thousands more would die over time due to the lethal effects of radiation. Currently, the United States and Russia maintain several thousand nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, or what is termed “launch-on-warning” of a nuclear attack. Because of governmental secrecy, it is impossible to give exact figures on the makeup and yield of global nuclear arsenals.
But much is publicly known. An estimated 13,470 nuclear weapons are deployed worldwide by eight countries, with another 14,000 weapons held in reserve, according to the 2005 edition of the SIPRI Yearbook, published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Overall, the total number of nuclear weapons has decreased in the past few years, yet all eight nuclear weapon states continue to maintain and modernize their arsenals and assert (either publicly or covertly) that nuclear weapons play a crucial role in their national security.
It is believed that China does not keep its nuclear force on alert status and that Britain and France maintain their nuclear forces on lower levels of alert. There is incomplete and contradictory information available on the nuclear stockpiles of India, Pakistan and Israel. Most experts believe that the nuclear weapons in these countries are only partially deployed. Even greater uncertainty surrounds the status of North Korea’s nuclear program, but some analysts estimate that North Korea may have already built as many as 13 nuclear weapons.
Many aspects of the current nuclear predicament were accurately foreseen in the immediate aftermath of the U. S. Manhattan Project that initially developed the first atomic bombs. Physicist J. R. Oppenheimer, who headed the scientists’ efforts in this top-secret program wrote in 1946 that: The truly radical character of atomic weapons lies neither in the suddenness with which they emerged from laboratories and the secret industries, nor in the fact that they exploit an energy qualitatively different in origin from all earlier sources.
It lies in their vastly greater powers of destruction, in the vastly reduced effort needed for such destruction. And it lies no less in the consequent necessity for new and more effective methods by which mankind may control the use of its new powers. Chemical and biological weapons also pose the terrifying potential of inflicting mass casualties. But there are some very significant differences in their properties, effects, and methods of delivery.
Chemical weapons are notable because of the widespread and longstanding commercial and military experience in manufacturing their constituents. Especially compared with nuclear weapons, chemical weapons are considerably easier and cheaper to manufacture. Many dangerous chemical constituents and so-called precursors of chemical weapons are currently commercially available. An international agreement banning chemical weapons, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), entered into force in 1997.
The treaty requires signatories to destroy existing stockpiles of chemical weapons and, as of the end of 2005, at least 2 million chemical weapons and 12 million metric tons of chemical agents have been destroyed and 175 countries have signed on to the agreement. Biological weapons, which make use of lethal bacteria, viruses, or toxins, are distinguished by their profoundly uncontrollable nature: once unleashed, a biological agent such as smallpox can spread quickly to cause an epidemic in human populations. Although biological weapons are highly dangerous, they have only rarely been used in war or in terrorist attacks.
There are growing concerns, though, about the likelihood of future use of biological weapons in light of the dynamism of biomedical technology and advances in the field of biotechnology. The technologies available to create and disperse biological agents are becoming more sophisticated and widely available. Several countries have developed and maintained active biological weapons programs, despite the fact that the 1925 Geneva Convention prohibits the use of germ weapons in war and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) prohibits states from developing, retaining, and transferring these weapons.
Unfortunately, the current ban on offensive biological warfare does not have any enforcement mechanisms, such as international inspections or rules governing research and development of possible bioweapons like anthrax. Negotiations to establish mechanisms to verify compliance and assure enforcement of the ban on offensive biological weapons have been unsuccessful; the most recent effort broke down in 2002 because the United States refused to allow biological weapons inspections on its soil.
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