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The meaning and definition of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) continue to evolve over time and with technology. Though the phrase was first used in a New York Times article in 1937, referring to a saturation bombing during the Spanish Civil War, the first administrative use of the term came when the United Nations established the Atomic Energy Agency in 1946. Originally referring only to atomic weapons, through treaties and international conventions, WMD has come to include all types of nuclear, biological, chemical, and toxic weapons. Today an exact definition of WMD is nonexistent, varying by place and policy. However, in general WMD are broken down into the following four categories of weaponry: Nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological.
Due to the longevity and range of destruction that they are capable of unleashing, nuclear weapons indisputably pose the gravest risk to the living environment. Though only used twice in warfare, in Japan in 1945, nuclear weapons have been detonated thousands of times around the world by countries testing their nuclear weapon technologyChina, France, India, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Other states have been pursuing, or have declared that they possess, nuclear weapons (i.e., Iran, Israel, and North Korea.) Hypothetically, if enough nuclear weapons are detonated at approximately the same time, a “nuclear winter” would be the result. This would entail a drastic cooling of global temperatures due to particles in the atmosphere blocking the sun’s radiation from reaching the surface. There is a good chance that no life forms would survive such an event on the planet Earth. The state possessing the most nuclear missiles in the world, and thus from an environmental standpoint the most dangerous state to ecological longevity, is the United States.
Biological weapons are the oldest of the contemporary WMD. They include the use of any poisonous or toxic pathogens for military advantage. However, the military usefulness of biological weapons is dubious. Though potentially resulting in the deaths of thousands of people, animals, and natural fauna, there would be little possibility of preventing biological WMD from afflicting one’s own forces or population. Moreover, biological weapons take longer to infuse themselves than many other types of WMD, making them largely inefficient for conventional military campaigns. Nonetheless, over the last quarter century biological agents have become the most readily available WMD for use in bioterrorism (e.g., anthrax attacks in the United States during 2002).
Chemical weapons are far more efficient WMD than biological ones, but often far more deadly. Their effects are often immediate and severe, their effects taking hold through breathing, ingestion, or skin contact. Chemical weapons are unique in the fact that it is rare that the weapon system delivering them is the cause of carnage (unlike in nuclear or conventional weapon attacks). Instead, toxic agents are dispersed by the weapon delivery system. Unlike nuclear weapons, chemical weapons are relatively cheap and easy to produce. Over 70 different chemical agents are known to have been created. It is presumed that numerous countries maintain stockpiles of chemical agents. Several states are known to have used chemical agents in battle over the past 50 years. International treaties have largely been ineffective in controlling the development of chemical weapons, partially due to the fact that treaties are based on chemical structures and countries can create new chemical weapons that are undetectable.
Radiological weapons are a relatively new addition to WMD and may better be classified as weapons of mass hysteria. None are known to have ever been used in warfare or terrorist attack. Often referred to as “dirty bombs,” models illustrate that radiological weapons would likely do more psychological harm to a community than ecological devastation. The ingredients for such a bomb would likely come from nuclear power waste, and regardless of what type of radioactive material was used, the radiation would either dissipate too quickly to cause widespread damage or it would take a long time to exterminate local living organisms.
The potential environmental impact of WMD is enormous. Obviously with a nuclear Armageddon, humankind’s longevity on the planet would be placed in jeopardy. Ecological destruction would be complete and limit the chances of continued life on earth. Even the detonation of a single nuclear weapon has been shown to have a devastating impact on the environment-most of these weapons make areas uninhabitable for decades, if not hundreds of years. Radiation exposure lies behind many diseases, many longitudinal, as were witnessed in Japan after World War II. Though biological and chemical weapons are both cheaper and easier to create than nuclear weapons, their impact on local environments may be just as devastating. Capable of killing all life forms and, in the case of biological weapons, diffusing via communicable means, these WMD may pose the greatest risk for humans in the future. Finally, radiological weapons do not pose as much of a risk to the environment as their sources do-that is, nuclear waste from power plants. However, if placed in an urban area and or set off without detection, the impact on human life could be devastating.
Though numerous treaties have been passed on almost all WMD, the fact is that there is no commission to enforce compliance. Moreover, now that the United States has determined that it is justifiable to preemptively strike states that may have WMD, it appears that diplomacy may no longer be a viable option for supervising and controlling the diffusion of WMD around the world. Nuclear nonproliferation had largely been effective throughout the Cold War era, but since the decline of the Soviet Union has become a major concern for Western states around the world, as many “rogue states” choose to pull out of the treaty. WMD are also an enticing weapon for terror organizations due to their ubiquity and potentially devastating effects.
- Anthony H. Cordesman, Terrorism, Asymmetric Warfare, and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Defending the US Homeland (Praeger Publishers, 2001);
- Global Security, “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” www.globalsecurity.org/wmd.