Though Weapons of Mass Destruction (hereafter referred to as “WMD”) possess an immense destructive capability, it is important to understand their limitations, means of employment, and the theory behind their existence in order to understand how they can be controlled. Though a number of countries may possess WMDs, not all countries that possess WMDs have symmetric capabilities, in terms of both raw destructive power and the ability to employ that power. The classic triad of “nuclear, biological, and chemical” weapons must be deployed, and respectively countered, in much different ways.
The general attitude surrounding WMD ownership by states is that WMDs provide a level of deterrence. Their sheer destructive power creates a situation in which other states may give pause before attempting aggression, as the damage and losses they will take will simply not be worth as any potential gains. However, the unilateral possession of WMDs creates a situation in which one actor may potentially inflict devastating damage upon its neighbors with impunity; thus neighboring or potentially hostile states end up developing their own WMD programs to provide parity. This creates a situation known as “Mutually Assured Destruction”, a standoff in which either party is totally incapable of acting against the either since both are equally vulnerable. The Publication “GETTING MAD: NUCLEAR MUTUAL ASSURED DESTRUCTION, ITS ORIGINS AND PRACTICE” by the US Army’s Strategic Studies Institute notes that MAD seems to straddle a line between policy and theoretical conundrum; a state with WMDs must accept its vulnerability in order to enjoy the benefits of WMD deterrence as it reaches an equilibrium of power. (1.usa.gov/Nmkute) Refusing to accept such vulnerabilities tends to create an arms race that can involve a huge and significant investment in resources even by the accounts of proponents of winning an “arms race”. (bit.ly/10IUWDk) The greatest problem is that WMDs cannot be actively used like other military assets without significant risk; for example, a state can use warships to provide a show of force or conduct anti-piracy operates, whereas it would be impractical for a state to use chemical agents to kill off pirates. In addition, there is no real means of “defending” oneself from WMDs, as former Admiral Stansfield Turner points out, since even a 1% failure rate of a “defensive system” results in a totally unacceptable level of loss and destruction. (bit.ly/WGTWsQ)
This has led some, such as neorealist scholar Kenneth Waltz, to propose that WMDs such as nuclear weapons are, despite their destructive power, ultimately good for the world and should proliferate since their presence deters interstate aggression and creates a balance of power. (bit.ly/TJ6UtR) However, there is an increasing sentiment towards counter-proliferation of nuclear weapons and WMDs, with even fairly hawkish former policy makers such as Henry Kissinger and William J. Perry regarding MAD as antiquated. (bit.ly/crpjMu) The rise of non-state actors such as terrorist groups has, in the view of these policy makers, disrupted any sort of balance MAD provided as such groups do not feel the same vulnerability that state actors do and are more inclined to use such weapons. In addition, it has been considered problematic that the countries most inclined to develop weapons of mass destruction are in unstable regions of the world and may not be run by totally stable regimes. (1.usa.gov/112PjPq) Since such regimes may lack the technical means to strike through conventional means, the use of unconventional means such as terrorist groups and intermediaries may be their only means of providing parity against potentially hostile states.
The employment of WMDs requires both a weapon as well as a means of deployment. Weapons also have different destructive properties, and have differing levels of technical feasibility for both state and non-state actors. Nuclear weapons come in two varieties, fission and fusion bombs. Fission bombs use masses of fissile material (enriched uranium or plutonium) to cause critical reactions that result in the destruction of a small portion of the mass of the material, unleashing large amounts of energy. Fusion bombs, also known as hydrogen bombs, rely on the fusion of hydrogen atoms into helium to produce large volumes of energy. The fusion process unleashes substantially more energy, but requires a large amount of energy to initiate the reaction; so a fission bomb is used at the core of the weapon to initiate the explosion. (http://bit.ly/10IUWDk) Though nuclear weapons have an immense amount of destructive capacity, they are difficult to manufacture and deliver. Acquisition of fissile material is difficult due to its rarity in the natural world, and must be refined (in the case of uranium) or manufactured (in the case of plutonium) on industrial levels to acquire in a level substantial enough to build a bomb. (bit.ly/SXs59P; bit.ly/LtTQp) In addition to a complex acquisition process for fissile material, the weapons in question often require a high degree of precision to work properly. (bit.ly/MePque) Thus the ability to produce a nuclear weapon from scratch is essentially out of the reach of a non-state actor; though the acquisition of nuclear weapons through other means remains a distinct possibility.
Chemical weapons can vary immensely in form, and range from nerve agents to blister agents to choking agents (bit.ly/XFqj9H). All three target different components of the human body, and have varying degrees of potential lethality. Unlike nuclear weapons, which unleash immediate and indiscriminate destructive power, chemical weapons vaporize and enter the human body through skin pores, eyes, or expiration; doing little to no damage to structures and objects. What makes chemical weapons unique is their potential lethality mixed with their relative ease of production. Though many of the more advanced nerve agents are complex to manufacture and are limited largely to state actors, simple agents can be easily procured and produced by terrorists. (1.usa.gov/WjIQvJ; 1.usa.gov/bnsiE7) Chemical weapons have often been considered the most feasible means of terrorists using a WMD, and were used in several high profile attacks by a Japanese cult in the 1990s. (bit.ly/XFue6r) Chemical weapons also bear a storied history of use during warfare, and remain a major component of the arsenals of many states which do not have the means or desire to acquire nuclear weapons. (bit.ly/xLJJnL)
Biological weapons remain a potent element of the WMD triad, and unlike chemical or nuclear weapons, a biological weapon attack can theoretically spread beyond its initial point of release to inflict casualties over a much wider geographical area. (bit.ly/14oFTgb) Using pathogens and microorganisms, a state or non-state actor can infect the population with an affliction, which may in theory spread over time causing additional casualties and panic as an epidemic spreads. However, biological weapons require incubation and production, and distribution of biological agent requires proper weather conditions and a means of release (usually an aerosol spray) if it is to inflict mass casualties; the technical requirements of biological weapons limit their practical effectiveness as a mass casualty weapon without proper expertise. (bit.ly/10YGRfC) Still, by most estimates, most states do not have adequate response capability to a massive biological attack; simulations almost always confirm that if an attack were to be successfully conducted by any actor, state or non-state, the results would be catastrophic. (bit.ly/pHuBFs)
The most important determinate of the threat that WMDs pose are delivery vehicles. Threats can be assessed based on the technical capabilities of states as related to their delivery capacities. State actors have traditionally mounted WMDs on ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, aircraft, or in artillery shells. Ballistic missiles are rockets that travel at high trajectories at high speeds; ballistic missiles are classified as either theatre ballistic missiles, which are defined as possessing a range less than 3,500 kilometers (with different sub-classifications determining the exact range limitations) or intercontinental ballistic missiles, which can in theory strike anywhere on the globe due to their extensive range. (bit.ly/WHSpTn; bit.ly/YyDkIM) Larger intercontinental ballistic missiles can also be equipped with Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles, which increase the number of warheads that can be carried at one time. Cruise missiles are miniaturized aircraft that fly at constant altitudes at relatively low speed, usually carrying some form of warhead. (bit.ly/VhXY9X) Air dropped weapons and artillery fired weapons are very similar to their more conventional cousins, except that the payload is usually much more destructive. The various mechanisms of delivery are important in that not all countries have similar capabilities. Many countries that may possess WMDs do not possess long range missiles or aircraft; and so any use of a WMD on their part would be limited to neighboring states. (bit.ly/WHTdry) Even then, the payload size of some smaller missiles and aircraft may be limited, further decreasing the capability afforded by a delivery vehicle. Due to this, most states in possession of WMDs do not possess the means to strike beyond their specific region and may possess only limited numbers of delivery vehicles, and thus cannot fully exercise deterrence on all possible threats.
The emergence of non-state actors as possible users of WMDs has forced a reexamination of how WMD employment might occur. Though using a WMD in an unconventional manner is less practical than using a missile or aircraft, it is far from unfeasible and may be harder to stop once in motion. Simple means, such as driving a truck with a warhead onboard or aerosolized a microorganism can all be used to deliver mass destruction. Thus, many states are opting for a strategy of interdiction and partnership building to prevent materials used in WMD production from falling into the hands of non-state actors. (bit.ly/X3a06O) The US in particular has led counter proliferation efforts, in the hopes that overall reductions of WMDs will contribute to a reduced possibility of non-state actors even acquiring WMDs, let alone using them.