Have you adequately defined Weapons of Mass Destruction?
How have different actors defined weapons of mass destruction?
The term ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is reasonably easy to define at a basic level. Most people have a vague idea of what is meant by weapons of mass destruction. However, a specific, clear definition is harder to come by, and different groups have varying ideas of what weapons are encompassed by the term. The meaning has often changed over time, as technology has improved, meaning that what we now consider basic weapons are capable of what was previously considered ‘mass destruction’. Improvements in technology have also created new, highly destructive types of weapons such as biological and radiological weapons, further altering our understanding of the term ‘weapons of mass destruction.’
‘Weapons of mass destruction’ has slightly different meanings depending on what group is defining it. ‘Weapons of mass destruction’ was originally a Soviet military term that encompassed nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. It has since evolved to include other weapons as well, but it still means slightly different things to different groups and organizations. This is exemplified by the writings of one academic quoted in a State Department paper,
“The phrase “weapons of mass destruction,” for example, is an amorphous one, changing meaning according to the whims of the speaker. Raising the specter of WMD is more a way by which politicians assign blame or take a stand on seemingly objective moral standards than a way by which they assess a particular weapons system.”
Similarly, the British Government holds the view that,
“There is a considerable and long-standing academic debate about the proper interpretation of the phrase “weapons of mass destruction.” We have some sympathy with the view that, whatever its origin, the phrase and its accompanying abbreviation is now used so variously as to confuse rather than enlighten readers.”
Is there a consensus definition we can use?
The current, most frequently used definitions cover nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as well as anything else that is capable of causing mass casualties. Although some researchers have identified over 50 different definitions of WMD’s, many describe weapons of mass destruction as some combination of nuclear weapons, radiological weapons, chemical weapons, biological weapons and high explosives. Many of these definitions also specify that the weapons must be capable of causing mass destruction, mass casualties or mass disruption. The definition that is used most often was created by a United Nations Committee in 1948. This definition is as follows;
“[WMD are] . . . atomic explosive weapons, radio active material weapons, lethal chemical and biological weapons, and any weapons developed in the future which have characteristics comparable in destructive effect to those of the atomic bomb or other weapons mentioned above” (United Nations Committee, 1948).
This definition is used by many authorities as the standard definition. This is a very broad definition of WMD’s, as it includes nuclear, biological, radiological and chemical weapons. All of these are very dangerous and could be used in different ways depending on the group. WMD’s can provide a check on traditional warfare, as it ups the stakes, increasing the intensity and likelihood of escalation. This can be seen throughout history with the success of the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) during the Cold War.
Nuclear weapons are what people tend to think of when they hear about WMD’s. This comes from the end of World War 2 and the threat of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, the only two times they have ever been used. Nuclear weapons are capable of destroying entire cities and killing hundreds of thousands or millions of people instantly, and many more from the long term effects. Approximately 2000 nuclear tests have been conducted to date, and 22000 nuclear warheads exist today. Many of these exist at the hands of states. The states that hold nuclear weapons are the United States, Russia, France, United Kingdom, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea. India, Pakistan and North Korea are not party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel is also widely believed to have nuclear weapons, but refuses to confirm or deny.
Biological weapons are defined on the United Nations website as “complex systems that disseminate disease-causing organisms or toxins to harm or kill humans, animals or plants.” They could be applied to infect livestock and agriculture to cause food shortages, to create environmental calamities or economic loss, for political assassinations, to introduce widespread illness amongst the population as well as for traditional military operations.
The consensus definition for chemical weapons comes from the Chemical Weapons Convention, in which the term ‘chemical weapon’ is applied to “any toxic chemical or its precursor that can cause death, injury, temporary incapacitation or sensory irritation through its chemical action.” This includes products that are used in the production or delivery of the chemicals themselves.
Radiological weapons, also known as a radiological dispersion device, are weapons that are designed with the intent to kill or cause disruption. Radiological weapons are similar to nuclear weapons although they have less power. One type of radiological weapon is a dirty weapon, which uses conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material. Instructions for dirty bombs are available on the internet and it is possible that a terrorist organization could make one as the components are easier to come by than for a traditional nuclear bomb. Salted bombs are another type of radiological weapon, designed to provide more of nuclear fallout than a traditional nuclear bomb.
The generally accepted definition of high explosives is ‘a chemical explosive that is rapid and destructive used in shells or bombs.’ They are explosives that detonate at supersonic speed. As well as being used for military purposes, they are used in the mining and demolition industries. The fact that they are used for other purposes raises fears that they could be easily acquired by terrorists.
The international communities understanding of weapons of mass destruction has changed over time, as more and more deadly weapons are developed. For example, in the past, high explosives were considered weapons of mass destruction, although now, under some definitions it would be possible for even an automatic machine gun to be counted as a weapon of mass destruction, as it can cause mass casualties (obviously, depending on your definition of ‘mass casualties’). This is due to the advances in technology that have made weapons more deadly. The United Nations definition guards against the evolution of weapons technology as it takes into account any weapon that may be developed in the
How does this relate to the notion of security and threat discussed in class?
It is comforting that although there are many specific definitions provided by different groups, almost all of these definitions have many of the same components. This suggests that many groups have a similar idea of what constitutes a weapon of mass destruction, and, at least on this respect, a similar idea of what the threat is. This means that organizations and states have a shared understanding of the problem and are able to work together to provide a sense of security.
What does this definition include and what does it leave out?
The United Nations definition is very broad and includes almost all of the criteria that other definitions have encompassed. It specifically encompasses nuclear (atomic), biological, radiological and chemical weapons. There is also a blanket statement to provide for any future developments, as long as they have comparable effects. The definition excludes high explosives and does not include conventional weapons. It also explicitly defines the amount of damage that must be caused in order for something to be considered a weapon of mass destruction (the same as the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
Links to other information
Here are some resources that help to define the issue from various perspectives. They also contain some interesting information about the history of weapons of mass destruction, WMD policy and other facts about weapons of mass destruction.
http://www.state.gov/t/isn/rls/37375.htm - This is about the Non-Proliferation Treaty and is a State Department report. It is very useful for learning about non-proliferation.
I found all of the following UN resources really useful for learning about the standard international definitions of WMD's, and showing an international perspectives.
http://www.opcw.org/about-chemical-weapons/what-is-a-chemical-weapon/ - this was really helpful for defining chemical weapons.
http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/9184.pdf - this is a Congressional Report about the threat of weapons of mass destruction which I found really interesting for examining the WMD problem from the United States perspective.