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Breaking down "Weapons of Mass Destruction"

Threat differentials and the necessary foci of nonproliferation strategy.

According to the United Nations, the broad category commonly known as “Weapons of Mass Destruction” (WMD) currently consists (and has consisted since 1947) of “atomic… weapons, radioactive…weapons, lethal chemical and biological weapons, and any weapons…which have characteristics comparable in destructive effect.” However, these weapons can be subcategorized, based on their destructive potential, for the purpose of focusing nonproliferation efforts on the most deadly, most “massively destructive” weapons.

While the term "WMD" is still used by the US government to describe the combination of “nuclear, biological, and chemical” arms, other organizations have broken from this convention. In the second edition of the Carnegie foundation’s Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, the term "WMD" was done away with, in favor of specific, by-category reference to nuclear, chemical, biological, and radiation weapons. As the Deadly Arsenals authors explained it, “though used widely by officials and the media, this phrase conflates very different threats from weapons that differ greatly in lethality, consequence of use, and the availability of measures that can protect against them…[and a] failure to differentiate these threats can lead to a seriously flawed policy.”

The rationale behind subcategorizing WMD by destructive power and by victim consequence management capability is readily explainable.

The availability of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons is certainly not identical, nor is the immediate cost in human lives of their use. The relative ease with which chemical-biological (CB) weapons can be developed, attained, and maintained (the latter being more easily done with chemical weapons than biological) is countered by the difficulty involved in effectively weaponizing and deploying them, as well as by the fact that the effects of chemical and biological weapons can be blunted through proper preparation, especially in terms of the pre-positioning of (and quick reaction to provide) proper CB protective suits and decontamination materials (including antibiotics, in the case of biological attack), as well as by limiting the movement of individuals from the contaminated area.

The disparity in preventive and reactive measures, and thus in overall effect, renders nuclear weapons the most easily differentiated type of “WMD.” In the case of nuclear explosives, there is relatively little preventive action that can be taken. Once a nuclear weapon has penetrated an area’s defenses (border security in the case of an imported explosive, a missile defense system in the case of an ICBM or the like, etc.), the only action that can be taken is reactive, and will almost certainly be coming on the heels of a devastating strike which has resulted in massive devastation – both structurally and in terms of human life – in the immediate area of the attack. The fallout from an attack which utilizes nuclear weapons can also render a site contaminated for a significantly longer period of time than a CB attack. While “the proliferation of biological and chemical weapons is broader” than that of their nuclear counterparts, the scope of the devastation which would result from a nuclear assault appears to warrant a greater focus on preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons than on CB weapons.

Since the year 2000, nuclear technology, and its accompanying weaponry, has been pursued with increasing vigor by states (Iran, North Korea) which have voiced their intent to act aggressively toward their neighbors, as well as by individuals and extra-state organizations which have done the same. Although the technology is more difficult to come by for the latter (despite the former A.Q. Khan “nuclear black market,” which “spread nuclear weapons technology around the world”), the threat they present can also be seen as graver, as they lack the oversight and checks and balances offered a nation by the international community.

The shifting threat, from entrenched states seeking massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons for the primary purpose of deterrence to “hostile states and terrorists” who may see these weapons as a means to an end, means that a renewed focus must be placed on nonproliferation efforts, and new tactics and strategies must be developed and implemented to better support and enforce the existing nonproliferation regime.

The Carnegie Foundation for International Peace offered what appears to be the most overall coherent, workable strategy for 21st century nonproliferation in its 2005 Strategy for Nuclear Security. The authors of this document stress the need for comprehensive nonproliferation action and policy consisting of such elements as the strengthening of enforcement through new international law, more involvement of the UN Security Council, and a tougher inspection regime, and the lessening of demand through the disarmament of existing nuclear weapons states.

The last measure in the plan to strengthen enforcement calls for “the use of force” in “counter- proliferation and preemption” efforts when needed. “If diplomacy and deterrence fail,” the authors correctly argue, a nation “must have military forces ready to defeat attacks involving unconventional weapons.” While the Carnegie approach as a whole, including this last feature, meshes nicely with the three-pillared strategy laid out in the U.S.’s National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction – counterproliferation, strengthened nonproliferation, and consequence management – the report accuses the U.S. of vastly overemphasizing “military responses to proliferation” at the expense of the other strategic pillars, a point which may have validity depending on the observer’s point of view. A precise balance between the U.S. “pillars” and among the Carnegie recommendations must certainly be struck to provide the most effective means of preventing nuclear nonproliferation. However, once the tactics have been determined, and that balance agreed upon in good faith, the decision must be maintained by those who are party to the decision-making process – a necessity which Carnegie stood on its head with its out-of-hand condemnation of the U.S. action in Iraq, which was the only time that this “use of force” has been employed, and its lamenting that said condemnation does not “appear to have diminished the enthusiasm of proponents of the Iraq war for applying the Iraq model to other problem states” – even though this application is something which these critics themselves called for in their immensely practical, workable strategy for 21st century nuclear nonproliferation.

Further, the reasoning behind this condemnation is presented dishonestly in various publications by the Carnegie contributors. In Deadly Arsenals, Cirincione, et al make the claim that:
In the year prior to the war, U.S. and British officials systematically misrepresented Iraq's weapon capabilities.
This last finding is contested by officials in the U.S. and British administrations but is widely accepted outside these governments.
First, it goes without saying that "outside acceptance" does not a fact make, and that an intentional misrepresentation is much different from - and more severe than - a de facto "misrepresentation" which comes about as the direct result of the deception of the other party (in this case, Saddam's Iraqi government) or as the result of incorrect conclusions drawn from current and previous evidence and patterns of behavior.

Likewise, the fact that something is "widely accepted" by third parties the world over (or, to be technical, 3rd-through-189th parties) does not render the beliefs of, or statements of belief by, those directly involved as meaningless.

Further, when referring back to the publication from which the beginning of the Deadly Arsenals quote (accusing the US and UK of "systematic misrepresentation") was pulled - Carnegie's Strategy for Nuclear Security - it turns out that the US systematically "misrepresented Iraq's weapons capabilities" by:
Treating nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons as a single “WMD threat," [because] the conflation of three distinct threats, very different in the danger they pose,distorted the cost/benefit analysis of the war.
In closing, I am struck by the incurable need to point out the fact that, just because Carnegie now eschews the term "WMD" (see second paragraph above), it does not automatically make any others who do still use the term (which has been recognized by the UN since 1947 - see first paragraph above) into liars.

* * *


Cirincione, Joseph, et al. Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, 2nd Ed. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2005.

Cirincione, Joseph, et al. WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2004.

McFarlane, Allison. “Audit of the Conventional Wisdom: All Weapons of Mass Destruction are not Equal.” Cambridge, MA: MIT Center for International Studies, 2006.

National Security Council. National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction. Washington, DC: White House, 2002.

Perkovich, George, et al. Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005.

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