Analyze the history of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), biological weapons, chemical weapons, and nuclear weapons and the future threat of WMD, and explain the types of WMD that are readily...

Analyze the history of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), biological weapons, chemical weapons, and nuclear weapons and the future threat of WMD, and explain the types of WMD that are readily available to terrorist groups and explain the toxicity of the agent.

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It would require a book to trace the histories of the development of weapons of mass destruction, provide a discussion of the toxicity levels of chemical, biological and radiological weapons, and suggest how the future of weapons of mass destruction will appear.  Dense volumes have been written about the history of the atomic bomb itself, let alone the history of chemical weapons, which dates to the 19th Century.  What follows, therefore, is a brief overview, with linkages to more substantive discussions provided.

Biological weapons have been around the longest, if only because they were never dependent upon the evolution of technology.  The poisoning of the water supplies of enemy villages or tribes, for example, occurred throughout human history.  From the first time the carcass of a dead cow or sheep was deliberately dropped down a water well for the purpose of contaminating the water, biological warfare existed.  There is no question, however, that the industrial revolution, just as it would with chemical weapons, made the development of evermore virulent biological weapons possible.  The ability to extract bacteria and refine it for use in developing weapons or, conversely, for developing vaccines – and the distinction between research into vaccines and weapons is very slim – was a product of the development of technologies and techniques that accelerated rapidly with the rise of the industrial age.  Today, biological weapons programs in countries like Russia and Iran involve the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of smallpox and bubonic plague for which there are no known antidotes.  The risk of a biological weapons attack remains one of the more serious, if not the most serious, of the threats against which the United States struggles regularly to prepare. 

The development of chemical industries in technologically-advanced nations like Germany, Great Britain and the United States, and later the Soviet Union, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya and other countries, made possible the mass production of chemical weapons, the first large-scale use of which occurred during World War I when Germany used blister and choking agents like mustard and chlorine gases against entrenched British and French positions.  Fritz Haber, the German chemist considered the father of chemical weapons, famously described their use as “a higher form of killing.”  Like biological weapons, there is evidence that crude chemical weapons were used in ancient times, derived mainly from limestone and other natural substances the residue of which proved highly irritating to human tissue and, of course, the use of smoke from simple fires to asphyxiate adversaries was a form of chemical warfare.  The industrial revolution and subsequent development of chemical industries, however, made production of chemical weapons far more efficient.  Whereas biological agents spread naturally, as bacteria tends to do, chemical weapons required a more technologically-advanced system for dispersal among enemy formations or cities.

The development of atomic and later nuclear weapons dates to the centuries-long effort by scientists to understand the basic structures of nature, particularly, the atom, as well as by scientists determined to understand the nature of radioactivity.  In 1917, British physicist Ernest Rutherford was the first to split the atom, providing vital insights into nuclear reactions.  From that date on, governments in North America and Europe devoted enormous financial resources towards mastering the science of nuclear physics.  British, Hungarian, German, Russian and American scientists worked independently to further knowledge of nuclear physics.  A corollary of that knowledge, of course, was the destructive potential inherent in nuclear reactions.  While governments contemplated the potential of nuclear physics, however, the outbreak of World War II precipitated a race among combatants to develop atomic weaponry.  The result was the enormous and highly-secretive Manhattan Project combining the efforts of U.S. and British scientists operating in vast series of facilities spread across the United States, while Joseph Stalin ordered his own scientific community to similarly develop atomic weaponry – an effort aided in no small part by the successes of Soviet intelligence agencies in purloining the atomic secrets of the West.  In the meantime, both Germany and Japan maintained active programs designed to develop such weapons, with the fear of German successes in that regard spurring the Allies to ever-greater efforts.  Less is known about Japan’s program, but such a program did exist, at least in its infancy. [See]

The successful detonation of an atomic bomb at the Trinity test sight near Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, ushered in the atomic age, and the bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, marked the introduction of weapons of mass destruction as currently understood.  The Cold War, of course, was characterized, among other ways, by intense competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to develop ever-more lethal and compact forms of nuclear weaponry, as well as perfecting the means of delivering those weapons to their targets.  The most dramatic developments in this regard include hydrogen bombs, with far more destructive power than atomic weapons; the placement of multiple nuclear warheads on individual missiles, a process known as MIRVing (for Multiple Independently-Targetable Reentry Vehicles); and the development of guidance systems that provided the missiles with tremendous levels of accuracy.

The future of weapons of mass destruction is unknown. Movements to rid the world of nuclear weapons have gathered steam over the years, and the U.S. nuclear arsenal has shrunk considerably since the end of the Cold War, as has that of Russia.  The threats of chemical and biological weapons will probably be around forever, as development of such weapons is much easier than the efforts required to build nuclear bombs.  Crude chemical and biological weapons laboratories can be concealed in a basement, and their use by terrorists remains among the most frightening scenarios for the future.  A terrorist use of a nuclear weapon, especially a small, or tactical nuclear weapon (and the smallest nuclear warheads can fit in a suitcase) is THE greatest fear, and the disappearance from the former Soviet Union’s stockpiles of several such weapons remains an unsolved mystery.  A stolen tactical nuclear weapon, detonated in a city, could kill hundreds of thousands of people instantaneously.  A larger, strategic weapon, concealed in a maritime shipping container and smuggled aboard ship into a U.S. port could kill millions.  The likelihood of any such attack is hotly debated on a regular basis, but the threat is real.