Weapon of mass destruction

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1. A weapon of mass destruction can be defined as devices which are capable of high order of destruction and are intended to cause serious bodily harm, incapacitation or death to large number of people or to destroy material and facilities. These include weapons designed to release radiological matter, biological and chemical agents or materials at a level dangerous to human life. This definition also includes the use of nuclear devices, high yield conventional explosives and Improvised Explosive Device (IED).[1]

2. Chemical weapons act very quickly, but can be detected easily and affect only a limited area. Biological weapons have an inbuilt delay system as living organisms are used and take a longer time to manifest. Lastly, nuclear weapons affect instantaneously and the use of tactical nuclear weapon may lead to strategic nuclear weapon exchange. The pattern seen over the years is that nations invest in chemical, biological and nuclear, in this sequence to minimise risk and maximise investment with limited resources.


3. The principal physical effects of nuclear weapon are blast, heat and thermal radiation. These effects are dependent upon the yield of the weapon expressed in Kilo Ton (KT), physical design of the weapon and upon method of deployment.

4. Radiation from a Detonation. A nuclear burst results in four types of ionizing radiation

  1. Neutron,

  2. Gamma,

  3. Beta, and

  4. Alpha.

5. Neutron and Gamma rays characterise the initial burst while the residual radiation primarily consists of Alpha, Beta, and Gamma rays. However radiation effects are far more complex and varied then that from blast and thermal effects.

6. Medical Effects of Nuclear Detonation. The physiological effects of nuclear weapons result from the direct physical effects from the blast, the thermal radiation, the ionising radiation (initial or residual), or a combination. Injuries from ionising radiation emitted from weapons less than 10 KT (which is a likely weapon yield used by extremist), shall be the primary creator of casualties requiring medical care.

7. Physiological Aspects of Nuclear Weapon. Though it is difficult to predict the number and type of psychological patients and problems which would occur in such circumstances, the one and only use of a nuclear weapon on Japan has amply demonstrated the genetic and psychological disorders that people are till date suffering.


8. The first known use of Chemical Weapon (CW) was in 429 BC, when sulphur fumes were used. World War -I saw nearly 1.3 million people dead to Chemical Warfare. Germany was the first to use it corrosive chlorine gas and mustard gas in WW -I. Nearly all the country used CW during both the world wars. During the Iraq - Iran war (1980), Iraq used CW. Iraqis again used CW to suppress the Kurds in 1988. US used defoliant, Agent Orange, against Vietnam to destroy forest, which gave protection to Vietnamese. Since the procedure for making CW is given in most of the text books, it is also known as 'Poor man's atom bomb'.

9. The broad spectrum of chemical agents which may cause damage to living organisms makes distinction difficult for such compounds, hence the discussion will be limited to substances effecting humans only. There are several ways to classify such agents but the most efficient way to classify them by their effects. The chemical agents with their effects are discussed below.

  1. Choking Agents. These agents are gases, which fill the lungs with water causing pulmonary oedema. The chlorine in the agent destroys the cells lining the respiratory tracts causing damage to lung. The most common choking agents are Phosgene and Chloropicrin.

  2. Blister Agents. These agents burn and blister the skin or any part of the body they contact. They act on eyes, lungs, and other sensitive organs. Blistering agents meant to cause incapacitation and not death. A special protection suit is required to be worn, which degrades a soldiers fighting capability. Some common blistering agents are sulphur mustard and nitrogen mustard.

  3. Blood Agents. Cyanide based compounds are the main components of the blood agents. Hydrogen cyanide, a blood agent has a lethal dose slightly higher than that of phosgene but is less effective due to its rapid rate of evaporation. These compounds aren't really suited for use on large numbers of people, so their primary role would most likely be in assassinations.[2]

  4. Nerve Agents. They affect the transmission of nerve impulses to the nervous system. They belong to organo-phosphorous compound group. They are stable, easily dispensed, effect rapidly either through skin or breathing. Nerve agents are very useful for the terrorists as even a small quantity will inflict a substantial amount of damage. These chemicals, in their most effective form, are more difficult to obtain.

  5. Sensory Irritants. These agents produce incapacitating irritants to the eyes and upper respiratory organs within few minutes. These are generally used as riot control and commonly known as tear gas.

  6. Psychotomimetics. They affect the brain functioning, alters attention span, judgement and sense of responsibility. Symptoms are drowsiness, confusion, unsteadiness and hallucinations.

  7. Chemical Calmatives. These are non lethal compound, and depress or inhibit the central nervous system, producing tranquil or calm behaviour. This was used by Russians in a Moscow theatre in Oct 2002 against Chechen extremists. The person may die if inhaled in more than a particular dosage.

  8. Defoliating Agents. These agents were used extensively in Vietnam War by Americans, and it interferes with the metabolism process of the plants, denying retaining moisture, and may cause health problems to humans.

  9. Binary Chemical Weapons. These weapons are prepared by mixing two agents and make them react after the weapon has been fired.

10. A chemical weapon can be delivered by different methods. In case of gas cloud or mist, wind becomes a favoured carrier of gas. Delivering chemical agents with the help of mines, mortar and artillery shell were developed and perfected. A chemical agent can be successfully sprayed from an aircraft flying low, thus surprising the enemy.[3]


11. Biological weapon is another deadly threat, which can be carried through food, air, water, or living organisms. If properly released, biological weapons can kill on a massive scale, even spreading across oceans to distant continents and population centres. Like other WMD, however, developing a biological weapons capability presents scientific and operational challenges. The quality of the biological weapon greatly determines its ability to harm people. It requires substantial technical expertise to assemble a biological weapon such as the one used in the 2001 anthrax attacks. Some terrorist organizations, however, remain interested in developing a bio weapons capability. It is very difficult to detect and differentiate natural disease from Biological Warfare (BW) attacks. Details of Biological agents which can be used as weapons are mentioned below.

  1. Bacteria. They are small organisms, which multiply by simple process of division. There are harmful as well as useful bacteria. Some common examples are plague, cholera and tuberculosis. Most of these bacteria can be treated with antibiotics.

  2. Viruses. They are treated as being non living as they reproduce on attaching to a living cell. The food is provided by the cell to which it is attached. Each virus can affect only a particular type of cells. Viruses generally do not respond to antibiotic, but may be responsive only to certain antiviral compounds. Some common viruses are smallpox, polio, AIDS, and chickenpox.

  3. Toxins. Toxins are poisonous substances produced and derived from plants, animals, or microorganisms, and produced chemically. Toxins may be countered by specific antisera and selected pharmacological agents. Anthrax is an example, and can be treated by a specific agent.

  4. Fungi. Fungi are primitive plants which do not use photosynthesis, are capable of anaerobic growth, and draws nutrition from decaying vegetable matter. Most of the fungi form spores, and in free living forms are found in soil. Fungal diseases may respond to various anti microbial products. They can infect internally and externally.

  5. Rickettsiae. They are microorganisms with characteristics of both bacteria and virus. Like bacteria, they possess metabolic enzymes and cell membranes, utilise oxygen, and are susceptible to broad-spectrum antibiotics. They resemble viruses in that they grow only within living cells. They cause pain, swelling, and reddening of the site of infection, but respond to antibiotics.

  6. Chlamydia. Chlamydia are obligatory intracellular parasite, which are incapable of generating their own energy sources/ Like bacteria, they are responsive to broad - spectrum antibiotics, and like viruses, they require living cells for multiplication.

12. Features of Biological Weapon.

  1. It is highly infectious, requiring few organisms to achieve the desired effect.

  2. It can be effectively dispersed, usually from air. They are contagious and effective on contact.

  3. It can be readily grown and produced in large quantities.

  4. It is stable to store and can be stored in ready to deliver state.

  5. They have enough resistance to environmental conditions to remain infectious for a long time to affect majority of the targets.

  6. Above all they are resistant to treatment.

13. Characteristics of a Biological Weapon Attack.

  1. Unusual number of casualties.

  2. Unusual distribution of casualties.

  3. Unusual geographic distribution.

  4. Unusual disease pattern.

  5. Unusual disease outbreak.

  6. Unusual disease symptoms.

  7. Illness in animals and humans.


14. Radiological weapon is the simplest nuclear device, as it does not involving any nuclear explosion. It can be detonated by conventional high explosive like Semtex, dynamite or TNT, and surrounded by incendiary material such as thermite, with radioactive material at the centre. The fire ignited by the incendiary material would carry the radioactivity up into the atmosphere and dispersed downwind. Radioisotopes which can be used would preferably be easily available, energetically radioactive, having a long half life, like Cesium -137, Cobalt-60, Iridium-192, Strontium-90 and Plutonium. Plutonium would cause greatest harm but is difficult to acquire. Highly radioactive material with long-lived isotopes, such as spent nuclear fuel, could significantly increase adverse health effects.[4]

15. Radiological weapons provide a low cost and low technology alternative for terrorist organizations seeking to inflict damage beyond the current capabilities and limitations of conventional explosives but who lack the resources to fabricate or obtain a true weapon of mass destruction. Radioactive sources are readily available and do not require sophisticated or expensive delivery vehicles to achieve effectiveness. Even a poorly planned and executed radiological attack could achieve devastating economic and psychological impact and a great deal of literature addresses these issues. However, radiological weapons are typically misrepresented as lacking a lethal component due to the unimaginative assumption that radiological weapons must take the form of a dirty bomb, or radioactive material spread through the use of conventional explosives. While there is relevance in speculating terrorists may employ a dirty bomb primarily to inspire terror and inflict economic damage to disrupt the United State's economy, there is a competing and growing trend among terrorist organizations to maximize the carnage and bloodshed associated with their attacks. These terrorists have transcended the need to connect their acts of terror directly with a political demand. Resultantly, their acts of terror are more commonly brought to a violent conclusion without an offer for negotiation.

16. The immediate casualties of a dirty bomb would be related to the conventional explosive and likely to number in tens or hundreds. Depending on the nature, size and location of explosion, hundreds of thousands people could be exposed to radiation and live with an increased risk of cancer. Substantial fear, panic and social and economic disruption would be inevitable. Decontamination may need to be extensive and could be very costly, involving demolition of buildings and resurfacing of roads and pavements.

17. Instead of a mushroom cloud, stealth and surprise would be employed to expose people unknowingly to maximise effect. The threat of exposure to radiological agents decreases with the square of the distance from the site of release. The threat to those in the immediate area of release is real and potentially grave. But people carrying the radioactive dust on their persons will carry it away from the site of release and contaminate others. The appearance of symptoms as a result of a radiological attack will depend on the form of the radiation, the level of exposure, and the degree of inhalation or ingestion of radioactive dust.[5]


18. WMD has been in use since the 6th century BC, when chemical and biological agents were used. The first use of atomic bomb was to culminate the World War II with the surrender of Japan.

19. Nuclear Weapon. By far the most dangerous of all weapons, as was evident from the after effect of Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks. The destruction caused by this can be catastrophic and wipe out unimaginable population and area. The chance of a radical group getting this technology is debatable, but after the disintegration of Russia, some nuclear weapons have gone missing as per some reports.

20. Chemical Weapons. The Spartans in 429 BC used sulphur fumes in Peloponnesian war. This is the first recorded use of chemical agents in warfare. The World War I saw 1.3 million dead due to use of chemical weapon. Since then, chemical weapon has been used in some form or the other in different wars. In Vietnam, Americans used defoliating agents to clear the vast forest, which provided protection to the Vietnamese force. The chemical weapons can be classified as Blood gases and Choking agents, Vesicants, Nerve agents, Sensory irritants, Psychotomimetics, Chemical calmatives, and Defoliating agents.

21. Biological Weapons. Biological weapon was first used in 6th century BC, when the Assyrians poisoned the enemy's wells with rye ergot. Since then biological weapon has been used in nearly all the war. After Israel destroyed the Iraqi nuclear plant, USA supplied Iraq with biological weapons. These biological agents are unique as they enter the body, multiply and then cause the desires illness. Biological agents used as weapons are classified as Bacteria, Viruses, Fungi, Toxins, Rrickettsiae and Chlamydia.

[1]Weapons of mass Destruction by MN Sastri, published by A.P.H Publishing Corporation, Darya Ganj, New Delhi.

[2] Terrorist Use of Chemical Weapons by Austin Godber, http://www.uberhip.com/people/godber/research/cwpaper.html visited on 11 Dec 2009

[3] Weapons of Mass Destruction: Options for India, written by Rear Admiral Raja Menon, published by SAGE Publications, New Delhi

[4] Nuclear terrorism by Tilman Ruff at [email protected]

[5] Are We Prepared for Terrorism Using Weapons of Mass Destruction? Government's Half Measures, by Eric C Taylor, Policy analysis No 387, November 27,