Weapons of Mass Destruction

Editorial Analysis for UPSC - Weapons of Mass Destruction

Weapons of Mass Destruction

  • With US and Russia tensions rising to cold war era levels due to the conflict in Ukraine, we can take this time to take a look at the reason why cold war remained cold, the reason behind MAD doctrine viz Weapons of Mass Destruction.
  • A weapon of mass destruction is a nuclear, radiological, chemical, biological, or other device that is intended to harm a large number of people.

Nuclear Weapons

  • When you hear the term Weapons of Mass Destruction, what comes to mind naturally are nuclear weapons. However, many do not clearly understand these catastrophe-causing weapons.
  • The concept of a nuclear weapon arose from the Theory of Special Relativity where he postulated that matter and energy are interconvertible.
  • The first nuclear weapon was developed by the United States during the Second World War under the codename of Manhattan Project and a test detonation was conducted at New Mexico, United States, called Trinity.
  • Two bombs were developed called Little Boy and Fat Man. Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima on 6th August 1945. The second bomb called Fat Man was dropped 3 days on 9th August 1945 later over Nagasaki.
  • The world witnessed the devastating powers of nuclear weapons then for the first time. The bombing was considered as the reason why Japan surrendered. On August 15, 1945, Japanese Emperor Hirohito gave a recorded radio address, which later came to be known as the Jewel Voice Broadcast. In the radio address, he announced the surrender of Japan to the Allies.
  • Later, on August 29th 1949 USSR also developed their own nuclear weapons. The development of nuclear weapons by both sides of the Iron Curtain has often been cited as a reason why the 3rd world war never occurred.
  • Currently nine countries are known to possess nuclear weapons. These include the P5 nations of UNSC i.e., China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States of America.
  • The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons aka Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 only recognises these 5 countries as Nuclear Weapon States. However, 3 countries have declared themselves as nuclear weapon states, viz India, Pakistan and North Korea. Though never confirmed, Israel is also suspected to possess nuclear weapons.
  • USA and Russia are said to contain over 90% of all the nuclear weapons in the world.

Biological Weapon

  • People often ignore the threat of Bio weapons or treat them as fantasies. However, bio weapons are the oldest weapons of mass destruction ever used. The earliest documented incident of the intention to use biological weapons is recorded in Hittite texts of 1500–1200 BCE, in which victims of tularaemia were driven into enemy lands, causing an epidemic among their population.
  • The ancient Romans were known to dip their swords in excrement and cadavers before attacking which resulted in their enemies dying of tetanus.
  • Though unintentional, the ease at which Europeans conquered the Americas was due to the plagues brought by them which decimated the native populations.
  • Once the germ theory was confirmed to be a fact and the field of bacteriology was developed, weaponization of diseases became a reality. This was first witnessed in the First World War where the Imperial German government conducted experiments to check the weaponization capacity of diseases such as Anthrax.
  • Realising the deadlines of bio weapons, countries came together to form the Geneva protocol of 1925 which prohibited the deployment of chemical or biological weapons.
  • This however didn’t prevent the countries from trying to develop their own weapons. While most of these were carried out in the name of increasing the defence against a potential bioweapon attack, the measures taken by many of these countries can be termed as nothing less than inhuman.
  • The most notorious of the group was the Imperial Japan run program in Manchuria during the Second World War where potentially fatal experiments were conducted on prisoners without their understanding or consent.
  • After the war both the USA and USSR wanted to increase their capabilities in fighting unconventional warfare and hence both heavily invested on ‘protection’ against chemical or biological weapons.
  • While most of these were classified as top secret, some were later revealed to the public such as Operation Sea Spray in 1950 during which the US Navy deliberately infected the residents of San Francisco with viral agents to test the effectiveness of the state machinery in the case of an actual attack.
  • Even though the Soviet Union was more secretive compared to the United States, there have been few rumours of soviet bioweapon programs coming out, especially after its collapse in 1991.
  • The biggest concern nowadays is not countries developing bio weapons, rather non-state actors developing them. After the World Trade Centre attack of 2001, there were multiple letters coated with Anthrax sent to various US officials. This shows the threat bioweapons pose to any country regardless of their military power.


Chemical Weapon
  • According to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), this can be any chemical compound intended as a weapon “or its precursor that can cause death, injury, temporary incapacitation or sensory irritation through its chemical action.
  • While chemical weapons are classified as weapons of mass destruction, it is important to remember that not all chemical weapons cause large scale death or destruction. The pepper spray used by law enforcement for crowd control can also be termed as a weapon of mass destruction.
  • Chemical weapons were used on a large scale for the first time during the first world war. Gaseous weapons such as mustard gas and phosgene gas were especially useful against trench warfare since they were heavier than air and would therefore sink.
  • During Second World War, the Nazis used Zyklon B, a hydrogen-cyanide based poison, to kill Jews en masse. Carbon Monoxide was also used in gas chambers to kill their political opponents.
  • However, it is reported that Hitler refused to use chemical weapons such as Sarin gas against the Allied Army even though they had built a large stockpile of these chemical weapons.
  • During the Vietnam war the United States had used an herbicide called Agent Orange to destroy the heavy vegetation that was hiding the Viet Kong. This is considered to be the cause of disability and health issues for up to a million people.
  • The Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 has banned the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and their precursors.
  • However, many countries still stockpile them without the knowledge of the international community.
  • Recently the Syrian Government was accused of using chemical weapons against the rebel forces by the United States its allies.
  • Ukraine has accused Russia of using chemical weapons in the ongoing war.
  • While there are many international conventions and treaties which prohibit the development or deployment of these weapons of mass destruction, it is well known that the only way to ensure that these weapons are never used depends on us finding our own humanity within.
  • As we look at the shadow of a global war, we can take one moment to remember the words given by Mahatma Gandhi “Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat for it is momentary.”