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All Weapons of Mass Destruction Are Not Equal

In the wake of the War on Iraq and the potential for future pre-emptive conflicts based on weapons programs, it's time to reflect on the true threat they pose.

[Editor's Note: This essay is part of a series of Audits of the Conventional Wisdom, a project of the Center for International Studies at MIT.]

In the United States, weapons of mass destruction have become the bête noir of the 21st century. They are now the justification for pre-emptive war, for an expansion of the cold war nuclear arsenal, and for the spending of billions of dollars on offensive and defensive measures. Since significant portions of U.S. foreign and domestic policy are based on this categorization, it is high time to reflect on whether these weapons pose such a lethal threat.

There is, of course, much truth to the U.S. concern about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, it is clear that terrorists have become intent on causing as much death and destruction as possible. There are numerous reports that Al Qaeda, responsible for the 9/11 attacks, has sought out WMDs. Terrorists are not the only ones interested in such weapons: currently there are eight states with nuclear weapons, sixteen with chemical weapons programs, and five to twelve with biological weapons programs.

Partly in response, the United States has based recent nuclear weapons targeting policy on the concept of a broadly conceived WMD threat, equating nuclear weapons with biological and chemical weapons. Moreover, the United States is still involved in a war in Iraq that it waged in large part because of the WMD threat. Domestically, the United States spends $7 billion on biodefense but less than $2 billion on preventing a nuclear attack. These developments beg the question: are biological and chemical weapons really as threatening to the United States as nuclear weapons?

The first step in trying to answer this question is to determine how the concept of weapons of mass destruction is used, what these weapons can actually do, and how we can protect ourselves against them. Then it will be clearer whether these weapons really occupy the same category. The new perspective we gain on the concept of weapons of mass destruction will help us grasp the implications for foreign and domestic policies..

Weapons of Mass Destruction

The term weapons of mass destruction was first used on December 28, 1937, in a London Times article on the aerial bombing of Spanish cities by the Germans, noting, "Who can think without horror of what another widespread war would mean, waged as it would be with all the new weapons of mass destruction?" The United Nations has used this term since 1947, when the Security Council defined it as "atomic explosive weapons, radioactive 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." The Bush administration, in its 2002 National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, define WMD in a more limited manner as nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, which is currently the most common understanding of the term.

In some discussions, radiological weapons (dirty bombs) or ballistic missiles (because they can carry nuclear weapons) are included as WMDs.. Radiological weapons could create economic havoc, but would kill only as many people as a conventional explosive blast kills. Aballistic missile can carry WMDs, but is not a weapon itself.

A weapon of mass destruction must involve mass casualties, especially deaths.In some situations, conventional weapons have created "mass destruction," e.g., the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo by Allied troops during the Second World War. Civilians were targeted, and the deaths numbered in the tens of thousands for Dresden and 100,000 for Tokyo. A true weapon of mass destruction would create similar casualties with a single use of a weapon.

Nuclear weapons destroy not only human lives but also human infrastructure. We know from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki the destructive power of these weapons. In Hiroshima, the 15 kiloton bomb killed 140,000 people; in Nagasaki, the 21-kiloton device resulted in 70,000 dead. Both of these cities were turned into wastelands from the blasts' shock waves and associated fires. Modern nuclear weapons in the stockpiles of nuclear weapons states average more than 100 kilotons yield, or50,000 times the yield of the 1995 Oklahoma City bomb.

A chemical weapon attack on a city could be expected to produce a maximum of thousands of deaths. During the First World War, "successful" gas attacks would use tons of gas and produce hundreds to thousands of deaths and thousands of injured. An Office of Technology Assessment report suggests 1000 kilograms of sarin gas aerially dispersed on a city of density 3,000-10,000 people per square kilometer would result in 300-8000 deaths, depending on the climactic conditions at the time of the attack. The "success" of a chemical weapons attack depends on the purity of the agent ; climactic factors, such as wind, cloud cover, temperature, and precipitation; the physical properties of the chemical, including density, vapor pressure, and boiling point; persistence in the environment; and delivery mechanism. Moreover, the lethality of a chemical weapons attack depends on whether the targets are defended. Gas masks and protective clothing provide full protection against chemical weapons - defenses that do not exist for explosive or incendiary attack.

Biological weapons are the most difficult to characterize in terms of lethality. The reason for this is perhaps a good one: A large-scale biological weapons attack using well-dispersed agent has never occurred. The Office of Technology Assessment suggested that depending on climate conditions, 100 kg of anthrax could result in 130,000 to 3,000,000 dead in an urban region of 3,000 to 10,000 people per square kilometer. These numbers are in the range of those sustained in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the aftermath of the nuclear bomb attacks.

Studies comparing biological weapons' lethality yield an enormous range, from 66 deaths to 88 billion deaths per kilogram of agent used for anthrax. This varianceunderscores the uncertainty involved in predicting the lethality of these agents as weapons. A National Academy of Science report pointed out that "modeling efforts over the past decade, at least those publicly available, tend to emphasize worst-case scenarios - broadscale attacks involving millions of human casualties, if not fatalities."

For some agents, there is ample knowledge about the infectious quantity of agent and percent of population affected because of extensive experience with that agent, for example, smallpox. Little data exists for other agents such as anthrax and modified (genetically or antibiotic-resistant) agents

The ability of a target population to defend itself against the use of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons varies widely. Against nuclear weapons there is very limited defense possible.The national missile defense program---designed to intercept incoming warheads---is in its infancy and may never be able to solve the problem posed by countermeasures, warheads loaded with hundreds of thousands of bomblets containing biological agent or decoys that fool the interceptor. Itcannot defend against a nuclear bomb delivered surreptitiously, e.g., bycargo container ship. Defense against nuclear attack then, takes the form of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, materials, and expertise, a more difficult task.

It is possible to mount defenses against chemical and biological weapons. Detection of attack, use of protective clothing, and administration of antidotes, vaccines, and other treatment can greatly reduce casualties.

The question remains, are these all weapons of mass destruction? If we accept that nuclear weapons truly cause mass destruction and death, and we calibrate mass destruction against the hundred-thousand-odd fatalities that nuclear weapons cause, are chemical and biological weapons commensurate? Clearly, chemical weapons are not in the same category as nuclear weapons. At most, an attack carried out under ideal climactic conditions would result in a few thousands of deaths.

Some experts consider biological and nuclear weapons to be the "true" weapons of mass destruction. The higher end of thelethality range of biological weapons is certainly in the realm of the threat posed by nuclear weapons, but the range itself is vexing. If a nuclear weapon goes off in a densely populated area, it will kill tens of thousands of people. It is not possible to make the same assertion for biological weapons The extremely uncertain estimates rely on simulations that use limited datasets. These simulations describe worst-case scenarios and do not consider the ameliorating effects of defenses such as a good public health system. A biological weapon attack on the heart of a poor, overcrowded, third world city may indeed result in the high lethalties suggested in some models. But is the United States as vulnerable? Hardly. It has an extensive public health system and has invested in biological weapons defenses. At this point in time, there is simply not enough data to suggest that biological weapons should occupy the same policy category as nuclear weapons.

National Policy Implications

What are the political and economic implications of equating biological and chemical weapons with nuclear ones? Americans are living in a state of fear of attack by weapons of mass destruction. The United States is now targeting non-nuclear weapons states with nuclear weapons and in the process is increasing the value of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Finally, the United States is spending far more money on biodefense measures than those for nuclear defense.

News reports and politicians try to convince the public of the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction. Consider this statement from President Bush: "Those attacks [of September, 11, 2001] also raised the prospect of even worse dangers, of terrorists armed with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons. The possibility of secret and sudden attack with weapons of mass destruction is the greatest threat before humanity today." This kind of rhetoric leads the public to believe that an attack with biological, nuclear, or chemical weapons could be imminent. Statements such as this also suggest that proliferation of these weapons is on the rise, increasing the threat.

The only actual proliferation that has taken place over the last few years is nuclear weapons proliferation by North Korea, Libya (now disarmed), and perhaps Iran. There are no known new instances of biological or chemical weapons proliferation by states. Moreover, warnings of bioweapons attack are out of proportion to the threat. (And indeed few people die each year from terrorist attacks - even during 2001, when 2988 died in the 9/11 attacks; that same year in the United States, 3923 died by drowning.) Though an effcicient bioweapons attack might be expected to kill up to thousands, it most likely wouldn't reach the number of traffic deaths per year (40,000-odd per year). The fear of bioweapons attack is in itself a problem. The dire warnings from the U.S. Government and some news outlets could lead to panic and chaos, and more deaths than would occur if a calmer and more rational approach were urged on the public. Americans could instead be told that in the event of a bioweapons attack they could take precautions similar to those that prevent the transmission of any infectious disease (washing hands frequently, etc.), and by doing so, fewer would likely die. More resources to strengthen the public health system would also boost confidence, trust, and protection.

One of the main U.S. foreign policy tools that heavily relies on the concept of weapons of mass destruction is the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review. In establishing the size of the nuclear force for the United States, it claims the emergence of a new, hostile military coalition against the United States or its allies in which one or more members possesses WMD and the means of delivery is a potential contingency that could have major consequences for U.S. defense planning, including plans for nuclear forces . . . North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Libya are among the countries that could be involved in immediate, potential, or unexpected contingencies. (p.16)

The 2002 National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction makes this policy more explicit, stating: "The United States will continue to make clear that it reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force - including through resort to all of our options - to the use of WMD against the United States, our forces abroad, and friends and allies." (p.3) The United States therefore is suggesting that if attacked (or if its allies are attacked) with chemical or biological weapons, it may respond with nuclear weapons.

In specifically identifying Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Libya, the United States reversed assurances it made in l978 and 1995 that it would not attack a non-nuclear weapons state with nuclear weapons. This strategy has spawned more expansive policies, such as that found in the classified appendix to a 2002 National Security Presidential Directive, which allows the use of pre-emptive attacks on nations or terrorists who are "close to acquiring" WMDs and missiles that can transport them. The thinking goes like this : "he United States still needs nuclear weapons to deter a nuclear attack. But it must also, I believe, present a threat of nuclear retaliation to deter a biological attack, which could be as deadly, and which might not be deterred by the threat of U.S. conventional retaliation." But if biological weapons are not nearly as deadly as nuclear weapons, as I argue, then it follows that their use by states might very well be deterred by conventional weapons counterattack.

Instead of inhibiting attacks and proliferation of "weapons of mass destruction," these policies may encourage them. The U. S. weapons of mass destruction policies and biodefense programs inflate the capabilities of biological and chemical weapons. This exaggeration can translate to encouragement to states and terrorists to try to acquire these weapons. As suggested by the recent behavior of North Korea, Iraq, Iran, and Libya, nuclear weapons appear to be the most desirable weapons to states, but because of the ease of acquisition of biological and chemical weapons, these may be more desirable to non-state actors.

Equating nuclear weapons with biological weapons in particular has important implications for U.S. domestic policy. Funds are being diverted to defend against and respond to future biological weapons attacks from more pressing issues. In a letter to Science magazine in 2005, over 700 scientists expressed their concern about the massive redirection of funding from "projects of high public-health importance to projects of high biodefense but low public health importance." Grants to work on bioweapons agents increased by 1500 percent in the 2001-2005 period compared with 1996-2000. Similar increases in national biodefense spending exist. For FY2001, the U.S. government spent $414 million on civilian biodefense; in FY2005, the budget request was $7,647.6 million, an increase of 1,850 percent.

Comparing biodefense spending to nuclear materials security spending reveals the priorities of the U.S. Government. As suggested earlier, the only defenses available against nuclear weapons attack are preventive: securing nuclear weapons, materials, and personnel around the world that could be used in a nuclear weapons program, and improving border security to detect the entry of a nuclear weapon into the United States. The United States has established a number of programs to this end. In FY 2004, the U.S. government spent $722 million securing nuclear warheads, materials, and expertise in the former Soviet Union. In FY 2005, it spent $803 million on this program. The Department of Energy spent an additional $589 million in FY 2004 to plan to dispose of U.S. weapons plutonium and uranium declared excess to military needs. In FY 2005, this number was reduced to $549 million. In FY2006, the federal government requested $125 million for radiation portal monitors to protect the country's borders. Even when all these programs are considered together, the spending on defense against nuclear weapons use in the United States is less than $2 billion, much less than that spent on biodefense programs.

As the experience of the 1990s shows, nuclear weapons are the ones being proliferated. If they are the true weapons of mass destruction, then current U.S. policies do not make sense. Domestic defense against biological weapons attack should not be receiving more than three times the funding as nuclear weapons defense strategies. Biological and chemical weapons are not nuclear weapons. In the event of a biological weapons attack on its soil, the U.S. may never determine who committed the attack (as it has not in the case of the 2001 anthrax attacks). Foreign policies that promise nuclear retaliation against those who attack with biological and chemical weapons are weak threats. A stronger position to deal with the proliferation of these weapons would be to set policies that devalue nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, instead of spending billions of dollars defending ourselves against ghosts, and in the process putting these weapons on a pedestal.