This article is about the type of munition. For the concept in biology, see Chemical defense
A chemical weapon
) is a specialized munition
that uses chemicals formulated
to inflict death or harm on humans. According to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons
(OPCW), "the term chemical weapon may also be applied to any toxic chemical or its precursor
that can cause death, injury, temporary incapacitation or sensory irritation through its chemical action. Munitions or other delivery devices designed to deliver chemical weapons, whether filled or unfilled, are also considered weapons themselves."
Chemical weapons are classified as weapons of mass destruction
(WMD), though they are distinct from nuclear weapons
, biological weapons
, and radiological weapons
. All may be used in warfare and are known by the military acronym NBC (for nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare). Weapons of mass destruction are distinct from conventional weapons
, which are primarily effective due to their explosive
, or incendiary
potential. Chemical weapons can be widely dispersed in gas, liquid and solid forms, and may easily afflict others than the intended targets. Nerve gas
, tear gas
and pepper spray
are three modern examples of chemical weapons.
Lethal unitary chemical agents and munitions are extremely volatile
and they constitute a class of hazardous chemical weapons that have been stockpiled
by many nations. Unitary agents are effective on their own and do not require mixing with other agents. The most dangerous of these are nerve agents
, and VX
) and vesicant
(blister) agents, which include formulations of sulfur mustard such as H, HT, and HD. They all are liquids at normal room temperature, but become gaseous when released. Widely used during the World War I
, the effects of so-called mustard gas
, phosgene gas
and others caused lung searing, blindness, death and maiming.
As of 2016, CS gas
and pepper spray
remain in common use for policing and riot control; while CS is considered a non-lethal weapon
, pepper spray is known for its lethal potential. Under the Chemical Weapons Convention
(1993), there is a legally binding, worldwide ban on the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons and their precursors. Notwithstanding, large stockpiles of chemical weapons continue to exist, usually justified as a precaution against putative use by an aggressor.
Chemical warfare involves using the toxic properties
of chemical substances
as weapons. This type of warfare is distinct from nuclear warfare
and biological warfare
, which together make up NBC, the military initialism for Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical (warfare or weapons). None of these fall under the term conventional weapons
, which are primarily effective because of their destructive potential. Chemical warfare does not depend upon explosive
force to achieve an objective. It depends upon the unique properties of the chemical agent weaponized
A British gas bomb that was used during World War I.
A lethal agent is designed to injure, incapacitate, or kill an opposing force, or deny unhindered use of a particular area of terrain. Defoliants
are used to quickly kill vegetation and deny its use for cover and concealment. Chemical warfare can also be used against agriculture and livestock to promote hunger and starvation. Chemical payloads can be delivered by remote controlled container release, aircraft, or rocket. Protection against chemical weapons includes proper equipment, training, and decontamination measures.
John Singer Sargent
's iconic World War I painting: Gassed
, showing blind casualties on a battlefield after a mustard gas attack
Simple chemical weapons were used sporadically throughout antiquity and into the Industrial age.
It was not until the 19th century that the modern conception of chemical warfare emerged, as various scientists and nations proposed the use of asphyxiating or poisonous gasses.
So alarmed were nations that multiple international treaties, discussed below, were passed – banning chemical weapons. This however did not prevent the extensive use of chemical weapons in World War I
. The development of chlorine gas
, among others, was used by both sides to try to break the stalemate of trench warfare
. Though largely ineffective over the long run, it decidedly changed the nature of the war. In many cases the gasses used did not kill, but instead horribly maimed, injured, or disfigured casualties. Some 1.3 million gas casualties were recorded, which may have included up to 260,000 civilian casualties.
The interwar years saw occasional use of chemical weapons, mainly to put down rebellions.
In Nazi Germany, much research went into developing new chemical weapons, such as potent nerve agents
However, chemical weapons saw little battlefield use in World War II. Both sides were prepared to use such weapons, but the Allied powers never did, and the Axis used them only very sparingly. The reason for the lack of use by the Nazis, despite the considerable efforts that had gone into developing new varieties, might have been a lack of technical ability or fears that the Allies would retaliate with their own chemical weapons. Those fears were not unfounded: the Allies made comprehensive plans for defensive and retaliatory use of chemical weapons, and stockpiled large quantities.
Japanese forces used them more widely, though only against their Asian enemies, as they also feared that using it on Western powers would result in retaliation. Chemical weapons were frequently used against Kuomintang
and Chinese communist troops.
However, the Nazis did extensively use poison gas against civilians in The Holocaust
. Vast quantities of Zyklon B
gas and carbon monoxide were used in the gas chambers of Nazi extermination camps
, resulting in the overwhelming majority of some three million deaths. This remains the deadliest use of poison gas in history.
Before the Second World War International law
has prohibited the use of chemical weapons since 1899, under the Hague Convention
: Article 23 of the Regulations Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land adopted by the First Hague Conference "especially" prohibited employing "poison and poisoned arms".
A separate declaration stated that in any war between signatory powers, the parties would abstain from using projectiles "the object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases".
The Washington Naval Treaty
, signed February 6, 1922, also known as the Five-Power Treaty, aimed at banning chemical warfare but did not succeed because France rejected it. The subsequent failure to include chemical warfare has contributed to the resultant increase in stockpiles.
The Geneva Protocol
, officially known as the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare
, is an International treaty prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons
. It was signed at Geneva
June 17, 1925, and entered into force on February 8, 1928. 133 nations are listed as state parties
to the treaty. Ukraine
is the newest signatory; acceding August 7, 2003.
This treaty states that chemical and biological weapons are "justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilised world". And while the treaty prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons, it does not address the production, storage, or transfer of these weapons. Treaties that followed the Geneva Protocol did address those omissions and have been enacted.
The OPCW administers the terms of the CWC to 192 signatories, which represents 98% of the global population. As of June 2016, 66,368 of 72,525 metric tonnes, (92% of chemical weapon stockpiles), have been verified as destroyed.
The OPCW has conducted 6,327 inspections at 235 chemical weapon-related sites and 2,255 industrial sites. These inspections have affected the sovereign territory of 86 States Parties since April 1997. Worldwide, 4,732 industrial facilities are subject to inspection under provisions of the CWC.
Countries with stockpiles
Manner and form
Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System prior to demolition.
There are three basic configurations in which these agents are stored. The first are self-contained munitions like projectiles, cartridges, mines, and rockets; these can contain propellant and/or explosive components. The next form are aircraft-delivered munitions. This form never has an explosive component.
Together they comprise the two forms that have been weaponized
and are ready for their intended use. The U.S. stockpile consisted of 39% of these weapon ready munitions. The final of the three forms are raw agent housed in one-ton containers. The remaining 61%
of the stockpile was in this form.
Whereas these chemicals exist in liquid form at normal room temperature,
the sulfur mustards H, and HD freeze in temperatures below 55 °F (12.8 °C). Mixing lewisite with distilled mustard lowers the freezing point to −13 °F (−25.0 °C).
Higher temperatures are a bigger concern because the possibility of an explosion increases as the temperatures rise. A fire at one of these facilities would endanger the surrounding community as well as the personnel at the installations.
Perhaps more so for the community having much less access to protective equipment and specialized training.
The Oak Ridge National Laboratory
conducted a study to assess capabilities and costs for protecting civilian populations during related emergencies,
and the effectiveness of expedient, in-place shelters
Stockpile/disposal site locations for the United States' chemical weapons and the sites operating status as of August 28, 2008.
The stockpiles, which have been maintained for more than 50 years,
are now considered obsolete. Public Law 99-145
, contains section 1412, which directs the Department of Defense
(DOD) to dispose of the stockpiles. This directive fell upon the DOD with joint cooperation from the Federal Emergency Management Agency
The Congressional directive has resulted in the present Chemical Stockpile Disposal Program.
Historically, chemical munitions have been disposed of by land burial, open burning, and ocean dumping (referred to as Operation CHASE
However, in 1969, the National Research Council
(NRC) recommended that ocean dumping be discontinued. The Army then began a study of disposal technologies, including the assessment of incineration as well as chemical neutralization methods. In 1982, that study culminated in the selection of incineration technology, which is now incorporated into what is known as the baseline
system. Construction of the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System
(JACADS) began in 1985.
This was to be a full-scale prototype facility using the baseline system. The prototype was a success but there were still many concerns about CONUS operations. To address growing public concern over incineration, Congress, in 1992, directed the Army to evaluate alternative disposal approaches that might be "significantly safer", more cost effective, and which could be completed within the established time frame. The Army was directed to report to Congress on potential alternative technologies by the end of 1993, and to include in that report: "any recommendations that the National Academy of Sciences
In June 2007, the disposal program achieved the milestone of reaching 45% destruction of the chemical weapon stockpile.
The Chemical Materials Agency
(CMA) releases regular updates to the public regarding the status of the disposal program.
By October 2010, the program had reached 80% destruction status.
Chemical weapons are said to "make deliberate use of the toxic properties of chemical substances to inflict death".
At the start of World War II it was widely reported in newspapers that "entire regions of Europe" would be turned into "lifeless wastelands".
However, chemical weapons were not used to the extent predicted by the press.
An unintended chemical weapon release occurred at the port of Bari
. A German
attack on the evening of December 2, 1943, damaged U.S. vessels in the harbour and the resultant release from their hulls of mustard gas inflicted a total of 628 casualties.
An Australian observer who has moved into a gas-affected target area to record results, examines an un-exploded shell.
The U.S. Government was highly criticized for exposing American service members to chemical agents while testing the effects of exposure. These tests were often performed without the consent or prior knowledge of the soldiers affected.
Australian service personnel were also exposed as a result of the "Brook Island trials"
carried out by the British Government to determine the likely consequences of chemical warfare in tropical conditions; little was known of such possibilities at that time.
Some chemical agents are designed to produce mind-altering changes; rendering the victim unable to perform their assigned mission. These are classified as incapacitating agents, and lethality is not a factor of their effectiveness.
Unitary versus binary weapons
Binary munitions contain two, unmixed and isolated chemicals that do not react to produce lethal effects until mixed. This usually happens just prior to battlefield use. In contrast, unitary weapons are lethal chemical munitions that produce a toxic result in their existing state.
The majority of the chemical weapon stockpile is unitary and most of it is stored in one-ton bulk containers.
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