In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Weapons of Mass Destruction

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Definitions of WMD
  • Journals
  • Are There Other Weapons of Mass Destruction?

International Relations Weapons of Mass Destruction
Justin Anderson, Amanda Moodie
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0221


The term “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) was first expressly defined by the United Nations in 1948 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” (DefiningWeapons of Mass Destruction” [2012], p. 5). The UN Commission on Conventional Armaments that developed the definition sought to distinguish these weapons—which, in its judgement, had the capacity to cause destruction and wreak havoc to a degree heretofore unprecedented in military history—from the “conventional” ballistic and explosive weapons of regular armed forces. Although sometimes nebulous in the academic literature and often ill-defined in popular discourse, this distinction between “conventional” weapons and “unconventional” WMD has generally held over time, and the term is often defined as including chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) munitions and their means of delivery (a close alternate formulation drops radiological weapons but retains the other three). The term, however, is neither uncontested nor uncontroversial. Some scholars criticize the inclusion of what they view as significantly disparate weapons under a single umbrella category or note the inaptitude of the term itself, given that CBRN weapons do not always cause massive devastation or casualties (moreover, in some circumstances, the employment of conventional weapons can wreak massive destruction, however defined). Nevertheless, the term has significance under international law, referring to weapons that are limited or banned due to the unique threat they pose to international peace and security, the particularly abhorrent effects of their employment, or both. These legal prohibitions stem from a confluence of historical developments. For example, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 led many states to fear that scientific advances would lead to weapons of ever-increasing destructive power, whereas the creation of the United Nations two months later raised hopes that the new organization might be able to exert some form of international control over nuclear and other “superweapons.” Proposals seeking to curtail the development or proliferation of WMD have remained on the international diplomatic agenda ever since, although the track record of multilateral arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament agreements is mixed. For the United States and other major military powers, the threat posed by WMD—in particular, nuclear weapons—prompted scholars and practitioners in the years after World War II to reevaluate baseline assumptions regarding geopolitics, military strategy, and legal and ethical principles regarding the use of force, sparking fierce debates over the efficacy and role of WMD that continue in the early 21st century.

General Overviews

Chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons each pose differing challenges to international peace and security, often leading scholarly publications to focus on one category of WMD and one discrete aspect (such as the proliferation of relevant materials) of the challenge posed by the weapons and delivery systems within this category. Moreover, the rapid pace of change with regard to the scientific discoveries, technological advancements, or geopolitical developments that provide critical context to studies of WMD can complicate or dissuade efforts to research or publish works attempting to treat WMD as a unified area of inquiry. Nevertheless, a number of informative and useful reference and overview works exist. Croddy and Wirtz 2005 and Garrett and Hart 2007 provide encyclopedia-style reference works on WMD that are excellent resources for first-time students or experienced researchers with entries covering the people, historical events, weapons, and weapons systems central to studies of the topic. Larsen and Smith 2005 is a dictionary of terms covering the separate but related areas of arms control and disarmament. More in-depth profiles of national efforts to develop and field WMD, and the international regimes that attempt to prevent WMD proliferation, are provided by Cirincione, et al. 2005. The military means of delivering WMD, missiles in particular, are the focus of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center 2013 and O’Halloran 2015, which provide detailed evaluations of individual delivery systems (i.e., the weapons systems that carry WMD munitions, such as bombs or warheads, and “deliver” them to a target). Many WMD studies in the past and in the early 21st century invariably attempt to provide lessons for future efforts to address the persistent policy and strategy challenges posed by these weapons. Caves and Carus 2014 provides a concise, grounded assessment of future WMD developments that suggests a range of international actors will continue to view chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons as potential tools for advancing their interests.

  • Caves, John P., and Seth Carus. The Future of Weapons of Mass Destruction: Their Nature and Role in 2030. National Defense University, Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction Occasional Paper 10. Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2014.

    Informed by a research effort that included inputs from a range of scientific, technical, and military experts, Caves and Carus provide a forward-looking analysis of WMD challenges that is grounded in developments in the mid-2010s. Nuclear weapons will likely remain important to geopolitics, advancements in biosciences may lower the bar for weaponization by a range of actors, and countering WMD threats—however defined—will remain a top priority for US policymakers.

  • Cirincione, Joseph, Jon Wolfstahl, and Miriam Rajkumar. Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats. 2d ed. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Press, 2005.

    Although much of its content is now dated, this book remains a valuable educational and historical resource. It includes chapters on WMD programs across the globe (chapters 6–22), providing analysis, maps, charts, and other materials regarding weapon and delivery system development. The book’s first five chapters helpfully provide overviews of different categories of WMD and of the international nonproliferation regime.

  • Croddy, Eric A., and James J. Wirtz, eds. Weapons of Mass Destruction: An Encyclopedia of Worldwide Policy, Technology, and History. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005.

    A useful reference for scholars, this two-volume work includes individual entries covering specific types of WMD (such as “anthrax” and “smallpox,” in addition to an essay on the overall category of biological weapons), their means of delivery, and efforts to curtail or defend against them. It also covers related concepts, individuals, institutions (e.g., Biopreparat, the Soviet biological warfare organization), and events. Volume 1 focuses on biological and chemical weapons; Volume 2, on nuclear weapons.

  • Garrett, Benjamin, and John Hart, eds. Historical Dictionary of Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Warfare. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2007.

    This concise, informative work serves to orient quickly scholars new to WMD topics. It provides an extensive list of acronyms, a chronology of WMD history from 429 BCE to the early 21st century, and a dictionary section that includes entries on specific types of WMD, national WMD programs, and relevant individuals and events (e.g., the Fifth Washington Conference on Theoretical Physics, which brought together many of the people and ideas vital to the development of nuclear weapons).

  • Larsen, Jeffrey A., and James M. Smith. Historical Dictionary of Arms Control and Disarmament. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2005.

    A valuable reference work for students and researchers, particularly those new to the history and unique language of arms control (including many acronyms unfamiliar to laypersons) and disarmament. In addition to the dictionary of terms covering conventional, chemical, biological, and nuclear arms control, it also includes useful sections providing a historical chronology of arms control agreements and a glossary of acronyms (from antiballistic missile [ABM] to weapons of mass destruction [WMD]).

  • National Air and Space Intelligence Center. Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH: NASIC Public Affairs Office, 2013.

    This 2013 unclassified edition of a periodic US Air Force report includes assessments of ballistic and cruise missile systems, many of which have a potential WMD delivery role, with a focus on systems developed by states that could represent adversaries to the United States. Report includes extensive photographs and useful tables and charts providing range and other information on specific systems.

  • O’Halloran, James C. Jane’s Weapons: Strategic, 2015–2016. Surrey, UK: Jane’s Information Group, 2015.

    The 2015 edition of this annual publication provides detailed entries, supplemented by technical details, photos, and schematics, on offensive and defensive missile systems (cruise and ballistic) and associated munitions from across the globe. It is not limited solely to long-range systems (with regard to nuclear forces, the term “strategic” is often applied only to systems with this range).

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