Chemical weapon

A chemical weapon (CW) 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."[2]

Chemical weapon
Pallets of 155 mm artillery shells containing "HD" (mustard gas) at Pueblo Depot Activity (PUDA) chemical weapons storage facility
Blister agents
Phosgene oxime(CX)
Mustard gas (Yperite)(HD)
Nitrogen mustard(HN)
Nerve agents
Blood agents
Cyanogen chloride(CK)
Hydrogen cyanide(AC)
Choking agents
Soviet chemical weapons canister from an Albanian stockpile[1]

Chemical weapons are classified as weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), 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, kinetic, 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 (GA, GB, GD, 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 First World War, the effects of so-called mustard gas, phosgene gas and others caused lung searing, blindness, death and maiming.

The Nazi Germans during World War II committed genocide (mainly against Jews but including other targeted populations) using a commercial hydrogen cyanide blood agent trade-named Zyklon B. Discharging it in large gas chambers was the preferred method to efficiently murder their victims in a continuing industrial fashion.[3] The Holocaust resulted in the largest death toll to chemical weapons in history.[4]

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.

International law

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".[5][6] 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".[7]

The Washington Naval Treaty, signed February 6, 1922, also known as the Five-Power Treaty, aimed at banning CW but did not succeed because France rejected it. The subsequent failure to include CW has contributed to the resultant increase in stockpiles.[8]

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[9] to the treaty. Ukraine is the newest signatory; acceding August 7, 2003.[10]

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.

Modern agreements

The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is the most recent arms control agreement with the force of International law. Its full name is the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction. That agreement outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. It is administered by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is an independent organization based in The Hague.[11]

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 CW stockpiles), have been verified as destroyed.[12][13] 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.[13]


Chemical warfare (CW) 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 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. CW 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.

Countries with stockpiles

CWC states with declared stockpiles

Of 190 signatory nations to the CWC, state parties listed below have also declared stockpiles, agreed to monitored disposal, and verification, and in some cases, used CW in conflict. Both military targets and civilian populations have been affected; affected populations were not always damaged collaterally; instead, at times: themselves the target of the attack. As of 2017, only North Korea and the United States are confirmed to have remaining stockpiles of CW.


India declared its stock of chemical weapons in June 1997. India's declaration came after the entry into force of the CWC that created the OPCW. India declared a stockpile of 1044 tonnes of sulfur mustard in its possession.[14][15] On January 14, 1993, India became an original signatory to the CWC. In 2005, among the six nations that declared stockpiles of chemical weapons, India was the only one to meet its deadline for chemical weapons destruction and for inspection of its facilities by the OPCW. By the end of 2006, India had destroyed more than 75 percent of its chemical weapons/material stockpile and was granted an extension for destroying the remaining CW until April 2009. It was anticipated that India would achieve 100 percent destruction within that time frame.[15] On May 14, 2009, India informed the United Nations that it had completely destroyed its stockpile of chemical weapons.[16]


The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which oversees destruction measures, has announced "The government of Iraq has deposited its instrument of accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention with the Secretary General of the United Nations and within 30 days, on 12 February 2009, will become the 186th State Party to the Convention".[17][18] Iraq has also declared stockpiles of CW, and because of their recent accession is the only State Party exempted from the destruction time-line.[19] On September 7, 2011, Hoshyar Zebari entered the OPCW headquarters, becoming the first Iraqi Foreign Minister to officially visit since the country joined the CWC.[20]

Iraq used mustard gas in an attack against Kurdish people on March 16, 1988, Halabja chemical attack.The attack killed between 3,200 and 5,000 people and injured 7,000 to 10,000 more, most of them civilians. On June 28, 1987 in Sardasht, on two separate attacks against four residential areas, victims were estimated as 10 civilians dead and 650 civilians injured.[21] Iraq massively used chemical weapons during Iran–Iraq War, and so far, Kurdish people are the biggest victims of chemical weapons.


Japan stored chemical weapons on the territory of mainland China between 1937 and 1945. The weapons mostly contained a mustard gas-lewisite mixture.[23] They are classified as abandoned chemical weapons under the CWC; their destruction under a joint Japan-China program started in September 2010, in Nanjing using mobile destruction facilities.[24]


Libya used chemical weapons, under Muammar Gaddafi's regime, in a war with Chad. In 2003, Gaddafi agreed to accede to the CWC in exchange for "rapprochement" with western nations. At the time of the Libyan uprising against Gaddafi, Libya still controlled approximately 11.25 tons of poisonous mustard gas. Because of destabilization, concerns increased regarding possibilities and likelihood that control of these agents could be lost. With terrorism at the core of concern,[25] international bodies cooperated to ensure Libya is held to its obligations under the treaty.[26] Libya's post-Gaddafi National Transitional Council is cooperating with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons regarding the destruction of all legacy chemical weapons in the country.[27] After assessing the chemical stockpiles, the Libyan government will receive a deadline from the OPCW to destroy the CW.[28]


Russia entered the CWC with the largest declared stockpile of chemical weapons.[29] By 2010 the country had destroyed 18,241 tonnes at destruction facilities located in Gorny (Saratov Oblast) and Kambarka (Udmurt Republic), where operations have finished, and Shchuchye (Kurgan Oblast), Maradykovsky (Kirov Oblast), Leonidovka (Penza Oblast) while installations are under construction in Pochep (Bryansk Oblast) and Kizner (Udmurt Republic).[30] By 2016, Russia destroyed around 94% of its chemical weapons, planning to completely destroy its remaining stockpile by the end of 2018.[31] On September 27, 2017 Russia announced the destruction of the last batch of chemical weapons, completing the total destruction of its chemical arsenal, ahead of schedule.[32]

On March 4, 2018, Russia was alleged to have conducted a chemical attack in Salisbury, UK that left 5 injured including the alleged target of the attack, Sergei Skripal.[33]


Prior to September 2013, Syria was one of the 7 states that were not party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. It is, however, party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol and therefore, prohibited from using chemical weapons in war yet unhindered from the production, storage or transfer of CW.

When questioned about the topic, Syrian officials stated that they feel it is an appropriate deterrent against Israel's undeclared nuclear weapons program which they believe exists. On July 23, 2012, the Syrian government acknowledged, for the first time, that it had chemical weapons.[34]

Independent assessments indicate that Syria could have produced up to a few hundred tons of chemical agent per year. Syria reportedly manufactures the unitary agents: Sarin, Tabun, VX, and mustard gas.[35]

Syrian chemical weapons production facilities have been identified by Western nonproliferation experts at the following 5 sites, plus a suspected weapons base:[36]

  • Al Safir (Scud missile base)
  • Cerin
  • Hama
  • Homs
  • Latakia
  • Palmyra

In July 2007, a Syrian arms depot exploded, killing at least 15 Syrians. Jane's Defence Weekly, a UK magazine reporting on military and corporate affairs, believed that the explosion happened when Iranian and Syrian military personnel attempted to fit a Scud missile with a mustard gas warhead. Syria stated that the blast was accidental and not chemical related.[37]

On July 13, 2012, the Syrian government moved its stockpile to an undisclosed location.[38]

In September 2012, information emerged that the Syrian military had begun testing chemical weapons, and was reinforcing and resupplying a base housing these weapons located east of Aleppo in August.[39][40]

On March 19, 2013, news emerged from Syria indicating the first use of chemical weapons since the beginning of the Syrian uprising.[41]

On August 21, 2013, testimony and photographic evidence emerged from Syria indicating a large-scale chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, a populated urban center.[42]

An agreement was reached September 14, 2013, called the Framework For Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons, leading to the elimination of Syria's chemical weapon stockpiles by mid-2014.[43][44]

On October 14, 2013, Syria officially acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention but there were multiple cases of chemical weapon use in Syria afterwards.

United States

The United States has destroyed about 90% of the chemical weapons stockpile it declared in 1997, guided by RCRA regulations.[45] As of 2012 complete destruction was not expected until 2023.[46]

The U.S. policy on the use of chemical weapons is to reserve the right to retaliate. First use, or preemptive use, is a violation of stated policy. Only the president of the United States can authorize the first retaliatory use.[47] Official policy now reflects the likelihood of chemical weapons being used as a terrorist weapon.[48][49]

Non-CWC states with stockpiles


Although Israel has signed the CWC, it has not ratified the treaty and therefore is not officially bound by its tenets.[11] The country is believed to have a significant stockpile of chemical weapons, likely the most abundant in the Middle-East, according to the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service.[50] A 1983 CIA report stated that Israel, after "finding itself surrounded by front-line Arab states with budding CW capabilities, became increasingly conscious of its vulnerability to chemical attack ... undertook a program of chemical warfare preparations in both offensive and protective areas ... In late 1982, a probable CW nerve agent production facility and a storage facility were identified at the Dimona Sensitive Storage Area in the Negev Desert. Other CW agent production is believed to exist within a well-developed Israeli chemical industry."[51]

In 1992, El Al Flight 1862 crashed on its way to Tel Aviv and was found to be carrying 190 liters of dimethyl methylphosphonate, a CWC schedule 2 chemical used in the synthesis of sarin nerve gas. Israel insisted at the time that the materials were non-toxic. This shipment was coming from a US chemical plant to the IIBR under a US Department of Commerce license.[52]

In 1993, the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment WMD proliferation assessment recorded Israel as a country generally reported as having undeclared offensive chemical warfare capabilities.[53] However, it is unclear whether Israel still keeps its alleged stockpile of chemical weapons.[50]

North Korea

North Korea is not a signatory of the CWC and has never officially acknowledged the existence of its CW program. Nevertheless, the country is believed to possess a substantial arsenal of chemical weapons. It reportedly acquired the technology necessary to produce tabun and mustard gas as early as the 1950s.[54] In 2009, the International Crisis Group reported that the consensus expert view was that North Korea had a stockpile of about 2,500 to 5,000 tonnes of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, sarin (GB) and other nerve agents including VX.[55]

Manner and form

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.[56] 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%[56] of the stockpile was in this form.[57] Whereas these chemicals exist in liquid form at normal room temperature,[56][58] 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).[47]

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.[59] Perhaps more so for the community having much less access to protective equipment and specialized training.[60] The Oak Ridge National Laboratory conducted a study to assess capabilities and costs for protecting civilian populations during related emergencies,[61] and the effectiveness of expedient, in-place shelters.[62]


United States

The stockpiles, which have been maintained for more than 50 years,[8] are now considered obsolete.[63] 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 (FEMA).[56] 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).[64] 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 makes ..."[57] In June 2007, the disposal program achieved the milestone of reaching 45% destruction of the chemical weapon stockpile.[65] The Chemical Materials Agency (CMA) releases regular updates to the public regarding the status of the disposal program.[66] By October 2010, the program had reached 80% destruction status.[67]


Chemical weapons are said to "make deliberate use of the toxic properties of chemical substances to inflict death".[68] At the start of World War II it was widely reported in newspapers that "entire regions of Europe" would be turned into "lifeless wastelands".[69] However, chemical weapons were not used to the extent reported by a scaremongering 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.[70][71][72]

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.[73] Australian service personnel were also exposed as a result of the "Brook Island trials"[74] 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.[75]

Exposure during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn

During Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn, service members who demolished or handled older explosive ordnance may have been exposed to blister agents (mustard agent) or nerve agents (sarin).[76] According to The New York Times, "In all, American troops secretly reported finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs, according to interviews with dozens of participants, Iraqi and American officials, and heavily redacted intelligence documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act."[77] Among these, over 2,400 nerve-agent rockets were found in summer 2006 at Camp Taji, a former Republican Guard compound. "These weapons were not part of an active arsenal"; "they were remnants from an Iraqi program in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war".[77]

The Department of Defense (DOD) wants to identify those who experienced symptoms following exposure to chemical warfare agent. The likelihood of long-term effects from a single exposure is related to the severity of the exposure. The severity of exposure is estimated from the onset of signs and symptoms coupled with how long it took for them to develop. DOD is interested in their symptoms and their current status. DOD wants to be sure that the exposure is documented in their medical record, that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is informed, and that they understand their future health risks. DOD can provide them with information regarding their exposure to share with their health care provider, and recommend follow-up if needed. While DOD has identified some individuals, they are conducting medical record screenings on units, and reviewing Post Deployment Health Assessment and Reassessment forms to identify other exposed individuals. Because these methods have limitations, individuals are encouraged to self-identify by using the DOD Hotline: 800-497-6261.

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.[78] The majority of the chemical weapon stockpile is unitary and most of it is stored in one-ton bulk containers.[79][80]

See also


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Further reading

  • Glenn Cross, Dirty War: Rhodesia and Chemical Biological Warfare, 1975–1980, Helion & Company, 2017
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