The Poor Man's Atomic Bomb

Other weapons of mass destruction. In other words,chemical, biological and radiological. Although they're not quite as flashy as nuclear weapons, they are classified as weapons of mass destruction for a reason. In fact biological weapons are actually deadlier that nuclear ones, pound for pound, if only they could be made reliable and safe for their user. See stats here The title of the article comes from a quote from the Iranian speaker of parliament in The '80s, perhaps best capturing in this phrase what they are: very destructive weapons that are much cheaper and easier to produce than nuclear weapons.

Chemical Warfare

To quote The Other Wiki: "Chemical warfare (CW) involves using the toxic properties of chemical substances as weapons." Chemical weapons usage goes back to ancient times: people have been using poison in their weapons ever since they found the stuff, and the ancients would burn noxious materials, such as pitch, arsenic etc. Modern Chemical Warfare dates from World War I, where the Germans started off using xylyl bromide and chlorine. Eventually, mustard gas and phosgene would be added to the mix. Gas was used in various conflicts between the wars, but wasn't really used during World War II, except for the Japanese invasion of China. The Germans and Japanese both researched Chemical Warfare, and both the Soviets and Americans used their research after the war to produce thousands of tons of chemical agents. Post World War II, chemical agents were used in a variety of places such as Yemen and allegedly in Vietnam by the Americans. The most infamous instance was in Halabja, a Kurdish village that Chemical Ali gassed, killing over 5,000 people.

Tear gas and pepper spray, "less lethal" agents, are generally also classed as chemical weapons - but they are allowed for civilian and civil law enforcement possession and use - but forbidden in military usage outside of training, both because an attack with them could be mistaken for an attack with one of the lethal agents (symptoms begin similarly), and because they are, for the purposes of The Laws and Customs of War, considered chemical weapons.


There are two types of "less lethal" agents: Tear gas (with various subtypes) and pepper spray. There are four main types of lethal agents, Blister, Blood, Nerve and Choking.

  • Blister Agents work coming into contact and irritating the skin. The also harm the eyes and cause blisters on the skin, hence the name.
    • Mustard Gas, a yellow gas with an overpoweringly pungent smell, hence the name. It is distinguished between "sulphur mustard" and "nitrogen mustard", though only the first was used in combat. It was used in World War I and in the Iran-Iraq war among other places. It is extremely carcinogenic, and causes severe burns to a person.
    • Lewisite is another such agent developed during World War I, but never used.
  • Blood agents work by interfering with oxygen use of the blood. The victims blood is bright red because of this, which can mask the signs of oxygen deprivations.
    • One such example is Hydrogen cyanide, also known as Prussic acid or blue acid ("Blausäure"), an agent which is toxic at concentration of 300 mg/m3. It found a widespread use as a pesticide in Europe before the WWII, under the trade mark "Zyklon B". Yes, that Zyklon B — the same one that the Nazis used to murder people in concentration camps. While it was allegedly a pesticide used to disinfect prisoners' clothes, the concentrations of Zyklon B needed to kill humans are much lower than the concentrations needed to kill insects... And despite being handled in considerable amounts, it apparently did not cause a single accidental death.
  • Choking Agents work by causing injury to the lung-blood barrier resulting in Asphyxia.
    • Chlorine, one of the first agents used in chemical warfare works like this. It reacts with water in the lungs to form highly corrosive hydrochloric acid, leading to pulmonary oedema and death. This agent, however was easily defeated by gas masks, and subsequently hasn't really been used. The only exception was by insurgents in the Iraq War, perhaps because they can't get their hands on anything deadlier. Your average housewife, maid, or other person who has cleaned up a bathroom in the U.S. has probably accidentally manufactured chlorine gas simply by mixing bleach and ammonia, it is extremely easy to produce, and making it by mistake is something you only do once, after you finish violently coughing.
    • Phosgene, a colorless gas was also used, in World War I, as well as in World War II. Most of the deaths in the Bhopal disaster (though it was an industrial accident, not wartime use) were caused by phosgene, which is generated when the methylisocyanate (the escaped chemical, thoroughly nasty by itself) reacts with water.
  • Nerve Gas: This is the biggie, they are probably the deadliest chemical agents in the world. The were discovered before and during World War II by German scientists looking for new insecticides (and indeed, some common insecticides are closely related and work the same way, only on insects not people). The only state ever to use nerve gas was Iraq under Saddam Hussein; they used it in the brutal (nay, genocidal) suppression of the Kurdish rebellion and against the Iranians in the Iran–Iraq War. Nerve agents work by attacking the nervous system, causing the victim to lose all muscle control; the effect is a very unfunny case of involuntary salivation, urination, and defecation, ending in death by asphyxiation when the muscles controlling respiration fail.
    • V agents are very persistent, meaning they last a long time in the environment; VX is the deadliest agent in this category. Its only confirmed use was by the Japanese death cult Aum Shinrikyo, although many suspect the attack on Halabja used this. 10 mg can kill a person; to put this in perspective, this is about the mass of a mosquito.
    • G agents are less persistent; the most famous are Tabun—the first to be discovered—and Sarin. Saddam used both, and Sarin was also infamously used by Aum Shinrikyo against the Tokyo subway.
  • Other: This is the odd-man-out among this category, in part due to differing attitudes as to whether it's actually a chemical weapon, for reasons which will be clear in the entry describing its sole member.
    • WP (White Phosphorus): Highly poisonous and extremely pyrophoric, to the point that a WP fire will re-ignite spontaneously after being put out. Its intense, fast-acting, and virulent toxicity leads the ICRC and many international NGOs to rule it a chemical weapon. Due to the fact that it is pyrophoric, the United States military designates it an incendiary, and not a chemical weapon. Evidence that it may have been used by the 'States during the 2nd Gulf War has led to considerable controversy.

      White phosphorus is basically in a legal gray area - according to the UN it has both legal and illegal military uses. In modern asymmetric warfare where well-equipped militaries engage targets in urban environments with a civilian presence, it can be easy to expose civilians to WP. This has cropped up repeatedly in the Iraq war, the Afghanistan war, Israeli operations in Gaza and Palestine, and the conflict in the Ukraine.

Biological Warfare

Like chemical warfare, this one is very old. Medieval would throw corpses at each other during sieges. Black death in Europe started when the Tartars besieging Caffa in modern day Ukraine catapulted their plague infected corpses over the wall. When people fled the city, they took the disease with them. The Spanish in South and Central America and the British in the north, meanwhile, committed one of the world's most lethal genocides against the Native American tribes by spreading smallpox, syphilis, and other diseases among other acts of war - killing, according to some figures, 90% of the Native population of North America (although how intentional this was is disputed; much if not most of the dying happened long before the English reached Jamestown, with the plagues coming accidentally from contact with the Spanish in Mexico and Florida). In modern times, we have only started to have the technology to grow pathogens in the 20th century. During World War 2, the infamous Unit 731 experimented with live human subjects. After Japan's surrender, the unit was given full immunity in exchange for its information. The US and the Soviet Union engaged in an arms race over biological warfare, at a time when the nuclear arms race was more noticeable. Eventually Nixon signed a treaty with the Soviet Union pledging to destroy their arsenals. Still the danger remains as the anthrax attacks after 9/11 show.

Countries suspected of having or having Biological Weapons programs include the United States, Russia, North Korea, Israel, and Syria, among others. The American and Russian stockpiles are generally regarded as genuinely defensive research programs to find effective ways to counter the potential use of biological agents. The others are a bit more complicated/suspicious. Israel and Syria in particular have a peculiar one going: each one claims that its program is offensive and the other is defensive. The root cause of the problem from the Syrian perspective is that Israel has nukes and Syria doesn't have a deterrent; thus any "offensive" uses it thinks of are therefore defensive. The root cause of the problem from the Israeli perspective is that even in the absence of Israeli nukes, the Syrians would hate Israel enough to develop biological weapons anyway, and so both the nuclear program and the biological program are "defensive" deterrents. Yes, the logic of weapons of mass destruction can get quite counterintuitive.

Radiological Warfare

Nuclear physics can be used not only to create nuclear bombs themselves, but also radiological weapons. A radiological dispersal device (RDD), also called dirty bomb is basically an ordinary bomb "salted" with radioactive material. The purpose of the weapon is to contaminate the area around the dispersal agent/conventional explosion with radioactive material, serving primarily as an area denial device against civilians. It is however not to be confused with a nuclear explosion, such as a fission bomb, which by releasing nuclear energy produces blast effects far in excess of what is achievable by the use of conventional explosives. The "father" of dirty bomb is often considered to be Ian Fleming, who presented such device in his book Goldfinger.

Though a RDD would be designed to disperse radioactive material over a large area, a bomb that uses conventional explosives and produces a blast wave is likely to be far more lethal to people than the hazard posed by radioactive material that may be mixed with the explosive. Yet if there is sufficient amounts of the radioactive substance, there will be enough radiation present to cause severe illness or death for anyone residing at the contaminated area. A test explosion and subsequent calculations done by the United States Department of Energy found that assuming nothing is done to clean up the affected area and everyone stays in the affected area for one year, the radiation exposure would be "fairly high", but not fatal.

A radiological dispersal devide is more likely to be a "weapon of mass distraction" than a weapon of mass destruction. Its purpose would presumably be to create psychological, not physical, harm through ignorance, mass panic, and terror. In addition, it would be an area denial weapon, making land areas inhospitable, inhabitable and incultivable. Additionally, containment and decontamination of thousands of victims, as well as decontamination of the affected area might require considerable time and expense, rendering areas partly unusable and causing economic damage. Using a radiological dispersal device against enemy logistics or military production could severly cripple his war effort.

So far no radiological weapons have been used in hostilities, but radiological accidents have happened. One example is the radiological accident occurring in Goiânia, Brazil, between September 1987 and March 1988: Two metal scavengers broke into an abandoned radiotherapy clinic and removed a teletherapy source capsule containing powdered caesium-137 with an activity of 50 T Bq. They brought it back to the home of one of the men to take it apart and sell as scrap metal. Later that day both men were showing acute signs of radiation illness with vomiting and one of the men had a swollen hand and diarrhea. A few days later one of the men punctured the 1 mm thick window of the capsule, allowing the caesium chloride powder to leak out and when realizing the powder glowed blue in the dark, brought it back home to his family and friends to show it off. After 2 weeks of spread by contact contamination causing an increasing number of adverse health effects, the correct diagnosis of acute radiation sickness was made at a hospital and proper precautions could be put into procedure. By this time 249 people were contaminated, 151 exhibited both external and internal contamination of which 20 people were seriously ill and 5 people died.

The Goiânia incident to some extent predicts the contamination pattern if it is not immediately realized that the explosion spread radioactive material, but also how fatal even very small amounts of ingested radioactive powder can be. This raises worries of terrorists using powdered alpha emitting material, that if ingested can pose a serious health risk, as in the case of deceased former K.G.B. spy Alexander Litvinenko, who either ate, drank or inhaled polonium-210. "Smoky bombs" based on alpha emitters might easily be just as dangerous as beta or gamma emitting dirty bombs.

Needless to say, military use of radiological weapons is prohibited by international law.

Usage of these weapons

These weapons have, unlike their nuclear big brother, been employed many times in history. The use of sulphur fumes and diseased items was a major of ancient warfare.

Since the late 1990's there are international conventions against their use, which most countries except Israel have joined.

Chemical weapons are relatively easy to make and deploy, any country with a reasonable degree of industrialisation (meaning all countries with nukes) can make them if required. All nuclear powers have made them for example, except for Pakistan ( which never seems to have pursued them for reasons best known to the Pakistanis themselves. Germany pioneered their use in the First World War (the first modern use), when Chlorine was delivered via Artillery shells. The Allies soon retaliated. Fear of Chemical weapons was so bad, that all countries except Japan in China did not use it come the second World War (thats right, Hitler thought the use of Chemical weapons was inhumanenote ).

That said, the use of Chemical weapons comes with several complications. Usage on a battlefield is iffy, depending on prevailing winds, and modern armies can take precautions (masks, suits etc) which greatly (meaning almost totally) alleviate the worst of the effects. Against civilians the use can be devastating, although less lethal than nuclear weapons and without the resultant damage to infrastructure of nukes, chemical weapons can easily cause thousands of casualties very quickly. Even then, retaliation is assured, lessening the attraction of striking. This is true even if your enemy does not have chemical weapons at the time of your initial strike, as Iraq discovered during the Iran-Iraq war, an attacked adversary can remedy that deficiency very quickly. If you enemy has nukes..........and you don't, usage of chemical or biological weapons will simply give them the excuse to hammer you seven ways to hell.

Biological Weapons have been used throughout history. Usually the "delivery systems" were diseased individuals or contaminated items of clothing. The Mongols liked to poison wells by throwing horse carcasses and feces into them. Charming chaps. Like chemical weapons, Biological weapons do not require more than a middling degree of industrialisation to make and all nuclear powers have had or had them except once again the Pakistanis(

Countries are very reluctant to use these kinds of weapons. For the simple reason that while a nuclear warhead will only directly harm the enemy and a chemical warhead will not harm you if you take sufficient precautions, it is pretty much impossible with current technology to develop pathogens where you can have high confidence that they will not spread to your own people or to neutral third parties who will find this a good reason to become Neutral No Longer.

There have been some suggestions that nations might used biological warfare against enemy crops and livestock.

Thermobaric warheads

One can technically Take a Third Option that conveniently isn't considered a weapon of mass destruction, and that's these things. Also called "fuel-air bombs" or "fuel-air explosives", they differ from "conventional" explosives on a technicality: the same one that differentiates "jet" engines from "rocket" engines. "Rocket" engines burn their fuel with an oxidizer carried onboard in a separate tank from the fuel proper (barring monopropellant rockets which there's not room enough to discuss here). This is why rockets can operate in the vacuum of space or in an atmosphere that lacks oxygen. "Conventional" explosives, like rocket engines, carry both the oxidizer and the fuel, usually pre-mixed so combustion occurs "all-at-once" instead of the slow, orderly "burn" of a rocket engine.

On the other hand, jet engines (read: turbojet, ramjet, scramjet, pulsejet, turbofan, and turboprop) differ from rockets in that it uses oxygen in the ambient atmosphere as its oxidizer, reducing weight (since the vehicle no longer needs to carry oxidizer onboard) at the cost of making the engine's operability depend upon the atmosphere's chemical composition. Unlike "conventional" explosives, fuel-air explosives don't have the oxidizer pre-mixed (or even carried in the warhead at all) with the explosive "fuel". Instead, the fuel (which MUST be powdered if it's a solid) is carried in a vessel that ruptures at the target's location, dispersing the fuel into many millions of particles that spread and mix with ambient air BEFORE a spark is set off to ignite the mixture. An accidental example of a fuel-air bomb is the sometimes overlooked phenomenon of dust-explosions at grain-elevators or other sites where potentially flammable agricultural dusts are suspended in the (bone-dry) air as dust-clouds, needing only a single spark to set the whole mix off.

The major thing about fuel-air bombs that makes them worth mentioning here is that they make their targets deadly even AFTER the explosion is over, because in their ignition, they consume most-to-all of the oxygen in the vicinity of their use, suffocating any remaining would-be survivors. Hypothetically, if the target were a building with a "dry" firefighting system that utilized halon or some similar liquid or gas fluid substance to 'smother' the fire of oxygen, that theoretically could hinder a thermobaric weapon from having its desired effect but it would also render the area uninhabitable to any oxygen-breathing life until the fire extinguishing substance, itself an asphyxiant, could disperse. And then again, halon is a known ozone-destroying substance, so that'd get green advocates angry at you.

They have recently seen use in Afghanistan against enemies hiding in deep-cave systems. Some anti-war activists have protested their use, given they kill in particularly horrible ways - if enemies aren't incinerated, they are suffocated or have their lungs, and internal organs crushed by pressure waves. If the fuel ignites but does not detonate, the targets end up inhaling it as it burns. ISAF responds that whilst having ones internal organs and bones obliterated is indeed nasty, but the effects are so fast acting that you won't feel the pain before you die.

The biggest risk chemical and biological weapons pose, unlike nuclear weapons, is use by terrorists or criminals or truly deranged people. Unlike nuclear weapons, which are by their very nature difficult and dangerous to build and use for most non-states and which are, to this point, thankfully Self-Guarding Phlebotinum, biological and chemical weapons have been used already by various dangerous groups, and there's no reason to assume that others can't develop them or put them to use. It also doesn't help that at least two of the chemicals with a weapon effect (chlorine and pesticides) do have civilian usage and are often transported in large quantities - making them candidates for accidents, which can be just as (if not more) dangerous than attacks.

Immediate recognition of a chemical attack or accident and survival

  • Odd, strong smells are a strong warning sign that something is wrong, especially if the smell isn't normal for the area at all. Chlorine and chlorine gas have a very intense smell similar to chlorine bleach, for example, and people who have been exposed to phosphine and phosgene (and similar chemicals) have described a strong smell of cut grass. Victims of the Tokyo subway attack reported a strong smell of burning rubber. In short, if you smell something that absolutely does not belong in a space, consider this a potential warning sign.
  • A sudden feeling of being unable to breathe/throat tightness/watering eyes/similar symptoms or sudden, intense visual disturbances and nausea is a huge red flag, especially if it came on suddenly and other people in the area are showing it too. It could be an accidental release of tear gas/mace/pepper spray, but it's best to assume and act as if it is something far worse.
  • If you ever see a large amount of dying/dead/sick animals and birds around (especially if they've suddenly become so, e.g. one minute everything seemed normal, the next rats or birds are staggering around/dying in front of you), assume that a chemical release of some sort (whether accidental or attack) may be happening. Leave the area immediately in an upwind direction and seek medical attention.
  • If you see a train or tanker truck crash, assume that explosive or poisonous chemicals will be released from the accident site and immediately evacuate the area upwind to at least several miles if possible - if you are stuck on foot, get as far away as you possibly can, while covering your mouth and nose with whatever you have available to do so.
  • If you live near industrial or commercial or military sites that produce or routinely use/store large amounts of potentially dangerous/deadly chemicals, learn the signs of a release, and make an plan in advance as to what you will do if you are notified of an accident or suspect one may be happening, whether sheltering or evacuation.
  • Also applicable to biological weapons - if you see something absolutely unusual that does not belong spraying or depositing something (or abandoning an unusual item, especially if they do something to open/damage it before abandoning it), assume it could possibly be an attack, alert others, and get out of the area immediately and seek medical care. Some examples would be a crop duster plane flying where there is no agriculture in the area, people dropping objects and stabbing/kicking them with something and leaving the area (which is actually how the Aum Shinrikyo conducted its attack), or anything else that looks very much out of place, especially if it's followed up by any of the above.
  • If you suspect a chemical attack is taking place, the likely best thing you can do is leave the area immediately if you can still walk under your own power.
    • If outdoors, go against the wind (so you end up upwind of the area) while covering your nose and mouth as best as you can to limit inhalation. If indoors (such as a subway or indoor event), immediately evacuate the area for outdoors and fresh air. Once you have gotten out of the area to the best of your knowledge, seek medical attention and remove any clothing or objects you were wearing while you were in the area
  • As for protection, having a military surplus gas mask on your person will likely get you some funny looks, and could result in being mistaken for the perpetrators of the attack. Concerning commercial respirators, most do not incorporate eye protection, so a respirator alone isn't enough even against the types of chemical and biological agents that a gas mask would protect fully against. For the Crazy-Prepared out there, researching what a given model of respirator or filter is designed to protect against is a good idea, in addition to paying attention to what its rating is, along with the highest available rate of filtration regardless of classification (NIOSH N100, R100, or P100 in case of American standards, P3 or FFP3 for European standards, etc). Be especially careful about make and model of protective mask and ensure that its filters do not contain asbestos.