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Chemical weapon

Chemical weapon
Pallets of 155 mm artillery shells containing "HD" (distilled sulfur mustard agent) at Pueblo Depot Activity (PUDA) chemical weapons storage facility
Blister agents
Phosgene oxime (CX)
Lewisite (L)
Sulfur Mustard (Yperite) (HD)
Nitrogen Mustard (HN)
Nerve Agents:
Tabun (GA)
Sarin (GB)
Soman (GD)
Cyclosarin (GF)
Blood Agents:
Cyanogen chloride (CK)
Hydrogen cyanide (AC)
Pulmonary agents
Chloropicrin (PS)
Phosgene (CG)
Diphosgene (DP)
Chlorine (CI)
Soviet chemical weapons canister from an Albanian stockpile[1]

A chemical weapon (CW) is a device that uses chemicals formulated to inflict death or harm on human beings. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) states:

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]

They are classified as weapons of mass destruction, though they are separate from biological weapons (diseases), nuclear weapons, and radiological weapons (which use radioactive decay of elements). 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.

Lethal, unitary, chemical agents and munitions are extremely volatile and they constitute a class of hazardous chemical weapons that are now being stockpiled by many nations. (Unitary agents are effective on their own and require no mixing with other agents.) The most dangerous of these are nerve agents GA, GB, GD, and VX, and vesicant (blister) agents which are formulations of sulfur mustard such as H, HT, and HD. 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.

Pepper spray is of common use today. It is potentially lethal. There are no recent records of pepper spray being used in war, despite the fact that it inflicts fewer injuries and side-effects compared with impact and explosive weapons.

Under the Chemical Weapons Convention (1993), there is a legally binding, world-wide ban on the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons and their precursors. Notwithstanding, large stockpiles thereof continue to exist, usually justified as only a precaution against putative use by an aggressor.


  • International law on chemical weapons 1
    • Before the Second World War 1.1
    • Modern agreements 1.2
  • Use 2
  • Countries with stockpiles 3
    • CWC states with declared stockpiles 3.1
      • India 3.1.1
      • Iraq 3.1.2
      • Japan 3.1.3
      • Libya 3.1.4
      • Russia 3.1.5
      • United States 3.1.6
      • Syria 3.1.7
    • Non-CWC states with stockpiles 3.2
      • Israel 3.2.1
      • North Korea 3.2.2
    • Framework For Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons 3.3
  • Manner and form 4
  • Disposal 5
  • Lethality 6
  • Unitary versus binary weapons 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10

International law on chemical weapons

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";[3][4] also, 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."[5]

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.[6]

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[7] to the treaty—Ukraine acceded August 7, 2003, and is the most recent member nation.[8] This treaty states that chemical and biological weapons are "justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilised world." While the treaty prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons, it does not address the production, storage, or transfer of these weapons. Later treaties did address those omissions and have been enacted.

Modern agreements

States parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The light colored territories are those states that have declared that they have stockpiles of chemical weapons or that it is known that they do have production facilities for chemical weapons.

The 1993 The Hague.[9]

The OPCW administers the terms of the CWC to 188 signatories which represents 98% of the global population. As of December 2013, 58,528 of 72,531 (80.69%) metric tonnes of the stockpiles have been verifiably destroyed.[10] The OPCW has conducted 4,167 inspections at 195 chemical weapon-related and 1,103 industrial sites. These inspections have affected the sovereign territory of 81 States Parties since April 1997. Worldwide, 4,913 industrial facilities are subject to inspection provisions.[11]


A British gas bomb that was used during World War I

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 falls under the term conventional weapons which are primarily effective owing to their destructive potential. Chemical warfare does not depend upon explosive force to achieve an objective. Rather it depends upon the unique properties of the chemical agent weaponized. A lethal agent is designed to injure or incapacitate the enemy, 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. An agent 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—the affected populations were not always damaged collaterally, but rather at times, the target of the attack. As of 2012, only four nations are confirmed as having chemical weapons: the United States, Russia, North Korea and Syria.[12]


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 sulphur mustard in its possession.[13][14] On January 14, 1993 India became an original signatory to the CWC. By 2005, from among the six nations that had declared possession 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 extension for destroying (the remaining stocks by April 2009) and was expected to achieve 100 percent destruction within that time frame.[14] On May 14, 2009, India informed the United Nations that it has destroyed its stockpile of chemical weapons.[15]


U.S. soldiers wearing full chemical protection

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".[16][17] Iraq has also declared stockpiles of CW, and because of their recent accession is the only State Party exempted from the destruction time-line.[18] On September 7, 2011 Mr. Hoshyar Zebari entered the OPCW headquarters, becoming the first Iraqi Foreign Minister to officially visit since the country joined the CWC.[19]

On June 28, 1987, Iraqi aircraft delivered what was believed to be mustard gas in an attack against the Kurdish city Halabja and Sardasht. On two separate attacks against four residential areas, victims were estimated as 10 civilians dead and 650 civilians injured.[20]


Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces wearing gas masks and rubber gloves during a chemical attack near Chapei in the Battle of Shanghai.[21]

Japan stored chemical weapons on the territory of mainland China between 1937 and 1945. The weapons mostly contained a mustard gas-lewisite mixture.[22] The weapons are classified as abandoned chemical weapons under the CWC and Japan has started their destruction in September 2010 in Nanjing using mobile destruction facilities.[23]


  • Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Home page
  • Lecture by Santiago Oñate Laborde entitled The Chemical Weapons Convention: an Overview in the Lecture Series of the United Nations Audiovisual Library of International Law
  • "The Government of Canada ""Challenge"" for chemical substances that are a high priority for action". 
  • "Chemical categories". 
  • "Chemical Warfare Agents". 
  • "U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency (home page)". 

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  27. ^ "Chemical weapons inspectors to return to Libya". Retrieved 2013-08-27. 
  28. ^ "Converting Former Soviet Chemical Weapons Plants". Jonathan B. Tucker. 
  29. ^ (November 8, 2010). Russia Continues Chemical Weapons Disposal. Retrieved November 11, 2013.
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See also

Binary munitions contain two, unmixed and isolated chemicals which 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 which produce a toxic result in their existing state.[77] The majority of the chemical weapon stockpile is unitary and most of it is stored in one-ton bulk containers.[78][79]

Unitary versus binary weapons

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.[74] Many Australian service personnel were also exposed as a result of the "Brook Island trials"[75] carried out by the British Government to determine the likely consequences of chemical attack in tropical conditions, about which little was then known. 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.[76]

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 of mustard gas inflicted a total of 628 casualties.[71][72][73]

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

An Australian observer who has moved into a gas-affected target area to record results, examines an un-exploded shell


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...".[58] In June 2007 the disposal program achieved a milestone reaching 45% destruction of the chemical weapon stockpile.[66] The Chemical Materials Agency (CMA) releases regular updates to the public regarding the status of the disposal program.[67] By October 2010, the program had reached 80% destruction status.[68]

Historically, chemical munitions have been disposed of by land burial, open burning, and ocean dumping (referred to as Operation CHASE).[65] 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.

Some places where chemical weapons were tested, such as the San Jose Project in Panama, were not included in the disposal program. Thousands of mines on the island are still full of chemical gas and can be set off by passersby.

The stockpiles, which have been maintained for more than 50 years,[6] are now considered obsolete.[64] 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).[30] The Congressional directive has resulted in the present Chemical Stockpile Disposal Program.

Stockpile/disposal site locations for the United States' chemical weapons and the sites operating status as of August 28, 2008


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.[60] Perhaps more so for the community having much less access to protective equipment and specialized training.[61] The Oak Ridge National Laboratory conducted a study to assess capabilities and costs for protecting civilian populations during related emergencies,[62] and the effectiveness of expedient, in-place shelters.[63]

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.[30] Together they comprise the two forms which 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%[30] of the stockpile was in this form.[58] Whereas these chemicals exist in liquid form at normal room temperature,[30][59] 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).[37]

A Swedish Army soldier wearing a chemical agent protective suit (C-vätskeskydd) and protection mask (skyddsmask 90)
Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System prior to demolition

Manner and form

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 .[56][57]

Framework For Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons

North Korea is not a signatory of CWC and has never officially acknowledged the existence of its offensive 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.[55]

North Korea

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]

In 1992, El Al Flight 1862 crashed on its way to Tel Aviv and was found to be carrying CWC schedule 2 chemical, which is a precursor to the production of sarin nerve gas, a prohibited chemical weapon of mass destruction prohibited by the CWC. 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]

Although Israel has signed the CWC, it has not ratified the treaty and therefore is not officially bound by its tenets.[49] 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] In a 1983 CIA Report, it was 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]


Non-CWC states with stockpiles

On October 14, 2013, Syria officially acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

On August 21, 2013, testimony and photographic evidence emerged from Syria indicating a large-scale chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, a populated urban center.[48]

On March 19, 2013, news emerged from Syria indicating the first use of chemical weapons since the beginning of the Syrian uprising.[47]

In September 2012, information emerged that the Syrian military had begun chemical weapons tests and was reinforcing and resupplying a base housing these weapons located east of Aleppo in August.[45][46]

On July 13, 2012, the Syrian government moved its stockpile to an undisclosed location.[44]

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.[43]

  • Al Safir (Scud missile base)
  • Cerin
  • Hama
  • Homs
  • Latakia
  • Palmyra
A Syrian soldier aims an AK-47 assault rifle wearing a Soviet-made, model ShMS nuclear–biological–chemical warfare mask.

Syrian chemical weapons production facilities have been identified by Western nonproliferation experts at approximately 5 sites, plus one suspected weapons base:[42]

Independent assessments indicate that Syrian production could be up to a combined total of a few hundred tons of chemical agent per year. Syria reportedly manufactures Sarin, Tabun, VX, and mustard gas types of chemical weapons.[41]

Syrian officials have stated that they feel it appropriate to have some deterrent against Israel's similarly non-admitted nuclear weapons program when questioned about the topic, but only on July 23, 2012, the Syrian government acknowledged for the first time that it had chemical weapons.[40]

Prior to September 2013, Syria was one of only 7 states which are not party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. However, it is party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting the use of chemical weapons in war but has nothing to say about production, storage or transfer.


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.[37] Official policy now reflects the likelihood of chemical weapons being used as a terrorist weapon.[38][39]

Currently stockpiles have been eliminated at Johnston Atoll, APG, NAAP, UMDA,[31] PBA,[32] TEAD,[33] and ANAD.[34] PUDA will begin elimination during FY 2015, and complete in FY 2017.[35] BGAD will be last to complete this elimination which tentative dates have not been set.[36]

The remaining 6.6% was located on Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.

The U.S. stored its chemical weapons at eight U.S. Army installations within the Continental United States (CONUS). The stockpiles were maintained in exclusion zones[30] at the following Department of Army installations (the percentages shown are reflections of amount by weight):

United States

Russia entered the CWC with the largest declared stockpile of chemical weapons.[28] 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).[29]

Russian CW stockpiles
Chemical weapons stored in Russia


[27] After assessing the chemical stockpiles the Libyan government will receive a deadline from the OPCW to destroy the weapons.[26]

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