Chemical Weapons

The term chemical weapons refers to armaments that employ the toxic properties of chemicals, rather than their explosive properties, to attack an enemy.

U.S. Army Pvt. Danielle Williams, 2nd Infantry Division, 4th Chemical Company puts on chemical gloves during  Nuclear, Chemical and Biological skills training, Camp Casey, Republic of Korea, 9 October 1998
U.S. Army Pvt. Danielle Williams, 2nd Infantry Division, 4th Chemical Company puts on chemical gloves during Nuclear, Chemical and Biological skills training, Camp Casey, Republic of Korea, 9 October 1998.

Today in WW II: 15 Jan 1943 Pentagon building completed as US War Department headquarters after only 16 months of construction, costing approx $83 million.   

History of Chemical Weapons

Chemical weapons have been in use for centuries, but their modern form starts with World War I when large scale "gas attacks" were part of both German and Allied tactics. Those attacks used common industrial chemicals, typically delivered by artillery shells, and distributed by the wind, relatively crude technology with uncertain results. Public outcry against the use of gas (actually aerosols or vapors) led to the Geneva Protocol of 1925 under which nations agreed to not be the first to use such weapons.

Although both Nazi Germany and the Allies stockpiled chemical weapons, there was no use made of them in World War II. A few smaller conflicts have seen the use of chemical munitions, in particular Irag against Iran in 1983 through 1986 as well Iraq's use against its own Kurdish population in 1988.

Under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the United States, Russia, India, and South Korea have declared that they possess CW and have accepted an obligation to destroy these weapons. China and several other countries have declared abandoned chemical weapons on their territory, primarily left over from World War II.

The use of chemical weapons and the accumulation of stockpiles as a deterrant was confined to nations until the Japanese terrorost cult Aum Shinrikyo used sarin in a 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway. The use of chemical weapons by terrorists is one of the major threats in the 21st century.

Types of Chemical Weapons

World War II Chemical Warfare Agents
World War II Chemical Warfare Agents. Click image to enlarge.

World War II Chemical Grenades
World War II Chemical Grenades. Click image to enlarge.

Prior to World War II chemicals such as phosgene and mustard gas were the agents of chemical warfare, basically industrial chemicals turned to military purposes. Nerve agents were developed in Germany in the 1930s, including GB or sarin, a class of toxin that interferes with the operation of the nervous system and is far more deadly and dangerous than the World War I chemical agents. The G-series of nerve agents continued development by many nations after WW II.

In the 1950s scientists in the United Kingdom developed a new V-series of nerve agents, notably VX. The United States and Russia became producers of VX as well.

Another series of agents is the Control Agent, such as CS, which incapacitate but do not kill. Although some forms of Control Agents are also prohibited by the Geneva Protocol, obviously it is much more humane to control a situation with "tear gas" than to cause death. Active development of CS and related componunds (so called riot control agents) took place in the US and other countries after initial development in the UK in the 1960s.

The term "binary weapon" refers to a system in which the toxic agent is not created until it reaches its target, or until the weapon is armed. The final chemical is created from two precursors at or near the time of use. Usually the precursor chemicals are not in themselves toxic, increasing overall safety and control of the weapon system.

See also the section on Gas Masks.

Find More Information on the Internet

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Especially recommended: Chemical Weapons Technology