Thursday, April 21, 2005

Armchair Generalist: What Defines a WMD?

The Armchair Generalist has a great response to many of my questions in a post titledWhat Defines a WMD?.

He gives a short, but very interesting, history of the term, beginning with Franco's bombings of Guernica, and continuing with Zhukov's usage (whom many credit with saving the Soviet Union in World War II, after he took command of the Soviet Army at Stalingrad), as well as some more contemporary uses.

But as J. notes, all of the prior uses of the term "weapon of mass destruction" were meant to address weapons programs of nation-states against non-combatants, and not the limited use of CBRN weapons by terrorists or other non-state actors. And so, J proposes that we should either abandon the term (which, as he notes, isn't going to happen), or we need to work on a new definition that will have some value other than scaring the hell out of people. To that end he proposes the following definition:
Weapons capable of a high order of destruction and/or of being used in such a manner as to create large numbers of casualties (more than 1000 people) during a single event or incident. This may include the use of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, high-yield explosives, information technology systems, high-energy weapons, or those improvised weapons that can realistically cause mass casualties or mass effects.
What I really like about this definition is that J. has moved the term beyond the CBRN threats that are generally (and often erroneously) referred to as WMD. And though he notes that the 1,000 casualty figure is a bit arbitrary, it certainly is an improvement over mistakenly using the term to describe, amongst other things, a few drops of ricin.

J. also differentiates between CBRN hazards and NBC weapons, a distinction that I haven't come across in my pretty limited reading on the topic.
Similarly, we have NBC weapons - "military weapons characterized by their use of nuclear, biological, or chemical physical properties to cause immediate casualties and whose threat or use introduces individually diverse and distinct challenges to the planning and conduct of military operations. Riot control agents, herbicides, and industrial chemicals and radiological materials that are "weaponized" for employment against personnel are not NBC weapons." And last but not least, CBRN hazards are "those toxic CBRN hazards that are released against military forces or civilians, not necessarily in quantities that could cause mass casualties. These may include toxic inhalation hazards, biological diseases with significant effects, and radioactive matter. Also included are any hazards resulting from the deliberate employment of NBC weapons during military operations."
Though these distinctions are a little hard for me to wrap my brain around, the demarcation of different threats and threat levels makes a whole lot more sense to me than conflating all these different threats under the WMD banner.

As J. points out, this isn't simply an intellectual excersize- these definitions will determine how we prepare ourselves for these types of events:
...the bulk of the money and attention is and remains on the nukes. We get the crumbs, and then when the ballon goes up and CBW agents are a threat, people start saying "why weren't you ready?" The answer is easy - you didn't ask the right questions and didn't fund the right initiatives.
I hope that we don't come to that, but in these times of politicized intelligence and defense, and what appears to me to be a "dumbing down" of the debate over the threats we face, how likely is it?