02/05/2014 - 15:33

Chemical weapons: Dangerous, but ineffective in combat

Dan Drollette Jr

Dan Drollette Jr

Dan Drollette, Jr. is a science writer/editor and foreign correspondent who has filed stories from every continent except Antarctica. His stories have appeared in Scientific American,...

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Chemical weapons have been in the news a lot lately: The New York Times recently reported that 24 tons of Qaddafi-era mustard gas were incinerated in a joint US-Libyan undercover effort in the Libyan desert. Much of the material had been kept in large, bulky containers in a liquid, syrup-like precursor form, for long-term storage. But some of it—about two tons—had already been loaded into 45 rockets, 415 artillery shells, and eight 500-pound bombs, ready for combat.

The successful destruction of the cache of toxic arms was in some ways a dry run of the latest technology to incinerate and dispose of weapons, with implications not only for Libya but for other countries in the region, including Syria, where an international chemical weapons removal program is underway. Failure to complete the disposal of Syria’s vast chemical weapons stockpile could make US intervention in that country more likely. Only four percent of the chemical weapons declared by the regime have been removed so far, and US State Department officials have called the pace of progress “unacceptable.”

These modern efforts to get rid of chemical weapons are based not necessarily on the prospect of their large-scale military use, but largely upon fears that they might fall into the hands of a terrorist organization—such as the growing Islamist militant movement in the part of Libya where the mustard gas was found.

Even though Libya and Syria amassed huge chemical weapons stockpiles, such weapons have never proven to be particularly effective on the conventional battlefield, due to vigorous anti-chemical countermeasures by the opposing side. In fact, the official British military history of World War I—the conflict best-known for the use of mustard gas, chlorine, and other chemical weapons—stated that “gas achieved but local success, nothing decisive; it made war uncomfortable, to no purpose.”

Some writers, such as Harvard molecular biologist Matthew Meselson, describe the situation as a "Myth of Chemical Superweapons," as he wrote on pages 12 to 15 of the April 1991 issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Editor's note: The full archive of Bulletin print issues--from 1945 to 1998 and complete with covers and other illustrations--is available here.