Biological weapons are a generally only a tool for shooting yourself in the foot — when they work at all.

For example, most Americans are not aware that we have been the subject of two Anthrax attacks, not just one.

Remember the chemical weapon cycle?  ~10 years to develop, then more time to weaponize.  Well, the first Anthrax attack it turns out that the strain they cultured and got ready to deploy is a strain that is deadly to many animals but is used to vaccinate humans.  Which is why you haven’t heard about it.  The other attack?  Killed two people — both with compromised immune systems.

Smallpox attacks in the early Americas?  Failures (of course that is partially because Smallpox had already killed off the 90% of the population that was vulnerable long before someone thought of using it as a weapon).  But for most people who would like to use biological weapons, the most likely targets have better public health and better resistance to the agents than those who want to deploy them.  To the extent that any disease process gets started, it is more likely to affect those who use the weapons than those who are the targets (in the long run).  Thus the “shooting yourself in the foot” comment about them.

But what about nuclear weapons?  Wouldn’t it be neat if you found a substance more expensive than gold, difficult and dangerous to work with, that you could blow up to do damage to your enemies at an efficiency rate of about 5% of conventional weapons?  Isn’t that what everyone wants?  Or why they are often referred to as “not enough bang for the buck.”

This is about to get a little longer, but I am going to explain why they sometimes make sense, and why they sometimes do not, and why if your enemy has them, you just wait it out as the weapons rot away.

  1. Nuclear weapons are generally more expensive than conventional ones for the damage done.
  2. Nuclear weapons are generally harder to use with precision than conventional weapons and require greater precision in manufacturing.
  3. Nuclear weapons are made from (a) very valuable and (b) very toxic substances presenting both theft and poisoning issues.
  4. Nuclear weapons require different delivery systems than conventional weapons (again, the weaponization issue).
  5. Nuclear weapons, based as they are on nuclear decay (and on materials that decay much faster than normal decay, in configurations where decay is faster still) tend to rot (where as standard explosives, such as HMX and such pretty much last forever).
  6. Nuclear weapons have much of their expense in re-manufacture (as you take rotting weapons and make them new again — the worse pollution in the Soviet Union came from re-manufacture sites, the Silkwood story involves a similar site in the United States).

As a result, if your opponent has nuclear weapons you can just wait them out until their weapons have all rotted.  To use a nuclear weapon is like turning over a sack of gold bars to whoever is supposed to deploy it.

So, when would you ever want to develop or use such a weapon?

  1. When you are very averse to taking casualties.  An ICBM is unlikely to create the same level of casualties as a large scale bombing raid.
  2. When you have an enemy who is able to defend against conventional attacks, but not against nuclear ones (e.g. someone with anti-aircraft weapons, but no ABM system).
  3. When you have concentrated high value targets (or why the army concluded that enemy military units were the perfect target for nuclear weapons).
  4. When your enemy occupies a very small area (as my father commented when I asked him how large Israel was “three fusion weapons”).
  5. When you are bluffing (the original use of atomic bombs) or otherwise making a statement (the mythic status of nuclear weapons gives those who possess them status, or perceived status).

Iran would be much more dangerous if they were developing fuel oil bombs.  Pakistan would have caused a lot more trouble if they were making LAWs and exporting them at a discount.  North Korea’s deterrent is a set of many square miles of mortar artillery units in reach of Seoul, Korea which is much too close the the border.

In all three cases the nuclear weapon development programs have been terribly expensive, not produced anywhere near the firepower that a conventional weapons program would have produced, and have failed to create any weapons that the countries involved can use against real targets.  Basically they are stuck with guarding what they have (or are yet to have) until it rots away and has to be re-manufactured, assuming they can do that without poisoning large portions of the countryside and irreplaceable technicians.

Sure, if you want to deter a much larger army from attacking you and you can spend money, just not deploy troops (the U.S. Military in Europe in the cold war), tactical nuclear weapons make sense.  If you just can not deliver conventional weapons (notice the utter failure, to date, of such attempts against Israel) you might be tempted to develop other weapons you still can not deliver …

But for the most part, WMDs are a fools game, a waste of time, resources and attention.

For historical purposes, you can compare from WWII.  A typical 1667 tons of bomb raid vs. an atomic bomb in Japan cost less for the bombing raid and killed more people (Hiroshima 70k, Nagasaki 36k, bomb raid 83k) (Those numbers could well be wrong, comparing my sources declassified in the 1970s with Wikipedia is interesting, since with Wiki the numbers are about doubled for each bombing raid and Mark Selden argues convincingly that the conventional weapon attack probably killed closer to half a million people — or 16ok, 90k and 500k for alternative numbers –pushing the bang for the buck far in favor of conventional weapons instead of solidly in favor).  The basic conclusion that developed with the military was that nuclear weapons were much more expensive, all in all, than conventional ones, though they were extremely useful for attacks on military units [see, e.g.  Atomic Weapons in Land Combat by G. C. and W. R. Kinter Reinhardt (1954)].

Anyway, that takes you through understanding the so-called weapons of mass destruction.  For the most part they are expensive, in-effective, untrustworthy and dangerous.  Some have an interesting place because they allow you to substitute technology for manpower in certain applications, and they have mythological proportions and meanings.  But they really are a misdirection from an external perspective.

Enough on that topic.  Perhaps I’ll finish up on utopias next post.