Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/04/09/my_last_wmd_swing_the_lantern/

Chemical weapons are not WMDs

Let's all calm down a bit, shall we?

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 9th April 2007 07:02 GMT

Comment I remember the last time I handled a Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD). It was in 2003, not long after the invasion of Iraq. I was serving as a bomb-disposal officer in the British armed forces. I was dressed in a full protective suit and gas mask, and a boffin from Porton Down stood next to me, likewise clad.

The hot sun glared down on us, and the wind blew the sandy local soil around. There it lay at our feet; a battlefield chemical weapon as ever was, in this case an artillery shell filled with deadly phosgene gas. Neither of us had any doubt. The very thing that the British and US invasion forces, the Iraq Survey Group, Hans Blix and everyone else had been searching for, and here it was.

I don't know about the chap from Porton Down, but it gave me a severe feeling of unreality. Because the sun, while hot, was not all that hot. The sandy soil was that of Britain, not Iraq. And this was the twentieth chemical weapon discovered at that one location in 2003 alone. Several others lay next to it, too. It was the third time I'd been there; that shell must have been at least my fortieth WMD. My unit had sent teams there scores of times, accounting for hundreds of weapons.

Lest anyone think the UK was hit by an enemy chemical bombardment a few years back without it making the press, I should point out that these WMDs were British. The place where I was standing was a test range, long ago. Boffins working on UK chemical weapons programmes fired thousands of gas shells into the area, showing the gay disregard for safety cases, compensation culture, and the Geneva Protocols so characteristic of the era.

Even more casually, once they were done they simply opened the range up to the public. To this day, it's a popular spot for a bracing walk among the unspoilt beauties of nature. My team and the Porton Down crowd had to chivvy curious spectators and dogs safely out of range before we could start work (I'm not aware of any civilian ever being harmed by the weapons at that site).

I like to tell this story at dinner parties. But it isn't for the usual reason that ordnance-disposal men tell their tales (to impress girls, of course). Rather, I'm trying to convince people not to use the term "Weapon of Mass Destruction", which drives me bonkers. I bring the matter up not to make myself look courageous, as I normally would, but to illustrate how utterly non-threatening chemical weapons are.

Dealing with those British WMDs was some of the least stressful work I ever did as an ordnance-disposal operator. Far from possessing any special deadliness, chemical warheads are less potent than ordinary conventional-explosive ones. Calling them "WMDs", which suggests they are in some way equivalent to nuclear bombs, is simply ridiculous. My unit regarded such operations as a pleasant holiday.

The dinner-party guests usually scoff politely. I point out that any thoughtful soldier would surely rather be struck at by chemical warheads than high-explosive ones. He can carry and wear cheap, portable equipment which will make him almost completely safe from chemical attack; nothing like that exists for normal bombardment.

People then suggest that chemical weapons cover vast areas and persist for long periods. They imagine frightful clouds of silent death blanketing wide regions for months or years, in which nobody could survive but those suited and masked. Wild figures culled from the media are sometimes quoted. A single kilogram of nerve agent is said to be enough to kill 100 million people, for instance.

That is actually true: but one would have to break the kilogram down into individual doses and administer them orally, without wasting so much as a tenth of a milligram. It would be far simpler to shoot one's victims or blow them up. Even strangling them barehanded would be easier. And this is generally the case with chemical weapons.

Let's look at more practical scenarios. In order to create a mile-wide cloud of nerve gas which was actually dangerous to be in, one would need to deliver at least half a ton of the stuff; perhaps ten tons or more if conditions were less than perfect. That assumes the use of many small projectiles scattered about – artillery shells would be ideal – so as to spread the cloud; otherwise the area would be much smaller.

But why not just use ordinary artillery? The shells will be falling anywhere from 150 to 30 metres apart. Ordinary explosive rounds at that density will take out a majority of unprotected people, rising to almost everyone at the high end. And in this case the protection required to survive isn't a cheap, portable suit and mask. One would want a bunker or a 30-ton armoured vehicle to withstand conventional artillery, and even then the risk of a direct hit would remain. Conventional ammunition is infinitely easier to get, store, and transport, too.

There is the issue of persistence, but again the potency of chemicals is hugely exaggerated. Ordinary gas clouds typically disperse within minutes. There are longer-lasting agents such as VX, true. These will coat surfaces, remaining deadly to the touch until a few rains have fallen or someone hoses the place down with a solution of bleach. But persistent agents are extremely difficult to vapourise properly. They tend to form a spray of droplets which fall to earth almost at once, like rain.

Improvised protective gear might well get you through a VX attack unharmed, Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage antics in The Rock notwithstanding. Staying indoors would work even better. Once the attack was over, in many cases you'd be able to escape the area with no more than a pair of wellingtons. I'm not saying that a chemical attack would be a completely trivial matter, but it would almost always be preferable to being hit by the same weight of high explosives.

So, if your aim is to kill and injure as many people as possible, you'd be a fool to use chemicals. And yet chemicals are rated as WMDs, while ordinary explosives aren't. So too are biologicals, even more amazingly. Biological "weapons", in the modern sense, have yet to be even demonstrated.

I used to find that strange, as I got into my massive, heavy bomb-disposal armour and walked down a road to check out an ordinary suspicious bag. If it held a few kilos of Semtex, I would be in severe personal danger despite the fact that I was wearing a crippling load of plates and kevlar. On the other hand, I could walk merrily up to a gas shell in lightweight kit and feel almost completely safe (I ought to mention that in my own case there never was any Semtex in the bag. Sandwiches, yes, or shopping; on a couple of mildly sweaty occasions a hoax device. It's remarkable how few genuine bombs there are, outside war zones. You get a special tie if you manage to reach a real one before it goes off).

Back at the dinner table, I sometimes manage to convince people that chemical weapons really aren't as dangerous as ordinary ones – let alone being in the same league as nukes. Saddam Hussein is clearly a bad man, for instance, but his use of chemicals at Halabja and elsewhere doesn't make him significantly badder. Toppling him may or may not have been a good idea, but his possession – or lack of – battlefield chemical weapons shouldn't have affected anyone's thinking on the matter.

At around this stage, the more right-on dinner guests sometimes nod sagely. Evidently the hidden oil-industry puppeteers, or the intelligence agencies, or some other right-wing conspirators are behind this cynical push to demonise mild-mannered Third-World dictators.

But in fact it isn't only sabre-rattling politicians and spooks who stoke the chemical panic. Just about everyone uses the phrase "Weapons of Mass Destruction". Recent examples include the UN, the Lib Dems, Greenpeace, even noted Hollywood liberal George Clooney. All these people and organisations thereby tacitly accept that chemical weapons are equivalent to nukes. It's a foolish, inaccurate habit of thought. We really ought to get away from it, no matter what our politics. ®

Lewis Page did eleven years in the Royal Navy, after brief flirtations with the army and air force. Highlights of his service included Commando training with the Royal Marines, qualification as a mine-clearance diver, and command of a UK-based bomb-disposal team from 2001-04. Apparently they were keeping a few of the best men back to defend Blighty, in case Saddam tried a sneaky counterattack. His book Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs: Waste and Blundering in the Armed Forces is out now in paperback. He can occasionally be found on the web at www.lewispage.co.uk