Why Don’t We Use Chemical Weapons Anymore?

by Dale2 min read23rd Apr 20204 comments


Armed conflictNuclear warfareInternational relations

A detailed blog of potential interest to effective altruists, arguing that chemical (and biological) weapons are rejected by modern militiaries not because of any moral scruples but simply because they are not cost effective. If true, it has depressing implications for our ability to control future dangerous technologies.

Some quotes, but I recommend the whole thing:

Quite frankly, we don’t use chemical weapons for the same reason we don’t use war-zeppelin-bombers: they don’t work, at least within our modern tactical systems.
[T]he modern system relies on cover-and-concealment for survivability and maneuver in the offense
The modern system assumes that any real opponent can develop enough firepower to both obliterate any fixed defense (like a line of trenches) or to make direct approaches futile. So armies have to focus on concealment and cover to avoid overwhelming firepower (you can’t hit what you can’t see!); since concealment only works until you do something detectable (like firing), you need to be able move to new concealed positions rapidly.
Put bluntly: the modern system has few, if any, uses for chemical weapons. Chemical weapons still work against a static-system, but the modern system is already more effective against a static-system in ways that, as we’ll discuss in a moment, chemical weapons cannot enhance.
[I]t is far easier to protect against chemical munitions than against an equivalent amount of high explosives
In order to produce mass casualties in battlefield conditions, a chemical attacker has to deploy tons – and I mean that word literally – of this stuff. Chemical weapons barrages in the first World War involved thousands and tens of thousands of shells – and still didn’t produce a high fatality rate (though the deaths that did occur were terrible). But once you are talking about producing tens of thousands of tons of this stuff and distributing it to front-line combat units in the event of a war, you have introduces all sorts of other problems. One of the biggest is shelf-life: most nerve gasses (which tend to have very high lethality) are not only very expensive to produce in quantity, they have very short shelf-lives. The other option is mustard gas – cheaper, with a long shelf-life, but required in vast quantities (during WWII, when just about every power stockpiled the stuff, the stockpiles were typically in the many tens of thousands of tons range, to give a sense of how much it was thought would be required – and then think about delivering those munitions).
If you want to protect something against high explosives, your only option is armor and lots of it. Heavy, expensive armor. But if you want to protect a soldier against gas? Well, an state-of-the-art M50 gas mask costs about $270 with a set of filters. A complete NBC (Nuclear-Biological-Chemical) suit – for contact-chemicals that the mask doesn’t full protect against – costs a bit less than that (I’ve seen around $200 – and something tells me that researching this has put me on every watchlist). The soldier’s rifle probably costs around $700, for comparison. And remember: these modern system armies have all sorts of hideously expensive hardware. A unit price of c. $500-600 per soldier is cheap. And it makes your entire, very expensive multi-thousand ton arsenal of chemical munitions almost useless at a stroke.
Rich nations can even afford – if they expect chemical attack – to equip their entire civilian populace with these devices.
A modern system army, even if it is on the defensive operationally, is going to want to make a lot of tactical offensives (counterattacks, spoiling attacks). Turning the battle into a slow-moving mush of long-lasting chemical munitions (like mustard gas!) is counterproductive.
WWII was an existential war, all of the states involved knew it by 1941 (if not earlier), and they all escalated to the peak of their ability from the start; I find it hard to believe that, had they thought it was really a war winner, any of the powers in the war would have refrained from using chemical weapons. The British feared escalation to a degree (but also thought that chemical weapons use would squander valuable support in occupied France), but I struggle to imagine that, with the Nazis at the very gates of Moscow, Stalin was moved either by escalation concerns or the moral compass he so clearly lacked at every other moment of his life.
[A]s the Cold War wound down, planners in the USSR came around to the same basic idea as American thinkers, with the role of chemical weapons – even as more and more effective chemicals were developed – being progressively downgraded before the program was abandoned altogether.


4 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:39 PM
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Great post. I think it focuses too much on the use of chemical weapons against enemy soldiers, however. IMO chemical weapons were and almost always have been thought of as terror weapons. For example, before WW2 it was feared that squadrons of bombers would drop chemical weapons all over european cities on Day 1 of the next war. Instead, they dropped propaganda leaflets and focused on military targets, and then gradually escalated to bombing and then firebombing cities.

True, civilian populations can be equipped with anti-chemical-weapon gear. But even so, my guess is that chemical bombs would have been effective terror weapons. Imagine if during the Blitz, instead of 100% conventional weapons, they had gone for a 80 - 20 mix of conventional and gas, many of the gas weapons being timed release so that hours after the air raid was over the gas would start hissing out.

Another piece of evidence is that the Allies shipped huge amounts of chemical weapons to Italy during their invasion, presumably in case they needed them. (They didn't; in fact a German air raid accidentally set off chemical weapons and caused massive casualties. Quote: "From the start, Allied High Command tried to conceal the disaster, in case the Germans believed that the Allies were preparing to use chemical weapons, which might provoke them into preemptive use, but there were too many witnesses to keep the secret, and in February 1944, the U.S. Chiefs of Staff issued a statement admitting to the accident and emphasizing that the U.S. had no intention of using chemical weapons except in the case of retaliation.")

As for Stalin: Did the USSR have large chemical weapon stockpiles? Maybe they didn't. Maybe they figured their poorly equipped troops would fare worse in a chemical weapon fight than the Germans. (The Germans, meanwhile, perhaps thought that if they used chemical weapons against the Russians, the Brits and USA would retaliate against Germany.)

Epistemic status: Just presenting some pushback/counter-evidence. Not sure what to think, ultimately. Probably the truth is a combination of both factors, I'd guess.

I think you make a great point, and it in fact fits with the reasoning here. Although militaries are mobile and stealthy, civilians, even during wartime, remain rooted and obvious. That's just the nature of things: it's much easier to make soldiers mobile than it is to make civilians because during a war, not considering the value of human life for its own sake, civilians serve purposes tied to fixed resources like farms and factories. This suggests that chemical weapons should still be appealing in war, but only against civilian targets.

Quick Googling isn't getting me something like a list of times chemical warfare agents were used, but I expect it would show a trend towards primarily use against civilians after the first world war.

Why is this a personal blogpost? What does that mean? I thought I was posting to the EA forum?

Yea, this can be confusing. Posts can be divided into 3 categories - personal blogposts, frontpage and community. All posts start as personal blogposts, and then can be moved to frontpage by moderators. 

As you can now see, your post has been moved to frontpage (which broadly means that it "is relevant to doing good effectively and doesn't require background knowledge of the EA community").

The following is an excerpt from the about page

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