BL: weapon of mass destruction / conventional weapon
Posted: 23 July 2014 04:09 AM   [ Ignore ]
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An update to a term already on the Big List

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Posted: 23 July 2014 08:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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There is no tendency on the part of anybody here to question that the plutonium bomb is a vastly more dangerous weapon in the hands of an enemy than any conventional weapon.

Interesting that the newspaper refers specifically to “plutonium bomb[s]” rather than the more general “atomic bombs” or “nuclear weapons.” It’s true that at the time it already seemed clear that the future of nuclear weapons was in plutonium rather than uranium fission, but I am/was not sure how widely known that was.

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Posted: 23 July 2014 10:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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By the 1960s, the phrase had been adopted by the arms control community as a term of art to refer to those weapons they meant to reduce or eliminate.

The counterpart to a weapon of mass destruction is a conventional weapon.

Would then the incendiary bombs dropped, for instance, on Dresden and Tokyo be described as weapons of mass destruction and thus non-conventional weapons? These bombs are certainly designed to reduce or eliminate but I’d always thought of them before as conventional weapons.

And does the term conventional have any reference to the Geneva Convention?

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Posted: 23 July 2014 11:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Interesting that the newspaper refers specifically to “plutonium bomb[s]” rather than the more general “atomic bombs” or “nuclear weapons.” It’s true that at the time it already seemed clear that the future of nuclear weapons was in plutonium rather than uranium fission, but I am/was not sure how widely known that was.

Life magazine from 20 August 1945 (available on Google Books) has a long (for Life) article on the Manhattan project that discusses plutonium extensively. Its importance to nuclear weapons was hardly a secret. But that said, I too find it the usage unusual.

Would then the incendiary bombs dropped, for instance, on Dresden and Tokyo be described as weapons of mass destruction and thus non-conventional weapons? These bombs are certainly designed to reduce or eliminate but I’d always thought of them before as conventional weapons.

By the 1937 usage, yes. But not by 1945 and the advent of the atomic bomb.

While more people died in the fire bombing of Tokyo on 9–10 March 1945 (approx. 100,000 killed) than in either of the two atomic bombings, that raid required 334 B-29s and 1,665 tons of bombs, compared to a single B-29 and one bomb for each of Hiroshima (approx. 80,000 killed) and Nagasaki (approx. 74,000 killed). The raid on Dresden had 1,249 bombers and over 3,900 tons of bombs, but caused less than 25,000 deaths. Higher figures that are frequently quoted for Dresden are wildly inflated ones based on those produced by the Nazi propaganda machine. The large numbers of deaths in Tokyo is generally attributed to the dense clustering of light, wood-frame buildings in that city, which created ideal conditions for an ungodly, horrific fire storm.

And note that the yield for the Hiroshima uranium bomb was 12 kilotons (equivalent to 12,000 tons of TNT), and that for the Nagasaki plutonium bomb was 20 kilotons. The unclassified yield, last time I checked, for a current US ICBM warhead is 300 kilotons. The damage caused, however, does not scale linearly with yield, so a modern nuclear weapon is not 15–25 times more devastating than its WWII predecessors.

In recent years, there are many who lump all sorts of weapons into the “weapons of mass destruction” category. I’ve heard people refer to land mines as WMDs.

When I worked at the Pentagon, we actively strove to eliminate the term “weapon of mass destruction” from the vocabulary. It was our opinion that since nuclear weapons were several orders of magnitude more destructive than any other kind, including chemical and biological weapons, that the WMD category created a false equivalence and invited sloppy analysis. We were, of course, utterly unsuccessful in ridding the world of the term. (We did better at ridding the world of some of the weapons, though.)

And does the term conventional have any reference to the Geneva Convention?

No. And there is no single “Geneva Convention,” even though that is the term used in popular discourse. There are a number of Geneva Conventions on various subjects relating to the rules of war.

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Posted: 23 July 2014 10:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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When were you at the Pentagon?

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Posted: 24 July 2014 03:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I actually worked in the building 1994-95 for the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, but I worked in and around the DoD on arms control issues from 1990–98 and again in 2003–04.

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Posted: 24 July 2014 05:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I’ve noticed a trend of people using the term too lightly.  Describing a pistol with a 15-round magazine as a “weapon of mass destruction”, for instance.

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Posted: 24 July 2014 11:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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A physicist might argue that “mass destruction” can only be applied to nuclear fission or fusion devices ;-)

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Posted: 25 July 2014 02:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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steve_g - 24 July 2014 11:36 PM

A physicist might argue that “mass destruction” can only be applied to nuclear fission or fusion devices ;-)

Nice one

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