What are “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” Really?

By Maeve Edwards

This article is the first in an editorial series titled “I do not think this word means what you think it means.” The purpose of the series is to encourage dialogue about commonly (mis)used terms to better understand the interplay of theory, practice, and culture. The editorial team encourages you, our readers, to join this conversation by commenting on this post, tweeting at us @DemSociety, and submitting your own short articles to this series.

Weapon of mass destruction, commonly referred to as WMD, is defined in the United States Department of Homeland Security’s 2017 lexicon as a “weapon capable of a high order of destruction and/or of being used in such a manner as to destroy large numbers of people or an amount of property.”1 While many people tend to think of nuclear weapons as the prime example of WMD, the definition actually applies to a large number of weapons technology, including “radiological, chemical, biological,” and others.2 As such, it may surprise some to learn who exactly is in possession of WMD, and in what quantity. Such information is important, as misconceptions about this term and topic have seemingly misplaced concern about WMD.

According to the Arms Control Association, the following countries are known or alleged to possess or have to capacity to create or obtain chemical weapons: China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and the United States.3 The same status concerning biological weapons applies to China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Libya, North Korea, Russia, and the United States.4 As the Arms Control Association website explains, both chemical and biological weapons are banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention, respectively.5

Furthermore, China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the US all currently possess nuclear weapons.6 Combined, these countries have nearly 14,000 nuclear weapons, 12,675 of which belong to and are split almost evenly between Russia and the United States:7

Screen Shot 2020-01-23 at 1.29.23 PM8

 Although nuclear proliferation is an issue which most people are familiar with, there seems to be less concern in the general public over existing WMD. Returning to the popular depiction of WMD as solely nuclear weaponry, the comparison of those countries which possess one, two, or even three types of WMD can be helpful in building a fuller picture of the state of WMD in the world today. 

Of course, there is much overlap in the possession of different types of WMD. Egypt and Iran each possess both chemical and biological weapons, and Syria, Cuba, and Libya each possess one or the other. Of the fourteen included, only France, India, Pakistan, and the UK possess solely nuclear weaponry; China, Israel, North Korea, Russia, and the US possess all three of the discussed types of WMD. Clearly, there is much more of such weaponry in existence than might otherwise be considered in the absence of a precise definition of WMD. This massive buildup is not always the point of main concern, however. 

Ultimately, concern about WMD seems to be somewhat misplaced — rather than focus on the weaponry which already exists, discussion is often concerned with the weaponry which may be obtained or created in the future. Although the threat of proliferation should be taken seriously and such action deterred, the threat posed by existing WMD capacity / possession should be given more consideration. As important as WMD are to world politics today, it is vital to be precise in defining the pertinent issues and careful in framing them. At least equal public and policy concern should focus on what is, rather than what may be.

For more information about WMDs, see: 


Maeve Edwards is a first year student in Georgetown University’s Democracy and Governance program, and Assistant Editor of Democracy and Society. She is previously a student of Political Science and Economics at Mary Baldwin University. Contact at dixonedw@gmail.com.


1 “DHS Lexicon Terms and Definitions,” Department of Homeland Security, October 16, 2017, https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/18_0116_MGMT_DHS-Lexicon.pdf.  

2 “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” Department of Homeland Security, accessed January 19, 2020, https://www.dhs.gov/topic/weapons-mass-destruction.

3 “Chemical and Biological Weapons Status at a Glance,” Arms Control Association,  accessed January 19, 2020, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/cbwprolif.

4 Ibid.

5 “The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, accessed January 19, 2020, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/cwcglance, “The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, accessed January 19, 2020,  https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/bwc.

6 “Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, accessed January 19, 2020, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat.

7 Ibid

8 Ibid