The term weapons of mass destruction (WMD) represents more than just the chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons that it commonly indicates. It also represents a threat paradigm. There is a longstanding, bipartisan agreement about the U.S. security environment dating back to the end of the Cold War that CBRN weapons in the hands of certain states and violent non-state actors pose one of the greatest threats to U.S. national security. Use of such weapons, though often viewed as having a low probability, have been given high priority due to their potential for significant impact.
And yet, both the term and threat paradigm may no longer be an ideal fit for the threats of the 21st century. CBRN weapons can be used in ways that cause very limited effects to world-changing destruction, and everything in between. The term WMD therefore may not be helpful in thinking about the cases of their use in recent decades, in which both state and violent non-state actors have seemed to favor tactical use of CBRN with tailored effects. Most recent attacks have involved the use of chemical weapons for assassination attempts (by Russia and North Korea) or for use in civil war in attacks on targeted neighborhoods (in Syria’s case), and to drive disproportionate psychological damage.
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