Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Chemical Weapons

The United States began its own destruction process unilaterally in 1990, seven years before the CWC’s entry into force, and announced late in 2011 that it had completed 90% destruction of its original 31,500 US tons (28,577 MTs) of stockpiled chemical weapons at seven of its nine declared stockpile sites. The US missed the Chemical Weapons Convention’s 29 April 2012 deadline, and at that time it appeared the US would need another decade or more to complete the task.

Further to a decision by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Conference at its Sixteenth Session (C-16/DEC.11), a national paper by the United States of America on the progress made on the completion of the destruction of its chemical weapons, including information on measures to accelerate such progress, as well as on appropriate measures in order to meet the planned completion date (EC-69/NAT.1, dated 15 June 2012), was considered and noted by the Council, along with comments on the issue.

Chemical agents in the modem sense were first used in World War I, when chlorine gas was released, from large cylinders, in a favorable wind. This surprise operation caused massive casualties, demoralisation of the forces attacked and demonstrated the need for protection from this kind of warfare. The first improvised mask was a cotton pad soaked in sodium thiosulphate, glycerine and sodium carbonate. Subsequently in World War I, a great variety of chemical agents were used by both sides, the most damaging being the blister producing mustard gas. Military clothing, even with a respirator, gave little protection against this agent.

Immediately prior to World War II and during the early part of that war, Japan is supposed to have used chemical weapons against China. During World War II, President Roosevelt announced a no-first-use policy but had promised instant retaliation for any Axis use of chemical agents. Over 600 military casualties and an unknown number of civilian casualties resulted from the 1943 German bombing in Bari Harbor, Italy, of the John Harvey, an American ship loaded with two thousand 100-pound mustard bombs.

At the end of the war stockpiles of newer agents, called "nerve gases," were discovered. These were found to be effective in much lower concentrations than those agents known up to that time. The end of World War II did not stop the development or stockpiling of chemical weapons. The U.S., which used defoliants and riot-control agents in Vietnam and Laos, finally ratified the Geneva Protocol in 1975 but with the stated reservation that the treaty did not apply either to defoliants or to riot-control agents.

US policy renounces the first use of lethal or incapacitating chemical agents. However, it retains the right to retaliate if deterrence fails to prevent the enemy's first use of chemicals. As is the case with nuclear weapons, the President of the United States must approve the initial use of chemical weapons. This approval procedure is known as chemical release.

The United States stockpile of unitary lethal chemical warfare munitions consists of various rockets, projectiles, mines, and bulk items containing blister agents (mustard H, HD, HT) and nerve agents (VX, GB). About 60% of this stockpile is in bulk storage containers; 40% is stored in munitions, many of which are now obsolete. The stockpile is stored at eight sites throughout the Continental US (Edgewood Chemical Activity, MD; Anniston Chemical Activity, AL; Blue Grass Chemical Activity, KY; Newport Chemical Depot, IN; Pine Bluff Chemical Activity, AR; Pueblo Chemical Depot, CO; Deseret Chemical Activity, UT; and Umatilla Chemical Depot, OR) and at one site outside of the Continental US on Johnston Atoll.

In 1985, the Congress passed Public Law 99-145 directing the Army to destroy the US stockpile of obsolete chemical agents and munitions. Recognizing that the stockpile program did not include all chemical warfare materiel requiring disposal, the Congress directed the Army in 1992 to plan for the disposal of materiel not included in the stockpile. This materiel, some of which dates back as far as World War I, consists of binary chemical weapons, miscellaneous chemical warfare materiel, recovered chemical weapons, former production facilities, and buried chemical warfare materiel. In 1992, the Army established theNonstockpile Chemical Materiel Program to dispose of the materiel.

In 1993, the United States signed the UN-sponsored Chemical Weapons Convention. In October 1996, the 65th nation ratified the convention making the treaty effective on April 29, 1997. Through ratification, the United States agreed to dispose of its unitary chemical weapons stockpile, binary chemical weapons, recovered chemical weapons, and former chemical weapon production facilities by April 29, 2007, and miscellaneous chemical warfare materiel by April 29, 2002.

The United States has met and surpassed the 29 April 2000 disposal milestone of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). By this date, participating CWC nations must have destroyed one percent of their Category 1 chemical weapons (this amount includes stockpiled as well as certain other chemical weapons known as non-stockpile chemical materiel). The United States has destroyed over 15 percent of its Category 1 chemical weapons since the CWC entered into force, far surpassing the disposal milestone. The next CWC milestone was April 29, 2002, when nations must have destroyed 20 percent of their Category 1 chemical weapons.

US Chemical Munitions

Quantity of Assembled Chemical Weapons by Site

Weapon Type Weapon Quantities by Site (1)
  Anniston Blue Grass Pine Bluff Pueblo Tooele Umatilla JACADS
Mustard Agent (H, HD, HT)
105-mm Projectile (HD)
155-mm Projectile (H, HD)
4.2-in. Mortar (HD, HT)




Agent GB
105-mm Projectile
155-mm Projectile
8-in. Projectile
M55 Rocket





Agent VX
155-mm Projectile
8-in. Projectile
M55 Rocket
M23 Land Mine






(1) Munitions quantities are as of July 11, 1997

The Non-Stockpile Project

While the stockpile project poses many challenges, the non-stockpile project faces its own set of complex issues. The term non-stockpile chemical materiel describes a wide variety of chemical warfare materiel that is not part of the unitary stockpile as declared in 1986. This materiel exists in a variety of physical configurations that range from chemical agent identification sets once used to teach soldiers how to identify chemical agents to large former weapons-production facilities.

This materiel is located on active or former military bases, and much of it is buried at small, geographically dispersed sites, as burial was once an accepted disposal practice. The logistical problems posed by locating burial sites, identifying what is buried there, and determining how to remove it safely are serious and far-ranging.

By the end of Fiscal Year 1999, materiel had been identified, or was believed to exist, at 99 locations in 38 states and U.S. territories, some of which had or have multiple burial sites. Approximately 229 known or suspected sites have been identified. At 33 of the 99 locations, hazardous materiel was removed, or no hazardous materiel was found.

Transportable treatment systems provide the flexibility to rapidly identify, treat and/or neutralize certain types of materiel. The Army prepared a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, issued in the fall of 1999, that examined the feasibility of deploying these systems across the country at locations where chemical warfare materiel must be treated.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list