Consequences of Using Weapons of Mass Destruction in a U.S.-Iraqi War

With the United States poised to attack Iraq to disarm it of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the Nuclear Program at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) thought it was time for a clear-eyed look at the potential consequences of using biological, chemical or nuclear weapons in a U.S.-Iraqi war. Using satellite imagery and special computer software developed by the Defense Department, NRDC experts have run simulations of a number of plausible scenarios that would threaten Iraqi troops and civilians, U.S. and allied troops, and Israeli citizens.

How likely is it for Iraq to resort to using weapons of mass destruction? Most experts believe that Iraq does not possess nuclear weapons or the capability to produce them anytime soon. Furthermore, either out of fear of retaliation or the inability to effectively employ them, Iraq did not use chemical or biological weapons during the 1991 Persian Gulf War against coalition forces or Israel. But this time may be different. The U.S. objective of overthrowing Saddam Hussein might prompt him to use chemical or biological weapons -- if he possesses them.

If Hussein did use chemical or biological weapons, how should the United States respond? Both President Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld have stated that they reserve the right to use whatever is necessary in Iraq, including nuclear weapons. The United States also is considering using nuclear weapons -- so-called "bunker busters" -- against deep underground military facilities. After weighing the relative threats of battlefield biological and chemical weapons compared to nuclear weapons, NRDC has concluded that any American use of nuclear weapons in retaliation to a chemical or biological attack would be a disproportionate response. It also would encourage other nations to acquire and use nuclear weapons.

How NRDC Does WMD Computer Simulations
NRDC performed its calculations using a Department of Defense computer code called HPAC, which is an acronym for Hazard Prediction and Assessment Capability. HPAC is actually a large collection of computer models primarily intended to assist the Pentagon in planning U.S. attacks against targets that house nuclear, biological or chemical materials. Secondarily, HPAC supports emergency response to accidents or terrorist attacks at chemical, biological and nuclear facilities in the United States.

In the HPAC computer models, how and where a biological or chemical agent disperses depends on atmospheric conditions (temperature, winds and humidity) and the terrain (e.g., vegetation or desert). HPAC models include the physical properties and toxic effects of a wide variety of chemical and biological agents, as well as basic data about the use of these agents in weapons (e.g., typical chemical or biological fills for bombs, rockets or mortars). HPAC also can calculate the effects of nuclear explosions -- blast, thermal, initial radiation and fallout.

Scenarios Involving Chemical and Biological Weapons
Chemical weapon systems come in many forms, from long-range systems such as attack aircraft and ballistic and cruise missiles, to shorter-range systems such as artillery, multiple rocket launchers and mortars. Chemical attacks are more militarily effective if they occur over large areas for long durations and therefore require large quantities of the agent. Biological and toxin weapons can be in the form of bombs, missiles, artillery rounds or aircraft spray tanks. For a weapon to effectively disperse a biological agent, it would have to produce a cloud of suspended microscopic droplets (each droplet containing minute quantities of the biological agent) and keep the agent alive long enough after delivery to cause infection.

Iraq has had extensive experience with chemical weapons on the battlefield and against civilian populations. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Iraq used chemical weapons to repel enemy advances or "prepare" an area for an offensive. Following such an attack, Iraqi forces would wait for favorable winds or for the effects of the agent to diminish before moving into the attacked area. Nonetheless, large numbers of Iraqi troops were inadvertently killed as a result of these chemical tactics. By the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Iraqi forces routinely used chemical weapons.

In response to the public controversy over the Gulf War Syndrome, the federal government declassified a large number of documents on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which are available online. According to these and other materials, Iraq's "preferred" delivery system for chemical agents are 155-mm artillery guns with about 3 kilograms of GB (sarin), GF (cyclosarin) or HD (sulfur mustard) agent per shell. Iraq likely used these same agents in ballistic-missile warheads, with 500 to 600 kilograms of agent in the short-range (300 km-range) Scud B warheads and up to half of that in the longer-range (Al Husayn or Al Abbas) missile warheads. Iraq did not fire missiles with chemical or biological weapons during the Persian Gulf War.

Iraq is known to have weaponized biological agents in the form of bombs. Recently U.S. intelligence has emphasized the possibility that Iraq's remotely piloted vehicles could deliver either chemical or biological agents using spray tanks.

Using HPAC, NRDC calculated the consequences of Iraqi chemical artillery and ballistic missile attacks. NRDC also calculated what would happen if U.S. or Iraqi forces destroyed biological weapons facilities and released anthrax, or Iraqi forces delivered anthrax using a remotely piloted vehicle. NRDC concluded that chemical weapons represent much less of a threat than biological agents. The number of infections from either accidental or deliberate release of anthrax could number in the hundreds of thousands, whereas even an intense barrage of chemical artillery or an attack using a chemical ballistic missile warhead might result in thousands of casualties for unprotected individuals.

Nuclear Attacks Versus Chemical and Biological Attacks
In his 1998 book, "Chemical-Biological Defense: U.S. Military Policies and Decisions in the Gulf War," Albert Mauroni, a career U.S. military officer and an expert in chemical and biological warfare, downplayed the threat of such weapons on the battlefield:

Only if CB [chemical and biological] weapons were used on civilians and population centers, would they truly be "weapons of mass destruction." On the military battlefield, these weapons, shorn of the ridiculous air of menace given to them by politicians and the media, are merely another tactical-operational factor like enemy air attacks or unforeseen terrorist attacks; military forces can and do take steps to minimize the effects of chemical-biological contamination. If a military force invests a small amount of time and funds in planning, defensive equipment and training, the immediate threat of mass casualties is avoided, and chemical-biological weapons become merely "weapons of mass disruption" instead of destruction. It's really that simple -- if the military invests in equipment and training, they maintain a viable combat force. If they do not, their troops become as vulnerable as unprepared civilians.

Mauroni's view of chemical and biological warfare is characteristic of current U.S. military thinking, and speaks to the issue of whether a nuclear response by the United States would be warranted and proportional to any Iraqi chemical or biological attack against the U.S. military. A U.S. nuclear response, even one targeted only at Iraqi military forces, could cause widespread fallout and civilian casualties. A U.S. nuclear attack on Iraqi cities would be catastrophic, killing millions of people.

Other factors could temper a nuclear response, such as the presence of U.S. troops in areas where fallout might occur. Significantly, the onset of disease from a biological attack and the full extent of casualties would not be evident until days or weeks afterward, during which time the war might progress to a point where nuclear targeting of Iraq becomes impossible because of occupying allied forces.

Regardless, last fall President Bush asked the Pentagon to plan for the use of nuclear weapons in response to chemical or biological weapon attacks or even the mere threat of them. On September 14, he signed a national security directive specifying two possible roles for using nuclear weapons against adversaries such as Iraq: attacking facilities located deep underground, and thwarting an enemy's use of chemical or biological weapons. Merely planning to use nuclear weapons could increase the likelihood that the president would choose it as an option. At a time when the United States should do everything it can to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, planning for their use encourages proliferation and could prompt other nations to consider nuclear weapons as just another option on the battlefield.

Consequences of Using Weapons of Mass Destruction in an U.S.-Iraqi War

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.