The outbreak of World War I in 1914 was a watershed for the technological advancement of modern weapons. Never before was a major war fought with weapons forged from the industrial revolution. For instance, there was the machine gun; as well as, artillery capable of firing exploding shells from several miles away. Land mines were planted in the fields. There were armored tanks, battleships, and even submarines firing torpedoes. From above, fighter planes were dropping bombs. And as a harbinger of things to come, poison gas was released as a chemical weapon. For four years, there was an average of five and a half thousand casualties per day. In the end, 10 million people died. But 30 million were wounded, maimed, disfigured, and incapacitated for the rest of their lives. The world had changed and modern weapons began to proliferate. Today, modern weapons continue to be developed and refined with the latest technological advances. And yet, there are still many older weapons systems stockpiled and used around the world. In an effort to more clearly understand the different categories of weapons, we offer here a brief outline describing the major categories of weapons along with possible questions, which could be used as discussion starters with students.
These inquiries can be approached from a brain-storming perspective, meaning, there are no wrong answers. It might be useful to explore students' initial ideas. Clarification and concrete answers to the questions can be found via our supporting links on the sidebars.
Without a doubt, the most dangerous weapons in the world are nuclear; and today, nuclear weapons remain a threat to all life on earth. They are unique, and are not at all like conventional bombs. These weapons cause destruction through the splitting of the atom, which creates tremendous power, called nuclear fission.
The primary effects of a nuclear explosion include blast, heat, fire and radiation, producing destruction on an unimaginable scale. Immense light and thermal heat (comparable to the interior of the sun) cause a phenomenon called a firestorm. Firestorms deplete oxygen from the environment and create hurricane-like winds, which attract debris and feed the storm itself, causing super-infernos. No living being can survive a firestorm. Another often overlooked effect of nuclear weaponry is radiation, which results from a nuclear explosion. Once released, radioactive elements can hang around for millennia upon millennia, putting future generations at risk of developing cancer and genetic mutations. Due to long-lived radioactive poisoning, nuclear weapons in effect have the ability to wage war on future generations by mutating the gene pool and threatening the continuation of life itself. For these and other reasons, the destructive power of nuclear weapons has been described as "unthinkable".
Here are several inquires an educator could pose concerning nuclear weapons, beginning with some basic questions and then introducing more advanced topics:
Have nuclear weapons ever been used?
If so, how have nuclear weapons been used?
Are there any dangers in testing nuclear weapons?
How are nuclear weapons tested?
Which countries have tested nuclear weapons?
How many nuclear weapons exist in the world today?
Are nuclear weapons today more powerful than those built during the Cold War?
Which states own the majority of the world's nuclear weapons?
How are nuclear warheads deployed, on which delivery systems?
What treaties exist to prevent the build up of nuclear weapons?
Is disarmament possible?
Has any country ever given up its nuclear weapons?
Chemical, Biological and
In the First World War, both sides fired projectiles that released poisonous gases such as mustard gas which is a mix of carbon, chlorine, hydrogen, and sulfur. Poison gas was deadly and those who survived, suffered from blistering lungs, eyes, and skin. Biological and toxin weapons differ from chemical weapons in that they are derived from living organisms. An example is anthrax, a highly contagious bacterial agent which can be disseminated through a variety of delivery systems. Chemical, biological and toxin weapons are so lethal that there have been several international treaties to prohibit their development, production and use. The stockpiling of these kinds of weapons also poses great risks both for their environmental impact and their potential to be used.
Several questions could be posed here such as:
Have chemical, biological and toxin weapons ever been used in any other war besides World War I?
If so, where have they been used, and by whom?
What living organisms can be used to make biological weapons?
Are there any known stockpiles of chemical, biological and toxin weapons; if so where?
What are the known effects of chemical, biological and toxin weapons on the body?
Is there an international treaty that prohibits the manufacutre and use of chemical, biological and toxin weapons manufacture and use?
Also called radiological dispersion devises (RDDs) or "dirty bombs", radiological weapons are a confusing category of weapons. Although they are capable of extensive and long-term damage, they might be more psychological in their effect, used to spread economic and social disruption through the dispersal of invisible, radioactive contaminants. Radiological weapons have not been used in war, but the fear that they might be used has increased in recent years. Anxiety about radiological weapons has fueled a debate about the operation of nuclear power plants. Nuclear power plants utilize and create radioactive materials that could be fashioned into radiological weapons. A growing concern is that radioactive materials might be stolen and used to cause damage to people and the environment, and spread fear and panic. Some people argue that nuclear power plants themselves, including spent fuel storage and other on-site radioactive waste, could be used as radiological weapons. For example, in the event of war, nuclear power plants could be primary bombing targets, having the potential to release widespread radioactive material. While there is no agreement on the actual damage that a radiological weapon could produce ”because that would depend upon the type of radioactive materials used, and how they were dispersed” the mere existence of radioactive materials is cause for great concern.
Questions about radiological include:
What is a dirty bomb?
Is there any indication that such bombs actually exist in the world?
Which countries in the world have nuclear power plants?
What are the potentially hazardous and radioactive materials manufactured in nuclear power plants?
What happens with the radioactive waste from nuclear power plants?
Are there international safeguards for radioactive materials? If so, what international body is responsible for safeguards?
Is there an international treaty that bans the manufacture of radiological weapons?
Major Conventional Weapons
When we talk about weapons and war, we're usually thinking about conventional weapons systems. These are larger than what any one person or small team could handle. Here we're referring to seven main categories of major weapon systems, armored combat vehicles, battle tanks, large-caliber artillery systems, attack helicopters, combat aircraft, warships, and missiles and missiles launchers. An enormous amount of money is spent each year by states on heavy conventional weapons. And yet, only a handful of states actually manufacture such weapons. Heavy conventional weapon systems are a big business and the international trade in conventional weapons can help maintain tensions or fuel conflicts between States. fuels conflict situations. The presence of conventional weapons can also prolong and intensify armed conflicts. A recognized problem is the transfer or trade of conventional weapons to States that have a troubled history with democracy, human rights, and non-proliferation. International humanitarian law also regulates weapons which may cause unnecessary suffering or superfluous injury. While some states have chosen to control the transfer of weapons through their national legislation, there is still no unified global system to regulate the licit and illicit trade of conventional weapons.
There are currently no international legal agreements controlling the trade in conventional arms. However, for more than a decade, an average of two thirds of the Member States of the General Assembly have been submitting information on a voluntary basis to the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms, available to the public, on their major conventional arms trades, both exports and imports, with other countries, as well as background information on military holdings, procurement from national production and trade policies. The Register has served as a measure to build confidence among States for the maintenance of international stability.
In 2006, the General Assembly began an unprecedented process towards an arms trade treaty that would establish common standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional weapons. The purpose of such a future treaty would be to exclude arms trades to States with proven records of human rights abuses or which contravene international law or are prone to conflict. While Member States have acknowledged their inherent right to individual or collective defence in accordance with Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, the start of the process has been hailed by civil society, supporters of human rights, development and humanitarian workers from around the world. A group of international experts will begin consideration of the feasibility and parameters of such a treaty in 2008.
Some questions concerning conventional weapons could be:
Which countries manufacture heavy conventional weapons?
Furthermore, which are the leading states that export conventional weapons and ammunition?
Which countries purchase conventional weapons?
How much money do you think is spent buying conventional weapons each year?
Can you think of any recent conflicts or wars which involved the transfer of conventional weapons?
Do arms-exporting states have the responsibility to prevent weapons from being used to fuel conflicts and human rights abuses?
And should there be stronger international controls on the transfer of conventional weapons?
Although categorized as conventional weapons, landmines and cluster bombs are often treated as a category in and of themselves because of their inhumane impact in post-conflict situations. These weapons are problematic because their victims are often civilians, roughly one-third are women and children. Landmines and cluster munitions remain long after the conflict has ended. Landmines are very expensive to detect and remove. Cheap to deploy but difficult to uncover, it is estimated that there are 60 million landmines sown in the world's conflict areas.
International Campaign To Ban Landmines
estimates that landmines cause 15,000 to 20,000 casualties each year. This figure does not include the thousands of people who are burned, blinded, or injured with shrapnel, and who lose limbs from mine blasts.
Like landmines, cluster bombs leave explosives in their wake, and can cause post-conflict death and destruction. Cluster bombs are dropped from airplanes as "dispensers" which contain sub-munitions or "bomblets" which can be dispersed over a wide area. The small incendiary devices of cluster bombs are meant to explode on impact but often they are left, undetonated, in exposed areas. The innocent looking metal balls, between 2 to 4 inches in diameter, have particularly affected children.
Questions about landmines and cluster bombs might include:
Which countries manufacture landmines?
Which countries manufacture cluster bombs?
Can you think of any recent conflicts, which involved the use of anti-personnel weapons?
Do states that manufacture landmines and cluster bombs have the responsibility to remove live munitions in post conflict situations?
How are landmines and cluster bombs detected and decommissioned, or taken apart in the field?
Which countries have the most casualties due to landmines?
Describe what you think might happen if someone stepped on a landmine or picked up a bomblet?
Are there any treaties banning the use of land mines and cluster bombs?
In recent years, the issue of small arms and light weapons has emerged as a major source of concern because most armed violence in the world is associated with these weapons. In fact, some consider small arms "weapons of mass destruction" because the sheer number of deaths related to these weapons. Technically, "small arms" refers to weapons that can be easily carried by a single person. These include handguns, rifles, carbines, sub-machine guns, assault rifles, and light hand-held machine guns. A number of related issues complicate the proliferation of small arms such as rights of ownership, personal safety, and the proliferation of small arms in conflict situations around the world. The legal trade and illicit traffic of small arms is complex given the many different national laws governing gun ownership and political support for the manufacturing and trade of small arms and ammunition. Since 2001, the UN has formally recognized the grave threat that the illicit trade in of small arms and light weapons poses and has convened regular conferences with member states and civil society to address the lethal violence associated with this trade.
In contrast to small arms which can be operated by one person, light weapons need to be operated by two or three people. These are usually weapons found in war situations and they include grenade launchers, mortars, light missiles, portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, heavy machine guns, cannons, and various explosive devices. Like major conventional arms, the international trade in light weapons also involves government-to-government transfers. The international black market for small arms and light weapons, in contrast, is often fueled by private arms dealers and criminal organizations. The proliferation of small arms and light weapons can encourage conflicts, they can undermine peace initiatives, and exacerbate human rights abuses. The licit and illicit traffic in light weapons poses several problems for the international community.
People who study the proliferation of small arms usually break up the issues in three main categories, the demand for guns, the traffic of small arms, and what to do about guns already in circulation. Here are some questions you could use to get your students thinking about small arms issues:
How many small arms are approximately in existence?
Can you estimate the number of small arms in any one country?
Why might people want to own small arms?
Who are the main victims of small arms-related violence?
How many people are killed by small arms each year?
How many people are shot but survive? Where are the "hot spots" around the world where lethal violence is associated with small arms?
Who manufacturers the majority of small arms?
What is the most famous small weapon in the world?
Who sells and who buys small arms?
Why do small arms flow from one part of the world to another?
What strategies exist for small arms disarmament?
How can the international community control and prevent the traffic of small arms?
What can be done with guns already in existence, especially stockpiles of small arms?
What steps is the U.N. currently taking to address the proliferation of small arms?
Questions on light weapons might include the following:
Which countries manufacture light weapons?
Should we be concerned about the legal trade of light weapons?
Or should we be more concerned about the illicit traffic of these weapons?
How are light weapons trafficked illegally?
Where are the current "hot spots" where light weapons are trafficked and why are weapons flowing to these areas?
What steps could the international community make to control and prevent the trade and proliferation of light weapons?