News | Jan. 1, 2012

Defining "Weapons of Mass Destruction" (Revised)

By W. Seth Carus CSWMD Occasional Paper 8

In January 2005, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld directed that U.S. Strategic Command become “the lead combatant commander for integrating and synchronizing DOD [Department of Defense] in combating WMD [weapons of mass destruction].” This assignment was in response to the White House’s December 2002 National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The Secretary’s memorandum, however, raised a thorny definitional problem with clear bureaucratic implications: what are weapons of mass destruction? Unfortunately, that is not an easily answered question. There are numerous definitions of WMD with some official or semi-official standing (more than 40 are identified in this paper), although most are variations of 1 of 5 basic definitions. In fact, even DOD has adopted alternative and fundamentally inconsistent definitions, including some different from the one used by the White House in its strategy and policy documents.