Chemical weapon

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U.S. Forces Chemical Weapons Warning Sign

Chemical weapons (including chemical weapons ) are solid, liquid or gaseous substances or mixtures with a toxic effect, which - in connection with the weapons technology required for deployment (grenades, spray devices) - were originally produced to protect people in armed conflicts as well as acts of terrorism and sabotage incapable of fighting, incapacitation or killing. The Chemical Weapons Convention , which came into force in 1997, extends the use of any chemical in weapons whose toxic properties cause temporary or permanent damage to humans or animals, and the predecessor substances used in their production are also used, unless they are intended for another form of further processing , counted as a chemical weapon. In a broader sense, fire ( napalm ), smoke and smoke substances as well as defoliants ( herbicides ) and nettle substances are also counted among the chemical weapons. Chemical weapons are weapons of mass destruction (CBRN).


Already in the Peloponnesian War 431 to 404 BC The Spartans used incendiary devices which caused high concentrations of sulfur dioxide in the air. In the Battle of Liegnitz (1241) the Christian knights were terrified by the Mongols by "steam-emitting war machines".

The first modern chemical weapons were used during the First World War . These were unitary warfare agents that were immediately ready for use and were initially based on substances that were already used in the chemical industry, i.e. were available in sufficiently large quantities; these were gases such as chlorine , phosgene , hydrogen cyanide (prussic acid) or arsine . However, these had two major disadvantages: On the one hand, they were unpredictable due to changing wind directions (so a gas cloud could be blown back to one's own position), and on the other hand, the gas evaporated relatively quickly. Therefore, most of the later chemical warfare agents are liquids that are sprayed as aerosols . As a result, the substances stick to the floor, clothing , skin and gas masks and can also penetrate the filters. Therefore the dwell time is much longer than with gas.

The main target of the newer warfare agents is not only the lungs, but also the skin. Such a warfare agent diffuses through the skin into the bloodstream and is quickly distributed throughout the entire organism. Therefore only full-body protective suits provide adequate protection against warfare agents. A well-known and important warfare agent of this group is sulfur mustard, also known as mustard gas.

The fact that the development of chemical weapons was politically relevant as early as 21 years before the First World War is shown by an article in the Times from 1893 in which the War Office Explosives Committee addressed the impossibility of keeping tests of the new weapons secret:

“Some of the experiments have to be carried out in our own laboratories, which are affiliated with public institutions, whose employees cannot be officially guaranteed confidentiality; partly in the building of the War Department Chemical Establishment , where employees of various degrees work and where officials of all kinds stop by, as well as private individuals; at the same time, the facility must carry out its practical experiments outdoors on the premises of the weapons depot, to which the newspaper reporters and their agents have free access. "

First World War

Livens gas grenade launchers are loading
Aerial photograph of a German gas attack (1916)
British soldiers blinded by poison gas await treatment

During the First World War, chemical warfare agents were first used in August 1914 by French troops who used xylyl bromide  - a tear gas developed for the Paris police  - against German troops. First attempts by both sides with substances such as ethyl bromoacetate (through France in March 1915) and o- dianisidine chlorosulfonate , a finely crystalline powder that irritated the mucous membranes of the eyes and nose (through Germany on October 27, 1914 near Neuve-Chapelle ), were unsatisfactory the substances decomposed when fired due to the heat generated.

The German army first used war gases on a large scale when at the end of January 1915 on the Eastern Front near Bolimów in Poland during an offensive by the 9th Army with xylyl bromide- filled bullets against Russian troops . 18,000 gas grenades were provided, but the cold and snow almost negated their effect. However, the first effective use of chemical weapons on the Western Front on April 22, 1915 in the Second Battle of Flanders near Ypres became much better known . The German XV. Army Corps under General der Infantry von Deimling let 150 tons of chlorine gas escape from bottles using the so-called Haberian blowing method. Inhaled chlorine gas leads to life-threatening toxic pulmonary edema . Since chlorine is heavier than air , the gas sank into the French trenches and allegedly claimed around 5,000 deaths and 10,000 injuries; today one assumes 1,200 dead and 3,000 wounded.

France was the first of the warring nations to use phosgene (COCl 2 ) in its pure form on February 22, 1916 , after German gas troops had already used a mixture of chlorine gas with an approximately five percent addition of phosgene on the Eastern Front in Bolimów an der Bzura at the end of May 1915 against Russian troops and on the Western Front on May 31, 1915 near Ypres against French troops. Phosgene is ascribed the largest proportion of all gas injuries. Later, the warfare agents were determined by poison gas grenades fired in which colored by crosses ( Blue Cross , mustard , Green Cross and White Cross ) was evident what kind of chemical warfare agent they contained. On the western front, “yellow cross”, which stood for skin warfare agents, was increasingly used.

Colored shooting

During the First World War, warfare agents were often combined in the late phase. Strongly irritating warfare agents in aerosol or powder form such as Blue Cross could penetrate the filters of the gas masks and forced the wearer to take off the gas mask. At the same time as these mask breakers , weapons that could damage the lungs, such as Grünkreuz, were used. The combined use of various warfare agents for this purpose was called "Buntschießen" or "Buntkreuz".

During the offensive of German and Austro-Hungarian units in the Flitsch - Tolmein area (Battle of Karfreit or the Twelfth Isonzo Battle ) on October 24, 1917, the attack was prepared by “colorful shooting” from gas batteries . The Italian soldiers had insufficient or no protective clothing at all - over 5,000 Italians died in this section as a result of the gas attack. This made it much easier for the attacking units to break through the Italian front. The psychological effect on the Italians was also devastating. Many soldiers surrendered to the attackers, the morale dropped drastically. The Italian front had to be withdrawn as far as the Piave ; French and British units were transferred to this front for reinforcement. The Italians were later able to stabilize the situation themselves after a reorganization. In June 1918 Austria-Hungary attempted a final offensive to cross the Piave. The attack was unsuccessful, however, because, on the one hand, the Italians were better equipped against gas attacks and, on the other hand, some of the chemical weapons had been stored for too long and thus lost their effectiveness.

Another militarily successful case of colored shooting, as invented by Colonel Georg Bruchmüller , took place during the German spring offensive from March 21 to July 17, 1918 on the Western Front in northern France. The focus was not on long artillery preparation and a clumsy attack on a broad front, but on a short but also effective artillery strike through the mixed use of gas grenades . Then the so-called storm battalions should move up and clear out remaining pockets of resistance . The mixed use of gas paralyzed the opponent's resistance decisively.

Evaluation of chemical warfare agents as a weapon of war

Chemical warfare agents are now widely considered to be the most terrifying weapons of World War I. They caused major short-term failures, although the death rate was very low compared to other weapons of the time. Despite the sometimes excruciating injuries, the chances of recovery were better than in comparison to wounds from gunshot wounds or artillery; apart from the long-term effects such as skin cancer in the case of sorrel , some of which only occurred after decades.

Chemical weapons caused a total of around 90,000 deaths and 1.2 million wounded on both sides in World War I, with Russia alone accounting for more than half of these deaths due to inadequate protective equipment. On the western front, the Allies suffered about twice as high losses as the Germans. Germany and Austria-Hungary equipped their soldiers with more effective gas masks and were thus able to avoid higher losses in gas attacks.

Due to the relatively low death rate (some historians assume that a total of only 18,000 men died on the western front from gas attacks) and the sometimes incalculable effect due to unforeseeable factors such as changing wind directions, poison gas is considered an ineffective weapon in the First World War.

Between the world wars (1918 to 1939)

Gas protection exercise in
Potsdam in 1926

During the First World War, aircraft technology had made significant advances: range, reliability, speed and maximum payload had increased significantly. All sides had also recognized the usefulness of reconnaissance aircraft .

From 1919, the concept of colonial rule and control from the air was first implemented by Winston Churchill . The Royal Air Force was supposed to take control of the colonies in the Middle East and execute them. In addition to conventional weapons, the use of poison gas from the air was also considered and specifically requested by Churchill. Due to technical problems, poison gas was only used against the Arab population in Iraq using the methods that had already been tried and tested in the First World War . This also resulted in the use of poison gas against the Kurds in Sulaimaniyya in what is now Iraq.

Churchill rejected reservations from the British military, stating: “ I don't understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am very much in favor of using poison gas against uncivilized tribes, ”he said. The gas used does not have to be fatal, but only " cause great pain and spread a comprehensive terror " .

A unit of the Soviet Army, composed mainly of units of the Cheka , used chemical warfare agents to fight the rebellious peasants during the Tambov peasant uprising in 1920/21.

In the Rif War in northern Morocco , Spain used chemical weapons from 1924 against the rebellious Rifkabylen , a Berber tribe. Spain was supported by France and, in a secret treaty, by the German Reichswehr .

Poison gas was used once again by fascist Italy in the Second Italo-Libyan War and the Abyssinian War . Italy used poison gas bombs in Ethiopia after the Ethiopian Christmas offensive successfully pushed back Italian troops and cut supply lines. The Ethiopian troops were very poorly equipped and many warriors still fought with spears. The warriors wore traditional clothing and had no protective equipment, so that mustard gas, which is harmful to the skin, led to high losses. According to Soviet estimates, 15,000 to 50,000 Ethiopians were killed as a result of the use of poison gas.

The Versailles Treaty prohibited the German Reichswehr from developing and owning chemical weapons . In order to circumvent the ban, Germany cooperated with the Soviet Union from 1923 (see: Treaty of Rapallo ) and tested chemical weapons on the Tomka test site . There was also a collaboration with Spain.

In the US, chemical weapons were further developed between the world wars. In addition to the American Chemical Society (Institute for Chemistry at Northwestern University ), a military authority, the National Association for Chemical Defense, was responsible for this . In 1928, its director, H. Edmund Bullis, even recommended the police authorities to use these “highly effective and at the same time most humane of all weapons”, i.e. chemical weapons. In Cleveland and Chicago that year, police officers “successfully” tested novel gases from “ingenious” fountain pen-sized pens or from normal pistols that “showed that you could get three or four men standing no more than five meters away together can sustainably turn off a single shot ”. Even bars that served alcohol illegally ( speakeasys ) could be made uninhabitable for at least a month with chemical weapons. Bullis vehemently opposed a worldwide ban on chemical weapons in war, with the reasoning:

"We should not let our hands be tied by an international agreement that cannot be guaranteed to be observed."

As an example, he cited the escape of toxic phosgene gas from a tank car at the Stoltzenberg chemical factory in Hamburg . The German Reich was actually not allowed to produce or store such poisonous gases.

After the First World War, the English public discussed a stronger merging of civil and military research, which also included the development of new chemical weapons. "The whole future of chemical warfare depends on the dye industry," wrote the London Times war correspondent in 1920 .

Geneva Protocol

Law on the Geneva Protocol banning gas wars (1929, Germany)

Even before the First World War, the use of poisonous weapons was outlawed by the Hague Land Warfare Regulations , but the wording of the code offered sufficient scope for different interpretations so that the use of poison gas was not clearly prohibited. In view of the horrors of World War I, the Geneva Protocol in 1925 expressly forbade the use of poisonous gases and bacteriological agents .

The ratification was made reluctantly: 1926: France, 1928: Italy, Soviet Union (Declaration), 1929: Germany, 1930: Great Britain, 1970: Japan, 1975: United States.

Many of the signatory states reserved certain acts, namely

  • the use of chemical weapons against non-contracting states and
  • Counterattacks, if they should be attacked with such weapons (⇒ deterrence / retaliation)

The treaty is only a ban on the first use of bi and chemical weapons.

Second World War

Imperial Japanese Marines with gas masks during the Battle of Shanghai

The textbook School Experiments on the Chemistry of Warfare Agents was published as early as 1935 : an experiment book on gas and air protection in Berlin. The author Kintoff leads to simple experiments and explains the function of the gas mask.

During the Second World War , the Japanese Empire was the only nation to use chemical weapons. These were used together with biological weapons in China against Chinese troops and also for the targeted mass killing of civilians .

According to the historians Yoshiaki Yoshimi and Seiya Matsuno, Okamura Yasuji received permission from Emperor Hirohito to use chemical weapons during these battles. For example, the Emperor authorized the use of poison gas during the Battle of Wuhan from August to October 1938 in 375 different sorties against the 1.1 million Chinese soldiers, 400,000 of whom died during the battle. Article 23 of the Hague Convention (1899 and 1907) and Article V of the treaty relating to the use of submarines and harmful gases in warfare of February 6, 1921, however, already condemned the use of poison gas. During the Battle of Changsha in the fall of 1939, the Imperial Japanese Army also used large amounts of poison gas against Chinese positions. Another example is the Battle of Yichang in October 1941, in which the 19th Artillery Regiment supported the 13th Brigade of the 11th Army by bombarding the Chinese forces with 1,000 yellow gas grenades and 1,500 red gas grenades. The area was overcrowded with Chinese civilians whose evacuation was banned by the Japanese army. Of the roughly 3,000 Chinese soldiers in the area, 1,600 were severely affected by the effects of the gas.

During the Battle of Changde in November and December 1943, troops of the Imperial Japanese Army, including Unit 516 , attempted , along with the spraying of biological warfare agents from aircraft, through the massive use of poison gas, mainly with artillery shells both on Chinese positions in the surrounding area as well as being shot down in the city, breaking the resistance of the defenders. The gas used was mainly mustard gas and lewisite , among other types . 50,000 Chinese soldiers and 300,000 civilians died in the course of the battle. How many of them died from biological and chemical weapons is unclear. Both the use of biological and chemical weapons by the Imperial Japanese Army are counted as Japanese war crimes .

The Japanese Army's countless human experiments, including Unit 731 , included testing poison gas on captured Chinese civilians. In 2004, Yuki Tanaka and Yoshimi discovered documents in the National Archives of Australia showing that cyanide gas was tested on Australian and Dutch prisoners of war in November 1944 on the Kai Islands, Indonesia.

The ban on the use of poisonous, chemical and biological weapons was largely observed in the Second World War, at least in the European theater of war, although not all countries involved had acceded to the protocol. Another important aspect was mutual deterrence, comparable to the nuclear deterrent in the Cold War : If one of the warring parties had used poison gas, it was feared that opponents would bomb their own territory with chemical weapons. In the event that Germany were to use warfare agents on the Eastern Front, the British Prime Minister Churchill had already threatened in May 1942 with a large-scale deployment of warfare agents. An American plan of April 1944 provided for a retaliatory attack against 30 large German cities in the event that Germany used warfare agents. In this case, the cities with a total area of ​​217 km² were to be attacked within 14 days and a total of 15,345 t of mustard gas (mustard gas) and 21,176 t of phosgene were thrown over them. Because of the extremely high concentration of warfare agents in this case (168 grams per square meter), estimates put 5.6 million people killed directly as a result of the operation and a further 12 million people who died or were injured as a result of the attack. The deployment would also have been disadvantageous in most cases, since their own soldiers would have taken contaminated terrain on the offensive and therefore would have had to fear poisoning themselves.

A British poster during World War II warns of possible gas attacks

On the European fronts, during the entire Second World War, only four cases were known in which people were killed or injured by warfare agents; these were the targeted use of warfare agents and three accidents:

  • Presumably based on the decision of a single officer, Polish troops used lost bombs to blow up a bridge and mine a roadblock near Jaslo . On September 8, 1939, two German soldiers were killed and twelve wounded.
  • On September 11, 1939, three German soldiers were injured by gas near Ostrowiec (Poland) when they opened a suspicious container.
  • On December 2, 1943, the German air force bombed the Italian port of Bari . The US freighter John Harvey, which was loaded with 100 t of nitrogen mustard, was hit and sunk. Part of the cargo ran into the water, another part was dispersed in the air by the explosions and fires. As only a few people in Bari knew of the existence of this cargo due to the secrecy and they were all killed by the gas, the wounded could not be treated properly at first. Exact numbers about the victims do not exist; It is estimated that over 600 soldiers and merchant marine personnel were burned, of which around 100 died. The number of civilians killed is likely to be around 1,000. This incident almost triggered another escalation of the war. A gas bomb found in the harbor basin was identified as an American model in good time, so that retaliatory strikes with poison gas against the German troops did not take place.
  • On April 8, 1945, American fighter-bombers attacked Lossa station (between Sömmerda and Naumburg ). In the process, some bombs filled with tabun , which were in the context of the relocation of an Air Force ammunition depot during their transport, were damaged. Exact losses are not known.

During the National Socialist German Reich , the chemist Gerhard Schrader discovered the nerve agent tabun in December 1936 at IG Farben 's Leverkusen plant . In December 1939 he synthesized the even more potent toxin sarin . From the spring of 1942, IG Farben was producing Tabun in its factory in Dyhernfurth in Silesia . In 1944, the Nobel laureate Richard Kuhn and his colleague, Konrad Henkel , discovered the warfare agent soman in a department of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg maintained by the Army Weapons Office . These neurotoxins were not used because of fear of counter-attack; Since they should be used in gaseous form - often as an aerosol - these substances are also known as nerve gases .

At the end of the 1930s, Germany was the first nation to develop the large-scale ( industrial ) production of nerve warfare agents, so it was the only war party capable of manufacturing nerve agents in the kilogram and tonne range. This fact, coupled with the availability of state -of-the- art delivery systems such as the V-2 , would have enabled the political leadership to unleash a strategic gas war, which under certain circumstances could have been as serious as the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki . The responsible leadership of the German war gas development program deliberately concealed the actual possibilities from Hitler , because an escalation into gas war was feared if Hitler were to realize what effect, for example, a V-2 attack equipped with taboo warheads could have had on London . For the tactical use as a carrier launcher weapons (. Been Nebelwerfer ) produced and the corresponding forces ( Nebeltruppe ) been trained. The often-expressed assumption that Hitler's experiences in World War I should have prevented him from using chemical warfare agents is unfounded, as he himself ordered the production of these and arranged the preparations for the start of a gas war. The reasons why the nerve warfare agents, which were produced on a large scale from 1942 onwards, were largely logistical (scarcity of raw materials) and military strategy. The German misjudgment that the Allies would also have nerve warfare agents and the Allied threats were also important massive counter-strikes in the case of a German first use of chemical warfare agents.

In the gas chambers of the German extermination camps Auschwitz-Birkenau , Belzec , Sobibor , Mauthausen , Treblinka and Lublin-Majdanek , many victims of the Holocaust were murdered with the hydric acid-containing insecticide Zyklon B and in gas vans with engine exhaust gases ( carbon monoxide ).

After 1945

Defoliant application by three
UC-123Bs during Operation Ranch Hand during the Vietnam War

After the Second World War, extensive German stocks - between 30,000 and 40,000 tons of chemical weapons - were sunk in the North and Baltic Seas in Operation Davy Jones' Locker, which was led by US forces, along with its transport ships, for example off the Norwegian port of Arendal in 1946. The Sinking of the ships was carried out by detonating or firing from on-board weapons accompanying British warships. In 1955/56 remaining stocks that had been bunkered by the Royal Air Force were sunk in Operation Sandcastle northwest of Ireland in the Atlantic , including the SS Kotka . From 1944 to 1970, the United States Army dumped chemical warfare agents in 26 so-called dump zones on the east coast of the USA, of which it is unclear where exactly they are and which chemicals and in what quantities due to lack of or insufficient documentation camp there.

It is certain that Egypt used chemical weapons in Yemen . The technology for this came from the Soviet Union, which had also passed it on to other allied states in the Middle East - such as Iraq .

While France and the United States initially used conventional incendiary bombs such as napalm against the North Vietnamese and the FNL , the Kennedy government began the systematic use of chemicals against North Vietnam in 1961. In the course of Operation Ranch Hand as a defoliant used herbicides (mainly Agent Orange ) should the enemy the cover to take through the vegetation and destroy his crop. Agent Orange was contaminated with 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin and caused severe health damage to the population and soldiers on both sides.

The first negotiations on a Chemical Weapons Convention ( CWC , also known as the Chemical Weapons Convention ) began in 1968 with the Working Group on Chemical Weapons at the Eighteen Nations Conference on Disarmament (ENCD) of the UN in Geneva, which had existed since 1962. In 1969 a Conference of the Committee on Disarmament of the UN (CCD) began its work. The alleged use of sarin against their own forces ( deserters ) in Operation Tailwind in September 1970 in Laos turned out to be a politically motivated hoax . In 1975 there were 30 participating States for a CWC; including the Federal Republic and the GDR . In 1976 bilateral negotiations between the USA and the USSR took place. The negotiations were interrupted in the same year. It was not until 1979 that the USA and the USSR agreed largely on the basic structure of the treaty and largely also on verification measures; However, the question of ad hoc suspicion controls on site remained unsolved. In 1979 there was a Committee on Disarmament of the United Nations (CD); it had 40 participating states. In 1980 an Ad Hoc Committee on Chemical Weapons was formed .

In 1981, US Secretary of State Alexander Haig accused the USSR and the Vietnamese People's Army , which it supported , of using mycotoxins to kill thousands of Hmong during the Second Lao Civil War (1963–73) . These allegations could not be proven.

At the end of the 1980s, the US military recognized that the chemical weapons that had previously been stored for a long time would largely decompose by 1990 at the latest and thus be militarily unusable; so in 1987 President Ronald Reagan signed a law to destroy the old chemical warfare agents and replace them with new, binary warfare agents . With these, the final and effective chemical warfare agent is not held ready, but various, more stable and less corrosive components that only then react to form the active substance when binary weapons are used.

Chemical Weapons Convention (1992/1997)

After the end of the Cold War around 1990, the geostrategic situation changed significantly. There were numerous disarmament negotiations between western states and the successor states of the Soviet Union. Chemical weapons (they were often stored in now rusty tanks) were considered by many to be contaminated sites.

As early as the end of the 1980s, the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev announced that he would forego chemical weapons in the future and that he wanted to destroy them, and in 1987 invited international observers to chemical weapons laboratories that were previously secret. As early as 1990 there was a bilateral agreement with the USA ( Chemical Weapons Agreement ) on the destruction of chemical weapons.

On September 3, 1992, the CWC was passed by the member states of the Geneva Disarmament Conference ( UNCD ). It can be signed since January 13, 1993. About 150 countries, including the USA and Russia, signed.

Germany ratified the convention in 1994, Austria and Switzerland in 1995.

On April 29, 1997, the Chemical Weapons Convention came into force. In 1997 ratification also took place by the USA and Russia. Through the CWC, the ratifying states have undertaken, among other things, to destroy all chemical weapons under international supervision by 2012.

As of June 2018, 193 states have acceded to the convention. Palestine acceded to the convention on June 16, 2018, as the most recent ratification country . The treaty between Israel and Myanmar was signed in January 1993, but has not yet been ratified . Four states have so far neither signed nor ratified the convention: Egypt , Angola , North Korea and South Sudan . Compliance with the agreement is monitored by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons , OVCW. The OVCW is an international organization based in The Hague .

First Gulf War

Iranian soldier with gas mask

Already at the beginning of the First Gulf War , the Iraqi army used chemical weapons against Iran on the instructions of Saddam Hussein . As early as 1980, the Iraqi Air Force dropped specially developed canisters containing chemical warfare agents over Iranian positions. The poison gas attack on the trunk road on August 9, 1983, Rawanduz – Piranschahr became famous .

In total, around 100,000 Iranian soldiers were victims of gas attacks. Many of them were wounded by mustard gas, which an insecticide factory built with German support in Samarra produced on a large scale from 1983 onwards. About 20,000 of them were killed immediately during the operation, mainly by the nerve agents tabun and VX . However, these numbers do not include civilians. Since poison gas was also dropped on positions and posts that were located in or around villages during the fighting and whose inhabitants had no way of protecting themselves against the gases, there were also many civilian victims. In addition, areas have been contaminated with dangerous chemical pollutants through the use of various gases.

Iraq also used chemical weapons specifically to kill civilians. Thousands were killed in poison gas attacks on villages, cities and frontline hospitals, including the poison gas attack on Sardasht on June 28, 1987. The best-known example is the poison gas attack on Halabja on March 16, 1988, in which around 5,000 Iraqi Kurds were killed and 7,000 to 10,000 as severe injured that many of them later died. The Iraqi armed forces used several different gases at the same time. These include nerve agents such as tabun , sarin and possibly VX , but also mustard gas and a cyanide warfare agent.

As part of the preparation for the First and Second Iraq War, there were disputes between the USA and Germany about the origin of Iraqi chemical weapons technology.


In 1995, the terrorist attack by the Japanese Aum sect resulted in the release of the nerve agent sarin in the Tokyo subway . There were 13 dead and 6,252 injured. An earlier attack by the sect with 7 dead and 500 injured was only known afterwards.

In October 2002, Russian security forces in Moscow presumably used the opioid carfentanyl and the anesthetic halothane in the form of an aerosol-gas mixture to incapacitate terrorists who were holding 800 hostages in a musical theater . All of the hostage-takers and over 129 hostages were killed, most of them from the gas. Many died of poisoning in the hospital, which may also have been due to the lack of cooperation between the security forces and the doctors. The use of carfentanyl has never been officially confirmed, possibly in view of the chemical weapons convention ratified by Russia .

During the Iraq war , a terrorist organization that was reportedly al-Qaeda used chemical weapons primarily against civilians, but also against US soldiers and Iraqi soldiers and police officers. The gas used was chlorine gas . Since the attacks were all carried out in the open air, the death toll was mostly low, but the number of injuries was often several hundred. The attack on a police station on April 6, 2007 with 27 deaths and the attack on a village market in Abu Sayda on May 15, 2007 with 45 deaths are among the most widely noticed poison gas attacks in Iraq.

Syria Civil War (since 2013)

According to UN chemical weapons inspectors, weapons containing sarin have been used in several villages around Damascus . The possible use of chemical weapons in three other locations (Chan al-Asal and Sheikh Maksud in the province of Aleppo and Sarakib, a small town near the provincial capital Idlib) is to be investigated.

An investigation report by the United Nations reported in August 2016 that the use of the globally banned weapons of mass destruction could be clearly proven and assigned in three cases. The Syrian army dropped the poison bombs in two cases, and in one case the Islamic State (IS) militia . These cases included the use of chlorine gas and possibly other toxic substances that were dropped from helicopters of the Syrian Air Force on April 21, 2014 and March 16, 2015 in two villages in the northwestern province of Idlib . The IS militia used mustard gas in the town of Marea near Aleppo on August 21, 2015 .

Chemical weapons

Chemical weapons

US Army 155mm mustard gas grenades

As a chemical warfare agent refers to any kind of objects (ammunition Schweltöpfe, but also in the strict sense. Eg simple bottles) that allow a chemical warfare material to transport. They can be classified according to their area of ​​attack on the human body or their effect. However, it is not always possible to draw a line between the individual groups. In some of these groups, the mere assignment of chemical warfare agents is controversial. Detailed reviews were provided by V. Pitschmann and K. Ganesan et al. a. submitted.

The chemical weapons themselves are divided into the following categories:

  • Chemical warfare agents in the classic sense: lung warfare agents , blood warfare agents , skin warfare agents , nerve warfare agents , psychological warfare agents .
  • Irritants : Irritating to eyes or respiratory tract. One example is CS gas , which is used by the police and for self-defense. Irritants differ from other skin warfare agents in that they are less potent. In very high doses or in sensitive people (e.g. asthma patients ), the so-called "tear gases" can also lead to skin irritation, shortness of breath or damage to the eyes and lungs, and in sufficient concentration can be fatal. Another example are so-called mask breakers. They cause nausea and should get their victims to remove their respirators. Usually these substances were used in combination with other chemical warfare agents in order to bring their toxic effect to full use.
  • Fog warfare agents : These substances produce in the air dense, impenetrable fog, and should take the view therefore the opponents. This category includes: B. smoke grenades .

Chemical warfare agents

The chemical warfare agents in the classical sense can again be subdivided into different warfare agent classes, depending on the type and location of their effect:

  • Pulmonary agents : attack the lungs directly. This cuts off the body's oxygen supply, which leads to death. These include, for example, chlorine, phosgene, diphosgene (hydrogen) and chloropicrin .
  • Blood warfare agents : Here, too, the body's oxygen supply is blocked. However, these warfare agents attack cellular respiration or the blood that transports oxygen to the individual organs. These include hydrogen cyanide, arsine and cyanogen chloride .
Canadian soldier with mustard gas incineration during World War I

Many chemical warfare agents are preferred as binary warfare agents , such as the nerve agents sarin, soman and VX. Two or more substances that are relatively harmless compared to the end product are stored separately from one another in one floor. The actual warfare agent is only created after the launch, usually by simply mixing the components, sometimes with the help of a suitable reaction accelerator. The advantages are the relatively safe storage and handling, since the chemicals used are usually less toxic and better storable than the warfare agents themselves, that is, there is little or no decomposition of the chemicals or corrosion of the projectiles.

Modern deployment concept

The use of chemical weapons is usually massive and surprising in order to anticipate possible protective measures. Deployment is worthwhile when large losses can be achieved with minimal effort, when military operations are facilitated or accelerated, and when a lack of training and protective equipment make a deployment effective. Use as a terror weapon against civil infrastructure is also conceivable. The use of chemical weapons should cause losses of at least 30–50% in the target area, slow down or make impossible critical functions or make the use of sites and facilities such as airports or seaports as transport facilities impossible in the long term without destroying them as is the case with nuclear weapons . Detoxification is complex and time-consuming.

In contrast to the early warfare agents, which were gaseous, today mainly liquid warfare agents (rarely also solids) are used. These are used as an aerosol . A distinction is made here between the two types of use, volatile and sedentary, according to the droplet size, depending on the desired duration of the closure of premises or facilities.

Use volatile

In the case of volatile use, very small droplets are used, most of which evaporate instantly, so that a high concentration of the warfare agent can become effective very quickly (50% as vapor and 50% as fine aerosol). There is a risk of warfare agents spreading in the direction of the wind . In general, the fleeting operation is used to support military operations, but this does not exclude an operation against the civilian population. The occupancy density is chosen so that one breath contains lethal amounts of the warfare agent in most cases. Due to the rapid evaporation , the area should be passable again without protective equipment after a maximum of four hours. The aim of the attack is to strongly weaken the enemy in the attacked area in order to make it easier to break through enemy lines , but without hindering one's own troops with protective suits. The warfare agents sarin, soman and tabun (summarized under the term G-substances or trilones ) or hydrocyanic acid are best suited for volatile use . The latter is an exception as it is very volatile and can no longer be detected after a few minutes (maximum 15 minutes). One speaks here of a super-volatile warfare agent. However, hydrogen cyanide requires a large amount of ammunition to achieve the necessary concentration of warfare agents in the target area. The most likely means of emergency use are multiple rocket launchers, aerial bombs and cluster bombs, as these enable a very high occupancy density.

Use sedentary

In sedentary use, comparatively large drops (0.1 mm to 1 mm in diameter) are used. Due to their size, the drops fall faster, the vapor concentration is much smaller (20% vapor, 80% drops) and a large part of the warfare agent reaches the ground, where it can remain for several weeks depending on the type of warfare agent and the weather. The aim of the attack is not the immediate destruction of the enemy, but the restriction of his freedom of action. Protection and decontamination measures take time, contaminated areas are difficult to cross and the morale of the troops suffers considerably. In addition, contaminated units must be replaced and evacuated before the protective suits are saturated (usually after 12 hours at the latest). The most likely targets are enemy flank positions (to make a counterattack more difficult or to prevent them), artillery positions (switching off fire support), command posts, tactical reserves and supply routes. Are best suited for this type of application mustards (mustard gas / yperite) and V-agents (notably VX). The possible means of deployment are diverse, as there is no need to pay attention to the occupancy density (artillery, bombs, warplanes, rockets, cruise missiles, etc.). A special form of sedentary use is the use of thickened warfare agents. For this purpose, thickeners are added to the warfare agent in order to further increase its viscosity and thus the droplet size. This gives the warfare agents a honey to rubbery consistency . This in turn leads to a lower evaporation rate and thus greater sedentariness. Such warfare agents have a strong adhesive effect and can only slowly penetrate porous materials. Thickened warfare agents can remain effective for weeks in suitable places. Furthermore, the decontamination is made very difficult. Main goals are e.g. B. Airfields to prevent their use in the long term.


Although Russia has destroyed its stocks of chemical weapons and the United States is about to complete it, the technologies for deploying warfare agents are known worldwide and in some cases also available. No special resources are required for chemical warfare agents; artillery pieces, rocket launchers, ballistic missiles, guided missiles and aircraft can be used. Blowing off chemical warfare agents from pressure bottles, as in the First World War, is now considered obsolete.

Artillery pieces

Mortars and artillery pieces have been used for chemical warfare agents since the First World War . Modern artillery reached at a cadence km of 3-6 rounds / minute shooting distances of 40-50. With artillery guns, a quick target change can be made with high accuracy. Furthermore, single targets as well as area targets can be fought with the artillery. Depending on the caliber used , an artillery projectile holds 2–5 kg of warfare agent. So was z. For example, the 155 mm NATO -Geschoss M122 filled with 2.9 kg Sarin.

Multiple rocket launchers

Multiple rocket launchers are particularly suitable as a means of deploying chemical warfare agents. With them, a very high occupancy density with a high concentration of warfare agents is achieved in the target area within a short time. Modern multiple rocket launchers achieve firing distances of 20–70 km at a rate of 30–50 rounds / minute. Depending on the caliber used, an artillery rocket holds 2–25 kg of warfare agent. So was z. B. the 9N519 warhead of the 220 mm rocket 9M27 for the Soviet multiple rocket launcher 9P140 Uragan filled with 20 kg of Soman. A battery with four Uragan launchers covers a target area of ​​650 × 650 m with a total of 64 missiles. In this way, 1280 kg of nerve agents are released on this area within around 20 seconds.

Ballistic missiles

Ballistic missiles are suitable for fighting against targets far behind the front line, e.g. B. Airfields , replenishment depots , anti-aircraft positions and military and civil infrastructure. Such targets are fought with short- and medium-range missiles with a range of 50–1000 km. It is preferred to use sedentary warfare agents to poison the target areas for a longer period of time (days to weeks). In order to effectively distribute the chemical warfare agent in the target area, the rocket warhead is usually detonated by air ignition , a few 100 m above the target area. Drops and aerosol are formed from the liquid warfare agent, which are distributed over the target area depending on the wind speed . The Soviet short-range missile 9K72 Elbrus ( NATO code name : SS-1c Scud-B) could bring a warhead with 555 kg thickened VX over a distance of 300 km. By igniting the air, the liquid warfare agent was distributed over an area of ​​0.6 × 4.0 km.

Ballistic missiles are also suitable for loading with cluster munitions of chemical warfare agents. For example, the US short-range missile MGM-52 Lance could be equipped with the E27 warhead for chemical cluster munitions. This warhead held 1137 M139 bombs which each contained 0.58 kg of sarin. The bomblets were ejected at a preselected height above the target and then fell in a circular area with a radius of 200–250 m.


Combat aircraft are particularly suitable for massive and surprising missions with chemical warfare agents. Fighter aircraft can deploy chemical warfare agents within a radius of several 100 km, at high speed at various altitudes. The amount of warfare agent carried depends on the load on the combat aircraft. The warfare agents can be brought to the target with aerial bombs, cluster bombs, missiles or spray tanks.

Air bombs with chemical warfare agents can be used very flexibly. The bombs can be dropped from great heights as well as from low altitude. Chemical warfare agents can also be used in cluster bombs, resulting in a combined mode of action. One such example is the Soviet aerial bomb ChAB-500 (9A1-483) . With a total weight of around 300 kg, this bomb contained 175 kg of the warfare agent mixture HL (Russian designation RK-7 ), which consisted of sulfur mustard and lewisite. When detonated, this bomb generated not only the warfare agent aerosol but also a large number of steel splinters, which were released with high energy. Warfare agent tanks , e.g. B. Disposal containers such as those used for napalm can also be filled with chemical warfare agents. These tanks burst when they hit the surface of the earth and the warfare agent is sprayed. Compared to aerial bombs with an explosive or dismantling charge, the warfare agent is only slightly distributed in this case (no aerosol, few drops) and the effect is limited to a very small area. Iraq used such warfare agent tanks during the First Gulf War.

Cluster bombs and cluster munitions containers are suitable for deploying chemical warfare agents from medium altitudes as well as from low altitude. With cluster munitions, a very high occupancy density with a high concentration of warfare agents is achieved in a large target area within a short time. The United States Air Force had the CBU-15 cluster munitions container in its inventory in the 1970s . With a total weight of around 340 kg, it was loaded with 40 BLU-19 bomblets, each containing 1.8 kg of sarin. The bomblets could be thrown in rows or all at the same time. The F-4 Phantom II could z. B. transport four CBU-15 containers.

Spray tanks for chemical warfare agents are suitable for deploying chemical warfare agents from medium altitude and from low altitude. The liquid warfare agent is primarily distributed as an aerosol over a large area. The Soviet Union had, among other things, the WAP-1000 (BATT) spray tank , which held 700 kg of hydrogen cyanide. In contrast, the USA owned the TMU-28 spray tank , which was filled with 595 kg VX. Both spray tanks could be used in low flight at high speed. Spraying of warfare agents in the form of agricultural aircraft and raining down from high altitudes are now considered obsolete.

Cruise missiles

During the Cold War, experiments were carried out with cruise missiles to deploy warfare agents. Although probably no such warheads have been developed, this means of deployment is quite conceivable.

Anti-personnel mines

Anti-personnel mines with chemical warfare agents are used for the permanent blocking of sections of the terrain, in retreats and in delayed battles. During the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States had anti-personnel mines with chemical warfare agents in their arsenals . The Soviet Union had, among other things, the ChF-2 warfare agent mine with the warfare agent mixture HL (sulfur mustard and lewisite). In the United States, this was the M23 mine . It weighed 10.3 kg and had an explosive charge weighing 0.37 kg . 4.8 kg VX was used as warfare agent.

Influence of land form, weather and vegetation

The shape of the land, the weather and the vegetation have a decisive influence on the spread, effectiveness and duration of action of chemical warfare agents.

Land form and vegetation

Depending on the land form , mountain and valley wind circulations as well as the land-sea wind system can influence the spread of warfare agent clouds. Clouds of warfare agent can accumulate in depressions and valleys and maintain their effectiveness for longer. The vegetation also influences the mode of action and duration of action of chemical warfare agents. Terrain with low vegetation ( pasture , grass ) can be entered quickly after a mission, usually after 12-24 hours without great danger. In high and lush vegetation (fields, hedges, undergrowth ) chemical warfare agents remain effective for much longer. Chemical warfare agents also retain their effectiveness for much longer in forests and built-up areas ( villages , cities ).


Temperature , wind and solar radiation have a decisive influence on the spread, effectiveness and duration of chemical warfare agents. At high temperatures, sedentary warfare agents in particular evaporate more quickly. The mustard agents used during the First Gulf War tended to evaporate quickly at the high temperatures there. These vapors caused extremely severe damage to the skin surfaces and the respiratory tract in the victims. In contrast, very low temperatures can lead to solidification of the liquid warfare agent. High wind speeds lead to a rapid thinning of the warfare agent cloud. Small wind speeds distribute the warfare agent too little and too slowly. A wind speed of 5–20 km / h is ideal. By solar radiation can updrafts arise which dilute a chemical warfare agent cloud too quickly. In contrast, when there is little or no solar radiation, only weak updrafts can occur, which improves the effectiveness of a warfare agent cloud. Rain can wash liquid warfare agent into the ground, whereby the agent remains effective. The ideal conditions for the use of chemical warfare agents in Central Europe are during clear nights, just before sunset or just before sunrise .

International ostracism

Since 1997 chemical weapons have been officially banned internationally by the Chemical Weapons Convention ; Development, manufacture and storage are also prohibited. Nevertheless, the US remains the largest owner of chemical warfare agents.



A Soviet chemical weapons canister from Albanian stocks, 2006

In mid-July 2007 it was announced that Albania was the first country in the world to have demonstrably destroyed all its chemical weapons stocks. The project was financed with a total of 48 million US dollars. The destruction of the warfare agents sulfur mustard, lewisite, adamsite and chloroacetophenone lasted from February to July 2007.


In Germany, chemical warfare agents were manufactured by the company ORGACID in Halle- Ammendorf, among others, during World War II and in Munster during both world wars . After the end of the war, considerable amounts of weapons remained in the production facilities. They were confiscated by the Allies and loaded onto various ships (e.g. SMS Berlin ), which were then sunk in the Skagerrak . From today's perspective, this would be an environmental crime , but it was allowed at the time.

Today there is only contaminated soil left at the former production sites, which is destroyed in a controlled manner in two disposal plants of the Society for the Disposal of Chemical Warfare Agents and Old Armaments Ltd (GEKA). In the facilities of the federally owned company, contaminated soil is first “washed” in order to separate the highly contaminated areas. These are mixed with lime and melted in a plasma system at 1,350 to 1,550 ° C in an electric arc . After cooling, glass-like slag is created , in which non-combustible substances are bound as well as combustion gases. Ammunition filled with chemicals is blown up beforehand in a so-called blasting furnace . In both cases the gases are washed out and the salts are then precipitated .

A TV report by ARD in August 2020 gave a current overview of the current disposal activities.


Russia took over around 40,000 tons of chemical weapons from the former Soviet Union.

On 1 April 2006, the second Russian plant for destruction of chemical weapons was Kambarka , Republic of Udmurtia commissioned. In the facility, which was financed with German help, 6,350 tons of arsenic-containing skin warfare agents were disposed of, the destruction costs of which amounted to over 270 million euros. Germany contributes 90 million euros of this. The first chemical weapons destruction facility was built in December 2002 in the small town of Gorny in the Saratov region on the central reaches of the Volga . Outside Pochep , in the Bryansk region , around 7,500 tons of the nerve agents VX, sarin and soman are stored in over 67,000 bombs. In a first step, the warfare agents were made unsuitable for weapons by the Russian side and, from 2009, a system with high-turbulence reactors for thermal disposal of warfare agents was put into operation.

The city ​​of Dzerzhinsk , about 400 km east of Moscow , was "nominated" in 2006, 2007 and 2013 by the American Blacksmith Institute as one of the ten most contaminated places in the world. The water and soil here are highly contaminated with chemicals from the time of chemical weapons production in the Cold War, as, in addition to leaks and other accidents, around 300,000 tons of chemical waste were improperly disposed of between 1930 and 1998. So far nothing is known about ongoing renovation measures.

On September 27, 2017, it was announced that the last chemical warhead had been destroyed in the Kisner waste disposal facility in Udmurtia . The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed the destruction of all Russian chemical weapons and congratulated Russia on being chemical weapon free. Russian President Vladimir Putin watched the process via video link and now also called on the USA to respect the agreement and also to destroy American chemical weapons quickly.

United States

Destruction of a rocket filled with sarin, a nerve agent, in the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS for short)

From the late 1980s to the late 1990s, the USA used a chemical warfare destruction facility on Johnston Atoll in the Pacific.

The destruction of 90% of chemical weapons in the United States (31,000 tons in total had been declared) in the last two decades by incineration cost 35 billion US dollars, according to other sources, 28 billion dollars.

The remnants of the US chemical weapons arsenal are in two army camps in the states of Colorado and Kentucky . The complete destruction of all American chemical warfare agents is planned for 2023.

Considerations for Syria

Russia proposed in September 2013 that Syria destroy its chemical weapons under Western supervision. The US, which first threatened a military strike, then opted for a diplomatic solution. Syria ratified its accession to the OPCW on September 14, 2013, which entered into force 30 days later in accordance with the treaty. According to the OPCW, all facilities for the production of weapons and for filling ammunition were immediately destroyed. 600 tons of chemicals were neutralized on the US special ship MV Cape Ray (T-AKR-9679) on the Mediterranean . The neutralized chemicals were disposed of in Germany and Finland. In Germany, 340 t of hydrolyzate and 30 t of other contaminated waste were incinerated at GEKA from September 2014.

Chemical supplies for weapons production?

The British tabloid Daily Mail claimed on 7 September 2013 that, between 2004 and 2010, the British government five times approved two British companies to supply the chemical sodium fluoride , which can be used to synthesize fluorine-containing sarin.

At the request of the Die Linke parliamentary group , the German government announced on September 18, 2013 that between 2002 and 2006, a total of 137 tonnes of hydrogen fluoride , ammonium hydrogen difluoride , sodium fluoride and preparations containing potassium and sodium cyanide had been exported to Syria. Syria has plausibly presented a planned use of these dual-use goods for civil purposes. According to the Ministry of Economic Affairs, the export license was only issued after a “careful examination of all possible risks, including risks of misuse and diversion with regard to possible uses in connection with chemical weapons”.

See also


  • Joachim Badelt: Chemical Warfare - Chemical Disarmament. The Federal Republic of Germany and the Paris Chemical Weapons Convention. (= Military policy and arms limitation. 5). Berlin-Verlag Spitz, Berlin 1994, ISBN 3-87061-269-X .
  • Christoph Bundscherer: Germany and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Commercial administrative law as an instrument of arms control. (= European University Theses Series 2; Law. 2213). Lang, Frankfurt am Main a. a. 1997, ISBN 3-631-32353-0 . (Also: Greifswald, Univ., Diss., 1997)
  • Walter Böttger: Culture in ancient China. Urania-Verlag, Leipzig a. a. 1977, DNB 780342844 .
  • Jochen Gartz: Chemical warfare agents. Death came from Germany. (= The Green Branch. Volume 243). Pieper and The Grüne Kraft, Löhrbach 2003, ISBN 3-922708-28-5 .
  • Günther W. Gellermann: The war that did not take place. Possibilities, considerations and decisions of the German top leadership on the use of chemical warfare agents in World War II. Bernard & Graefe, Bonn 1986, ISBN 3-7637-5804-6 .
  • Olaf Groehler : The silent death. Rowohlt TB, Reinbek 1990, ISBN 3-499-18738-8 .
  • Ludwig F. Haber : The Poisonous Cloud. Chemical Warfare in the First World War. Oxford University Press, Oxford u. a. 1986, ISBN 0-19-858142-4 .
  • L. Huber, J. Bailey, A. Ochsenbein: NBC weapons: Use and protection on a European battlefield . DTIG - Defense Threat Information Group, 1995.
  • Gerhard Grümmer : The devil's poison kitchens. 3. Edition. Brandenburger Verlagshaus, Berlin 1990, ISBN 3-327-00647-4 .
  • Robert Harris , Jeremy Paxman: A higher form of killing. The secret history of B and C weapons. Econ, Düsseldorf a. a. 1986, ISBN 3-430-14052-8 .
  • Reinhard Klimmek , Ladislaus Szinicz, Nikolaus Weger: Chemical poisons and warfare agents - effect and therapy . Hippokrates Verlag, Stuttgart 1983, ISBN 3-7773-0608-8 .
  • Thilo Marauhn: The German waiver of chemical weapons. Legal developments since 1945 (= contributions to foreign public law and international law. 116). Springer, Berlin a. a. 1994, ISBN 3-540-58352-1 . (At the same time: Heidelberg, Univ., Diss., 1993-1994).
  • Dieter Martinetz: The gas war 1914-1918. Development, manufacture and use of chemical warfare agents. The interaction of military command, science and industry. Bernard & Graefe, Bonn 1996, ISBN 3-7637-5952-2 .
  • Florian Schmaltz: Research on warfare agents under National Socialism. For cooperation between Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes, the military and industry. (= History of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society during National Socialism. 11). Wallstein, Göttingen 2005, ISBN 3-89244-880-9 .
  • Jonathan B. Tucker: War of nerves. Chemical warfare from World War I to al-Qaeda. Pantheon Books, New York NY 2006, ISBN 0-375-42229-3 .
  • Gertrud Woker: The coming poison and fire war and its effects on the civilian population . Ernst Oldenburg Verlag, Leipzig 1932, DNB 578415798 .

Web links

Commons : Chemical Weapon  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Poison gas  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

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