Weapons of mass destruction come in many shapes and forms, but for the poor souls who stand on their way, they all usually spell the same thing: The end. In their defense strategies against such large-scale facilitators of mayhem, NATO classifies WMDs in four categories: Biological, chemical, nuclear, and radiological. Militaries and other uncomfortably interested parties have been looking into these tools of terror, and the results have been as varied as they have been horrifying. Here’s a look at some of the most frightening weapons of mass destruction human ingenuity has managed to cook up.
10. VX gas
VX gas is a particularly nasty nerve gas that the United Kingdom cooked up in the 1950s, specifically for chemical warfare. Despite its name, the substance is not a gas as much as an oily, odorless, and tasteless amber liquid that needs to be sprayed on the targets, but don’t take that to mean it isn’t dangerous. Essentially a super-powerful pesticide, the VX gas can be sprayed all over the place as a fine mist that will enter the body through the usual orifices or by just straight up going through the skin, and its effects are worse than those of sarin gas. Its effects also accumulate over time, so even if you survive the initial attack, the gas substances break up so slowly in your body that the effects accumulate over the attacks. VX can also be used to contaminate food.
As for the actual effects, the gas functions as a typical nerve agent: It prevents the operation of an enzyme that acts as your muscles’ and glands’ off switch, so your body is constantly “on,” and will eventually tire to the point that you can’t even breathe anymore. The symptoms are essentially the worst, sweatiest stomach flu you’ll ever experience … if you’re lucky. Fatal doses will cause all that, and convulsions, unconsciousness, and death via respiratory failure. Fortunately, the gas is a pretty heavy no-no these days thanks to United Nations International Chemical Weapons Convention treaty, and the CDC notes that its only suspected use was during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
9. Salted bombs
It’s easy to think that nuclear weapons are all pretty much the same: Big bang, mushroom cloud, huge, destructive blast, tons of radioactive fallout. However, these tools of utter carnage and misery are actually surprisingly (and terrifyingly) customizable. One of the prime examples is the salted bomb, a very special nuke that’s achieved by adding a little bit of gold, cobalt, or a heavy metal called tantalum in the mix. Since tantalum is named after Tantalus, a villainous character from Greek mythology, it’s clear that this particular WMD is not even trying to be subtle: Its goal is to focus not on the size of the bomb’s fallout, but instead its ability to “salt the earth” (hence the name) by vastly increasing the bomb’s release of radioactive fallout. This would essentially render the area inhabitable for a huge period of time. Basically, “normal” atomic bombs will not turn the area into a Fallout game — even Hiroshima had its lights on the day after the bomb hit — but a salted bomb is designed to do just that.
The technology for the salted bomb has been around since the Cold War, but for obvious reasons, no one has ever tested one atmospherically, and no country publicly admits to having even built one. However, reports from 2018 indicate that China has been testing technology that technically doesn’t count as a salted bomb, but seems awfully close like the tech that could be applied to building one.
8. Blue Peacock nuclear landmines
Another product of the British war machine, the Blue Peacock system was so absurd that it seems like something right out of a video game. It was a Cold War-era nuclear landmine that was designed as a last bastion of defense if the Soviet Union invaded Britain: The British troops would give ground to the Soviets, but leave a series of Blue Peacocks behind, set to explode on timers. The idea was to bury the 10-kiloton atomic devices underground in strategic locations, wait until the Soviets had established their field headquarters, supply chains and the like right overhead, and then … BOOM! A significant problem in the equation was the exact manner of making the thing explode on enemy soil. An eight-day timer relied heavily on guesswork regarding the conflict’s timeline, and both remote controlled and manual detonations proved tricky because the buried bomb would grow too cold for the triggering mechanism to work.
In 1957, someone came up with a novel solution: Chickens. By placing a bunch of chickens inside the bomb’s casing and providing them with just enough food to keep them alive for the desired period of time, their body heat should be enough to keep the mechanism at working temperatures. Eventually, someone probably had to read this proposition out loud to the higher-ups, who pictured large chunks of the British coastline as radioactive craters littered with feathers. This went roughly as well as expected, and the project was quietly scrapped after a couple of prototypes.
7. Novichok agents
When many other countries were slowly starting to realize that they might be doing better things with their time than designing horrifying poisons, the Soviet Union was happily churning out more and more terror chemicals. Novichok agents are a series of terrifyingly effective chemical weapons that are specifically designed to be both destructive and difficult to detect, and even though the bulk of them were developed in the 1970s and the 1980s, the Western world only learned of their existence in the 1990s, when a defector named Dr. Vil Mirzayanov revealed them to the world … and later wrote a book detailing their chemical formula, because apparently some people will do anything for a publishing deal.
There is a long list of Novichok agents, and no one (outside those in the know, that is) seems to be certain just how stable and dangerous they are, let alone how widespread their use can be, though their potency and the rumors that they can be distributed in many different forms that include dust and liquid seem to indicate that they’re significantly more dangerous than VX gas — the current ballpark figure is that some strains are roughly 5-8 times stronger. There’s a long list of other question marks regarding the substance(s) as well, seeing as Russia directly denies the existence of Novichok and it’s unclear whether some other party might be manufacturing it. What we do know, however, is that a substance recognized as a strain of Novichok was used in the 2018 poisoning of former Soviet spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, and two other people were later exposed to the perfume bottle containing the substance. Fortunately, three of the exposed people survived the ordeal … although at least one of the survivors struggles with his health and is certain that the Novichok in his system will kill him within a few years.
6. Dirty bombs
A dirty bomb is not a nuke. In fact, it’s technically not even a weapon of mass destruction — it’s technically in a sub-category called “weapons of mass disruption.” Still, it warrants its place on this list by being one of the most dangerous things out there — not because of the destructivity of a single bomb, but because there are so many potential people out there who could make one. A dirty bomb is basically a conventional explosive that has radioactive material strapped to it, which sounds exactly as low-tech as it is but can theoretically provide all the long-term awfulness of a proper nuke. A dirty bomb explosion might only kill a few people on the get-go, but it could spread so much radioactivity that the short and long-term health problems for the people it affects would be terrifying. Evacuation, relocation, demolition of the contaminated buildings and subsequent cleanup could easily cost billions of dollars, and the damage to the infrastructure could be catastrophic.
However, the true horror of dirty bombs is how (relatively) easy they are to manufacture. There are literally millions of suitable radioactive sources around the world, and a whole lot of them are poorly guarded. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative nonprofit organization, even isotopes used in blood transfusions and cancer treatments in hospitals all over the world could technically be used to build one of these monstrosities.
If sarin is one of the more famous toxic warfare agents, cyclosarin is its lumbering younger brother who started hitting the gym and emerged as the monster version of its more famous sibling. It’s a hyper-toxic organic phosphate most famous for its military use in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, when Iraq (allegedly) produced it in mass quantities. Cyclosarin is a sprayable liquid with a sweet, peach-like smell. When in contact with the body, it’s rapidly absorbed through the skin, eyes and membranes. Regular clothing does little to stop it, and it can also be mixed with food and water for a stealthier approach. To top this all off, the substance is also flammable, with a relatively low flashpoint of 201.2°F.
Cyclosarin’s effects are similar to other nerve agents, with all the muscle and gland trouble and leaking orifices that you’d expect and dread. However, this particular substance comes with a twist: It’s considered the least lethal of nerve agents, which still makes it highly dangerous, but combined with the fact that it’s also one of the most persistent means that while a victim might not die of it, the symptoms and recovery will likely take months. In a demonic stroke of awful genius. this would both take the victims out for an extended period and tie up a significant amount of enemy infrastructure.
4. Rinderpest and Rice Blast
Not all weapons of mass destruction are designed for immediate loss of human life, but instead plan for the long term loss of life. A prime example of this is rinderpest, an incredibly dangerous livestock disease that humanity has fought for 5,000 years, and has finally been able to eradicate from earth in the 2010s … at least in its naturally occurring form, that is. Rinderpest has caused immeasurable amounts of human suffering because of the famines it tends to cause by keeling over entire herds of cattle at once, so of course several countries have researched its potential use in biological warfare. Some people believe that the disease has been weaponized at least once, when rinderpest suddenly spreaded in Ethiopia during the 19th century.
If taking out the enemy’s livestock is not horrifying enough, imagine what eradicating their crops would do. The oddly cheerfully named rice blast is a nasty fungus that’s capable of destroying entire crops, to the point that even in its naturally occurring form it destroys enough rice to feed 60 million people every year. In the 1960s, the U.S. government experimented with rice blast warfare on at least two sites in Okinawa, though fortunately, the country ended its chemical weapons programs in 1969 before anyone had the time to develop a world-eating super fungus.
3. The M28 Davy Crockett nuclear rifle
If you were a nuclear scientist with a virtually unlimited Cold War-era budget and an intimate knowledge of modern action movies and video games, the weapon you’d design would almost certainly be some variation of the M28 Davy Crockett. There are many ways to describe it, but really just one that makes it justice: It’s a nuclear warhead affixed to a grenade launcher. Sadly, it didn’t take its video game design all the way through and make it hand-held; realizing that the weapon’s wielder was unlikely to be Duke Nukem, the designers equipped the “rifle” with a tripod and recognized that it took a three-man crew to operate it. There was also a larger M29 variant that could be mounted on a jeep.
The sub-kiloton warhead could technically wreak havoc within the enemy troops with a three-pronged attack of explosive blast, fire and radioactivity, but the rifle’s mere 1.25-mile range left something to be desired when it came to safety of the crew operating it, which is why the military recommended it should only be fired with slopes or hills between the crew and the target. Despite the problems of firing wildly inaccurate mini-nukes at an unseen enemy, the military actually manufactured multiple Davy Crocketts and started distributing them to the troops in 1961. However, common sense eventually prevailed and the weapon was retired a decade later without ever seeing action.
2. The Tsar Bomba
The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings are absolute tragedies that should never be forgotten, but from a purely technical standpoint, there are atomic bombs that are far more dangerous than the “Little Boy” and “Fat Man.” In 1961, the Soviet Union decided to test a massive bomb called the “Tsar Bomba” (the Tsar’s bomb), a 26-foot, 27-ton monster that didn’t even fit inside the massive, pimped-out Tupolev plane designed to carry it to the designated point at the sparsely populated Novaja Zemlya peninsula. The very dropping of the bomb was a 50/50 suicide mission, and every precaution, no matter how absurd, had been taken: The plane was painted white to “lessen the effects of radioactivity,” the bomb was equipped with a giant one-ton parachute to give the plane a chance to get to a safe distance before the Tsar Bomba would detonate at 13,000 feet.
The plane carrying the bomb survived, but it’s pretty much the only thing that did. In a blink of an eye, Tsar Bomba released 57 megatons of energy. That’s 10 times more than all the ammunition and explosives used in the entirety of WWII, which, as you’ll remember, included two nuclear bombs. In fact, the Tsar Bomba was a whopping 1,500 times more powerul than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs combined. The five-mile fireball of the explosion could be seen from 630 miles away, and a cameraman would later compare it to Jupiter (yes, as in the planet Jupiter). The mushroom cloud was 40 miles high and 63 miles wide, and the entire peninsula (which was sparsely populated, but not unpopulated) was devastated. A village 34 miles away from Ground Zero was utterly destroyed, and districts as far as hundreds of miles away reported physical damage to buildings. Radio communications were down for a full hour.
These days, the Tsar Bomba is considered to have been a desperate show of strength, because the U.S. had been well ahead of the Soviets in the nuclear race. However, even the Soviet leaders balked at the Bomba’s original design, which was supposed to be a hulking 1,000-megaton bomb. as opposed to the realized Tsar Bomba’s “measly” 57 megatons. Yes, despite the utter destructiveness of this weapon, they were barely testing it at half of its full capacity.
1. Design viruses
As terrifying as traditional big guns such as the Tsar Bomba may seem, experts think that it’s increasingly evident that the future of weapons of mass destruction is viral … and they’re not talking about computers. Thanks to the emergence of the gene-editing technique CRISPR, it’s becoming more and more evident that eventually, some hostile agency will figure out how to create terrifying combination viruses that can be unleashed upon the unwary world as biological warfare.
Thankfully, this agency is unlikely to be a country, since almost every state in the world has signed up for the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention that explicitly forbids the use and development of such weapons. Still, that doesn’t mean that any number of people or organizations with access to CRISPR and enough knowledge couldn’t eventually manufacture, say, an artificially modded smallpox to unleash upon the unwary world. That’s not just speculation by us, by the way — high-powered tech people like John Sotos and Bill Gates have specifically warned the world about this kind of threat, and in case you thought this is just a recent thing, Soviet-era bioscientists already warned the world about the dangers of engineered chimera viruses.