Silent Threats: The Role of Nerve Agents in Military Operations

1.0 Introduction

In the realm of military operations, the use of chemical weapons has long been a grim reality. Chemical weapons have a range of toxic substances designed to inflict harm on living organisms. The agents range from blister agents like mustard gas to lethal nerve agents. Among these weapons, nerve agents stand out for their unparalleled potency and silent lethality. Chemical weapons, by definition, are toxic substances deployed to cause harm to humans, animals, or the environment. They have been employed throughout history, from ancient times with the use of poisoned arrows to the devastating chemical attacks witnessed during World War I. These agents exploit various mechanisms to wreak havoc on the body, including blistering the skin, damaging the respiratory system, or disrupting the nervous system. (Source)

However, it is the nerve agents that epitomize the most sinister capabilities of chemical warfare. Developed initially for military purposes, these compounds target the nervous system with deadly precision. Nerve agents depending on their strength can cause paralysis, convulsions, and respiratory failure within minutes of exposure. Their potency lies in their ability to interfere with the transmission of nerve impulses. This then leads to physiological effects that result in incapacitation or death. From clandestine assassinations to acts of sabotage, the deployment of nerve agents represents a grave threat to global security. The use of these agents also challenges the norms of warfare and diplomacy in the modern age. (Source)

2.0 What Are Nerve Agents?

Nerve agents belong to a class of organophosphate compounds, which inhibit the enzyme acetylcholinesterase. This enzyme is responsible for breaking down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. As a result, acetylcholine accumulates in the nervous system, causing overstimulation of muscles and glands. Nerve agents disrupt the transmission of nerve impulses in the body, leading to paralysis, respiratory failure, and ultimately, death. The CDC categorises nerve agents as G and V agents with G agents including Sarin Soman and Tabun and V including VX. (Source)

The first documented use of nerve agents on the battlefield occurred in 1984 when Iraq deployed tabun against Iranian military forces in Majnoon Island near Basra. Subsequently, in 1994, the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult perpetrated the first known terrorist attack involving nerve agents in Matsumoto, Japan. Symptoms and the severity of nerve agent poisoning are contingent upon various factors, including the specific agent involved, the mode and extent of exposure, and the promptness of medical intervention. Common manifestations of significant exposure include bronchorrhoea, bronchospasm, bradycardia, and convulsions. Additionally, these symptoms show within seconds to minutes depending on exposure conditions. Without prompt medical management, death may result from asphyxiation and cardiac arrest within minutes. (Source)

3.0 Nerve Agents Throughout History

The history of nerve agents traces back to the mid-20th century, with the development and deployment of compounds such as sarin, soman, and VX. These agents were first synthesized for military purposes during World War II. However, intelligence agencies quickly recognized their potential for covert operations. Notable incidents include the use of VX in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in 2017 (Source).

3.1 Aum Shinrikyo and the Tokyo Subway 

On March 20, 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult released sarin, a lethal nerve agent, into subway cars, causing devastation in the heart of Japan’s capital. Aum Shinrikyo through the attack brought nerve agents into the realm of terrorism. In 1994, the cult perpetrated another attack in Matsumoto, Japan, using G-series nerve agents. Aum Shinrikyo’s operatives released sarin from a converted refrigerator truck. This attack resulted in the deaths of seven individuals and injured over 200 others. The attack targeted a residential neighbourhood where judges involved in a lawsuit against the cult resided. This act of terror foreshadowed the cult’s even more infamous Sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system the following year. (Source)

The coordinated assault on the Tokyo subway system unfolded in the early hours of March 20, 1995. Members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult placed packages containing sarin on multiple trains going different routes throughout Tokyo. When commuters opened the packages, the deadly nerve agent spread rapidly through the enclosed spaces of the subway cars. The simultaneous nature of the attacks intensified the scale of the catastrophe. The consequences were devastating: 15 subway stations were affected, with thousands of commuters exposed to the lethal gas. The attack injured about 3,800 individuals, with close to 1,000 requiring hospitalization and 12 fatalities. (Source) In the aftermath, Japanese authorities conducted raids on Aum Shinrikyo facilities and apprehended key members. These raids uncovered an elaborate chemical weapons production facility disguised as a shrine, known as Satyan 7. The facility was capable of producing sarin in battlefield quantities, highlighting the cult’s capabilities. (Source)

3.2 Iraq 

Iraq's Scud B missiles which could be used to disseminate nerve agents for hundreds of miles.
Iraq’s Scud B missiles could be used to disseminate nerve agents for hundreds of miles.

Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, including nerve agents like Tabun. These agents were used during the Iran-Iraq War and against Kurdish populations in northern Iraq. Beginning in the early 1980s, Iraq employed mustard gas, sarin, and Tabun against both Iranian troops and Kurdish civilians. The use of the nerve agents resulted in extensive casualties and widespread devastation. One example is the infamous attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja in 1988. This attack involved bombs containing mustard gas, sarin, and Tabun. It also led to the deaths of thousands of civilians and left many survivors with enduring health problems. (Source),(Source,)(Source)

Following Iraq’s defeat in the Gulf War and subsequent international pressure, the country’s chemical weapons program was dismantled under UN supervision. However, concerns lingered over the potential resurgence of Iraq’s WMD programs, leading to the 2003 invasion by a United States-led coalition. Subsequent investigations revealed that Iraq’s chemical weapons program had largely been dismantled. Remnants of the country’s chemical arsenal have since resurfaced, with reports of chemical attacks by militant groups like the IS posing challenges to regional security and stability. (Source),(Source),(Source

Iran-Iraq war Iranian soldiers wearing gas masks.

Investigations into the dismantlement of Iraq’s chemical weapons program revealed the discovery of approximately 5,000 chemical warheads, shells, or aviation bombs following the 2003 Iraq war. Despite their production before 1991, these munitions posed significant hazards, exposing at least 17 American soldiers and seven Iraqi police officers to CW agents. A subsequent inquiry by Chivers and Eric Schmitt uncovered Operation Avarice, a major CIA-led initiative aimed at purchasing old chemical weapons from the Iraqi black market. The operation successfully acquired and destroyed over 400 Borak rockets, many of which contained sarin. (Source),(Source),(Source)

3.2.1 Extremist Forces and Nerve Agents

The Syrian civil war has heightened concerns over the remnants of Iraq’s CW program. In July 2014, the Islamic State seized a former Iraqi chemical weapons production facility, which U.S. officials believed still contained remnants of Iraq’s CW arsenal. According to the last major UN report on Iraq’s WMD programs in 2004, the facility contained 2,500 122mm chemical rockets filled with sarin, 180 tons of sodium cyanide, and numerous contaminated shells and containers. However, given the age of these materials, dating back to the 1980s, their utility for chemical warfare purposes is questionable. (Source),(Source),(Source)

Allegations have emerged regarding IS’s use of chemical weapons within Iraq, particularly against Peshmerga forces. The Kurdistan Region Security Council provided video and lab results suggesting IS’s use of chlorine gas in a suicide truck bombing on January 23, 2015, although these claims await independent verification. Similar allegations arose from attacks in December 2014 and March 2015, with Kurdish officials releasing videos depicting the aftermath of suspected chlorine gas incidents. Investigations into these attacks are ongoing, underscoring the persistent threat posed by chemical weapons in the region. (Source),(Source),(Source)

4.0 Nerve Agents in Covert Operations

Nerve agents have been used in targeted assassinations in recent times. In 2018, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury. The incident sparked international outrage and diplomatic tensions between Russia and Western countries. Additionally, In 2020, there was an attempt to poison Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny with a Novichok nerve agent. This highlights the willingness of state actors to use such substances against individuals deemed as threats. As nerve agents may eliminate targets with minimal traceability, it makes them attractive tools for assassinations. However, their use poses risks, with the potential for unintended consequences. Moreover, their use blurs the line between conventional warfare and acts of terrorism. It also raises concerns about the erosion of international norms and the proliferation of chemical weapons. (Source)(Source)

5.0 Conclusion

The history and use of nerve agents in military and covert operations mark them as one of the most feared forms of chemical weaponry. These compounds disrupt the nervous system and often cause fatal physiological effects. States and other groups have deployed them in wars, targeted assassinations, and acts of terrorism. The incidents in Iraq, the Aum Shinrikyo attacks in Japan, and the high-profile poisonings involving Novichok agents illustrate the diverse ways one can utilize nerve agents. There are ethical and strategic implications of using nerve agents are profound. It raises questions about who can use them and if or when it is right to deploy such agents for operations.

While they offer a seemingly effective means for achieving military and political objectives, their lethal nature poses severe risks to civilian populations and global security. The deployment of such weapons challenges international norms and treaties aimed at prohibiting chemical warfare, raising critical concerns about enforcement and compliance. In light of these threats, the international community must strengthen mechanisms for monitoring, preventing, and responding to the use of nerve agents. Enhanced cooperation among nations, rigorous enforcement of existing treaties, and ongoing efforts to dismantle chemical weapons stockpiles are essential steps toward mitigating the dangers posed by these silent threats. As history has shown, the consequences of nerve agent attacks extend far beyond immediate casualties, leaving lasting scars on societies and highlighting the need for vigilance and proactive measures.

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