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“Military grade” nerve agent – what does it mean?

Author(s):
Dan Kaszeta

The phrase “military grade” keeps coming up when talking about chemical warfare materials. The last few years have seen repeated use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict, where the vast majority of instances are war crimes committed by the Syrian state, as well as the unfortunate acts of Russian chemical terrorism in and around Salisbury in England. In the Salisbury instances, the use of the phrase “military grade” has been widespread, with officials up to and including then Foreign Minister Boris Johnson and Prime Minister Theresa May using the expression.

What it doesn't mean

However, the term “military grade” when used in context with chemical warfare agents is widely misunderstood, which helps those who want to spread confusion and disinformation. Perhaps the best way to parse the phrase is to look at what it doesn’t mean. Some commentators have clearly assumed it means “very pure”, as the Novichok nerve agent recovered from the Skripal case was of high purity. Others have taken the similar approach that it means “high quality”. Furthermore, some clearly assume that “military grade” means “highly lethal”. None of these interpretations are particularly correct, especially if one looks at the history of chemical warfare and chemical weapons systems. It is worth examining each of these in detail. 

“Very Pure” is not really a term that is very applicable to military chemical warfare agents. The US Army prided itself on its ability to produce very good chemical weapons. The 1930s and 1940s perfected the manufacture of what is known as ‘mustard gas’. There was a serious and expensive effort after the Second World War not just to make Sarin, but to make it on a large scale and at high quality. The 1950s saw an effort to make VX. These efforts were, in large part, mirrored by the Soviet Union. What we know now, because of documents published in the 1980s, is that the US stockpile of chemical warfare agents was nowhere near “very pure” – nor could it be. Purity and quality are related, but only if the impurities are examined and evaluated. In the US arsenal, most of the things keeping the Sarin from being 100% pure were added on purpose. The agents in the stockpile needed additives to preserve their shelf life and to prevent damage to the containers or weapon systems in which they were stored. There were also some impurities could not be economically removed.

The Soviets faced this problem as well. A 1987 US document is revelatory and, surprisingly, gives the composition of the stockpile agents. US stockpile Sarin was only 93% Sarin. US VX was also only 93% VX. US mustard stocks varied significantly, based on vintage, but averaged between 67.7% and 92% pure. No comparable document exists for Soviet warfare agents, but it would be difficult to envisage that 100% pure Sarin, Soman, or V-series nerve agents, with their known properties, would have been in stockpile.

One can easily make the argument that US stockpile Sarin and VX were high quality, even if not 100% pure, and this would be a correct statement. But it would be an error to extrapolate that to other military uses of chemical warfare agents. The related concept of “high quality” is sometimes used in conjunction with “military grade” but these ideas do not always go hand in hand, if you look at the actual history of chemical warfare. The historical record of chemical warfare is replete with instances of militaries using quite low-quality substances. The various investigations into the quality of chemical warfare agents used by Iraq in the in the Iran-Iraq war show that quantity and speed of production were far more valued than actual quality of the material produced. The Iraqi military used very low quality Sarin, for example. If a military produces and uses a low quality chemical warfare agent, then there’s no way that “military     grade” can always mean “high quality”.

Easy to make?

It should also be stressed that “military grade” does not have much bearing on ease of manufacture. Even the low quality nerve agents made by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were the product of a complex supply chain of exotic ingredients and the result of extremely complex and expensive manufacturing techniques. Indeed, “military grade” likely implies products made in quantity. No army has much use for a single chemical artillery shell. Many chemical warfare agents could be made in teaspoon quantities in a laboratory given an unusual degree of risk, specialized equipment, rare ingredients, and rare expertise. However, scaling up production to large quantity can take years. It took the US Army every bit of seven years to go from captured Sarin samples to actual mass production after the second world war. The ease or difficulty of making chemical warfare agents will be dealt with in detail in a future article.

Always lethal?

It is clear “military grade” is sometimes used as phrase to denote or imply that a substance “highly lethal” or, indeed, even that death is the primary outcome. While some chemical warfare agents are designed for lethality, this is not always the case for all chemical warfare agents. Some chemical warfare agents were designed to incapacitate the enemy without killing, such as BZ (discussed previously on this site) and “Adamsite” (a vomiting agent, see here for details).  But the best example is so-called “Mustard Gas” which is not actually a gas. Rather it is a family of materials including Sulphur Mustard and various Nitrogen Mustards.  Mustard Gas actually is not that lethal. “Military Grade” mustard caused a lethality rate of something less than six percent of those made ill by exposure to nerve agents. In some armies, with more advanced medical care, the percentage was lower. (For an excellent study of lethality of chemical weapons in the First World War, see here.) For all the hype of chemical warfare, only a small fraction of the deaths of the First World War were caused by chemical weapons. Even the weapons that are highly lethal in principle, such as Sarin or VX, are likely to have a high percentage of people who are seriously ill rather than lethal exposures.

Fast acting?

Finally, somehow the occasional commenter uses “military grade” in a way synonymous with “rapid acting”. This is also a trouble spot. Many military chemical warfare agents are indeed rapid acting. But also, rather a lot of them are slow acting. Phosgene, which caused up to 90% of the chemical warfare fatalities in the First World War, takes hours, or even half a day, to take effect. The tell-tale blisters caused by “mustard gas” can take many hours. Even the nerve agents, which are rapid acting when inhaled, can take hours to have serious effects when absorbed through the skin.

Be more precise!

So, what does “military grade” mean in chemical warfare terms? The only real definitions that make any sense are ones derived from acceptable use of “military grade” in other contexts. If one looks at, for example “military grade” footwear, i.e. combat boots or “military grade” ammunition, these are commonly accepted usages with sensible meanings. In terms of chemical warfare agents, we can use “chemical substances used for military purposes” or “chemical substances made to a specification set by the military” as reasonable approximations. These military purposes could mean many things. Chemical warfare agents (the chemicals) and chemical weapons (the weapon systems that dispense them) can be used for many military purposes. They could be used to kill, incapacitate, harass, deny terrain for use, contaminate equipment or facilities, obscure the battlefield (i.e. smoke), force enemy troops to wear cumbersome protective equipment, or similar purposes. These purposes may or may not depend on them being pure, high-quality, lethal, or rapid acting. Likewise, a military specification for manufacture may have many features, including cost, packaging, shelf-life (or lack thereof), integration with existing weapon systems (nobody likes having to buy a different cannon just for the chemical shells)  or myriad other reasons that have little or nothing to do with purity or lethality.  

My best advice, and I would advise anyone at any level of authority on this if they would just hear me out -  it might be better to say what you want to say in a few extra words than say “military grade” when that may not be what you want to say.  

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