What Weapons are Banned or Restricted in War? – Visual Capitalist

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Infographic visualizing weapons that are banned in war

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For thousands of years, there have been rules to control the types of weapons in warfare—for instance, the use of poison in armed combat was forbidden in Ancient Greece.
But it wasn’t until the 19th century that international agreements were made to legally regulate the types of weapons that are allowed (and banned) in wars around the world.
This graphic outlines the weapons that are banned or limited in war, according to international humanitarian laws that are outlined in the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).
The CCW, also known as the Inhumane Weapons Convention, is an international agreement that restricts the use of weapons that have been deemed unnecessarily cruel and inhumane.
Currently, there are 125 State Parties involved in the agreement, with signatures from an additional four states. In the CCW, there are five protocols outlined that restrict or limit the use of the following weapons:
It’s worth flagging that, under the CCW, the use of cluster bombs is not outright banned. However, their use and production is prohibited under separate legislation called the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM).
At this time, the CCW does not have enforcement processes in place, or systems to resolve any breaches of the agreement.
Another international treaty that aims to limit the use of unnecessarily dangerous weapons is the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which prohibits the creation, acquisition, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons by State Parties.
examples of banned and controlled chemical weapons
193 State Parties have signed the CWC, and one more state (Israel) has technically signed the agreement but hasn’t yet made it official.
Syria signed the agreement back in 2013, but according to reports from UN human rights investigators, the Syrian government has used chemical weapons on numerous occasions throughout its ongoing civil war.
In the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine, it’s been reported that Russia’s been using several weapons that are banned by international legislation, including cluster bombs and explosive weapons. Harvard Law expert Bonnie Docherty explains why these weapons are so dangerous:
According to reports from Human Rights Watch, Russia has been using cluster bombs in several areas of Ukraine, such as the heavily populated city of Mykolaiv, and in Solyani, a suburban area just outside of Mykolaiv.
Over the last few decades, certain protocols and restrictions in the CCW have been amended and changed based on societal changes and technological improvements.
So, as military weapons continue to improve, and technology like commercial drones become more common, proper legislation around drone use in warfare may be necessary.
Currently, there is no international legislation that bans the use of drones in war. However, several global defense companies are popping up to try and find ways to counter these new military technologies. In fact, the global addressable market for counter drones and tracking systems is estimated at $10 billion worldwide.
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Just how powerful are nuclear bombs? Here’s a look at the top 10 largest nuclear explosions.
Just how powerful are nuclear explosions?
The U.S.’ Trinity test in 1945, the first-ever nuclear detonation, released around 19 kilotons of explosive energy. The explosion instantly vaporized the tower it stood on and turned the surrounding sand into green glass, before sending a powerful heatwave across the desert.
As the Cold War escalated in the years after WWII, the U.S. and the Soviet Union tested bombs that were at least 500 times greater in explosive power. This infographic visually compares the 10 largest nuclear explosions in history.
After exploding, nuclear bombs create giant fireballs that generate a blinding flash and a searing heatwave. The fireball engulfs the surrounding air, getting larger as it rises like a hot air balloon.
As the fireball and heated air rise, they are flattened by cooler, denser air high up in the atmosphere, creating the mushroom “cap” structure. At the base of the cloud, the fireball causes physical destruction by sending a shockwave moving outwards at thousands of miles an hour.
anatomy of a nuclear explosion's mushroom cloud
A strong updraft of air and dirt particles through the center of the cloud forms the “stem” of the mushroom cloud. In most atomic explosions, changing atmospheric pressure and water condensation create rings that surround the cloud, also known as Wilson clouds.
Over time, the mushroom cloud dissipates. However, it leaves behind radioactive fallout in the form of nuclear particles, debris, dust, and ash, causing lasting damage to the local environment. Because the particles are lightweight, global wind patterns often distribute them far beyond the place of detonation.
With this context in mind, here’s a look at the 10 largest nuclear explosions.
In 1952, the U.S. detonated the Mike device—the first-ever hydrogen bomb—as part of Operation Ivy. Hydrogen bombs rely on nuclear fusion to amplify their explosions, producing much more explosive energy than atomic bombs that use nuclear fission.
Weighing 140,000 pounds (63,500kg), the Ivy Mike test generated a yield of 10,400 kilotons, equivalent to the explosive power of 10.4 million tons of TNT. The explosion was 700 times more powerful than Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
Castle Romeo was part of the Operation Castle series of U.S. nuclear tests taking place on the Marshall Islands. Shockingly, the U.S. was running out of islands to conduct tests, making Romeo the first-ever test conducted on a barge in the ocean.
At 11,000 kilotons, the test produced more than double its predicted explosive energy of 4,000 kilotons. Its fireball, as seen below, is one of the most iconic images ever captured of a nuclear explosion.
iconic image of the castle romeo nuclear explosion of 1954
Test #123 was one of the 57 tests conducted by the Soviet Union in 1961. Most of these tests were conducted on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in Northwestern Russia. The bomb yielded 12,500 kilotons of explosive energy, enough to vaporize everything within a 2.1 mile (3.5km) radius.
Castle Yankee was the fifth test in Operation Castle. The explosion marked the second-most powerful nuclear test by the U.S.
It yielded 13,500 kilotons, much higher than the predicted yield of up to 10,000 kilotons. Within four days of the blast, its fallout reached Mexico City, roughly 7,100 miles (11,400km) away.
Castle Bravo, the first of the Castle Operation series, accidentally became the most powerful nuclear bomb tested by the U.S.
Due to a design error, the explosive energy from the bomb reached 15,000 kilotons, two and a half times what was expected. The mushroom cloud climbed up to roughly 25 miles (40km).
As a result of the test, an area of 7,000 square miles was contaminated, and inhabitants of nearby atolls were exposed to high levels of radioactive fallout. Traces of the blast were found in Australia, India, Japan, and Europe.
In 1962, the Soviet Union conducted 78 nuclear tests, three of which produced the fifth, fourth, and third-most powerful explosions in history. Tests #173, #174, and #147 each yielded around 20,000 kilotons. Due to the absolute secrecy of these tests, no photos or videos have been released.
Test #219 was an atmospheric nuclear test carried out using an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), with the bomb exploding at a height of 2.3 miles (3.8km) above sea level. It was the second-most powerful nuclear explosion, with a yield of 24,200 kilotons and a destructive radius of ~25 miles (41km).
Tsar Bomba, also called Big Ivan, needed a specially designed plane because it was too heavy to carry on conventional aircraft. The bomb was attached to a giant parachute to give the plane time to fly away.
The explosion, yielding 50,000 kilotons, obliterated an abandoned village 34 miles (55km) away and generated a 5.0-5.25 magnitude earthquake in the surrounding region. Initially, it was designed as a 100,000 kiloton bomb, but its yield was cut to half its potential by the Soviet Union. Tsar Bomba’s mushroom cloud breached through the stratosphere to reach a height of over 37 miles (60km), roughly six times the flying height of commercial aircraft.
The two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had devastating consequences, and their explosive yields were only a fraction of the 10 largest explosions. The power of modern nuclear weapons makes their scale of destruction truly unfathomable, and as history suggests, the outcomes can be unpredictable.
Nine countries currently possess all the world’s nuclear warheads. This animation visualizes how the global nuclear arsenal has changed since 1945.
Despite significant progress in reducing nuclear weapon arsenals since the Cold War, the world’s combined inventory of warheads remains at an uncomfortably high level.
Towards the late 1980s, the world reached its peak of stockpiled warheads, numbering over 64,000. In modern times, nine countries—the U.S., Russia, France, China, the UK, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea—are estimated to possess roughly 12,700 nuclear warheads.
The animated chart above by creator James Eagle shows the military stockpile of nuclear warheads that each country has possessed since 1945.
The signing of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) brought about a rapid disarmament of nuclear warheads. Though not immediately successful in stopping nuclear proliferation, it eventually led to countries retiring most of their nuclear arsenals.
As of 2022, about 12,700 nuclear warheads are still estimated to be in use, of which more than 9,400 are in military stockpiles for use by missiles, aircraft, ships and submarines.
Here’s a look at the nine nations that currently have nuclear warheads in their arsenal:
The U.S. and Russia are by far the two countries with the most nuclear warheads in military stockpiles, with each having close to 4,000 in possession.
At the dawn of the nuclear age, the U.S. hoped to maintain a monopoly on nuclear weapons, but the secret technology and methodology for building the atomic bomb soon spread. Only 10 countries have since possessed or deployed any nuclear weapons.
Here are a few key dates in the timeline of the nuclear arms race from 1945 to 2022:
The U.S. drops two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, decimating the cities and forcing the country’s surrender, ending the Second World War.
The Soviet Union tests its first nuclear bomb, code-named First Lightning in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan. It becomes the second country to develop and successfully test a nuclear device.
The UK conducts its first nuclear test at Montebello Islands off the coast of Western Australia, and later additional tests at Maralinga and Emu Fields in South Australia.
France explodes its first atomic bomb in the Sahara Desert, with a yield of 60–70 kilotons. It moves further nuclear tests to the South Pacific, which continue up until 1996.
A tense stand-off known as the Cuban Missile Crisis begins when the U.S. discovers Soviet missiles in Cuba. The U.S. intiaties a naval blockade of the island, with the crisis bringing the two superpowers to the brink of nuclear war.
China becomes the fifth country to test an atomic bomb in 1964, code-named Project 596. The country would conduct an additional 45 atomic bomb tests at the Lop Nor testing site in Sinkiang Province through 1996.
The NPT opens for signatures. Under the treaty, non-nuclear-weapon states agree to never acquire nuclear weapons, and nuclear powers must make a legal undertaking to disarm.
India conducts an underground nuclear test at Pokhran in the Rajasthan desert, code-named the Smiling Buddha. Since conducting its first nuclear test, India has refused to sign the NPT or any subsequent treaties.
Through the information provided by Israeli whistleblower and nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu, The Sunday Times publishes a story that leads experts to conclude that Israel may have up to 200 nuclear weapons.
After previously signing onto the NPT, North Korea breaks from the treaty and begins testing nuclear weapons in 2006. It has since gathered 20 nuclear warheads, though the actual number and their efficacy are unknown.
Though the threat of nuclear weapons never left, the latest growing tensions in Ukraine have brought the topic back into focus. Even as work towards disarmament continues, many of the top nuclear states hesitate to fully reduce their arsenals to zero.
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