Banned Weapons of War: What’s Regulated in Modern Warfare?

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War never changes.

Travis M240B Machine Gun Military

But the weapons do. Some weapons prove to be so brutal, cruel, and inhumane that they become banned from warfare.

These bans are often treaties and agreements between nations not to use certain weapons against each other.

Combat operations at Ia Drang Valley, Vietnam, November 1965. Major Bruce P. Crandall’s UH-1D helicopter climbs skyward after discharging a load of infantrymen on a search and destroy mission.

Today, we’ll be talking about weapons banned by certain nations and bound by treaties, conventions, and protocols.

It’s important to realize that these agreements are not entirely universal — countries, military forces, ideologies, and beyond often do not follow these rules.

Guerilla forces, in particular, tend to be less accountable and less likely to follow the so-called gentlemanly rules of war.

Hovering U.S. Army helicopters pour machine gun fire into tree line to cover the advance of Vietnamese ground troops in an attack on a Viet Cong camp 18 miles north of Tay Ninh on March 29, 1965, which is northwest of Saigon near the Cambodian border. Combined assault routed Viet Cong guerrilla force. (AP Photo/Horst Faas)
Hovering U.S. Army helicopters pour machine-gun fire into the tree line to cover the advance of Vietnamese ground troops in an attack on a Viet Cong camp 18 miles north of Tay Ninh on March 29, 1965, which is northwest of Saigon near the Cambodian border. (Photo: AP/Horst Faas)

Let’s dive into the weapons and tools banned by the world’s various treaties, conventions, and protocols.

Table of Contents

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Chemical Weapons & Poisonous Gas

World War I was an absolute bloody war. This brutal war led to the rise and eventually banning of chemical weapons used in warfare.

British infantry advancing on Loos
British infantry advancing on Loos through a gas attack on September 25, 1915

In a post-WWI environment, the banned chemical weapons include five different types. We wisely banned blood agents, blister agents, choking agents, nettle agents, and nerve agents.

These weapons could cause painful blisters or cause a victim’s lungs to fill with fluid and effectively suffocate them. These poison gas weapons were responsible for millions of brutal deaths in World War I.

The Geneva Protocol banned the use of these weapons in 1925, but not the stockpiling of these agents.

WWI Soldiers preparing for chemical weapons
French troops wearing an early form of gas mask in the trenches during the 2nd Battle of Ypres in 1915. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Chemical Weapons Convention took this prohibition further, and member states who signed destroyed stockpiles and prohibited creating more chemical weapons.

These laws even ban tear gas, mace, and similar riot control weapons in warfare. Although, they can be used for riot control and civil unrest.

Biological Weapons

Biological weapons have been in use for hundreds of years. The Mongolians would launch rotting bodies into cities under siege to spread disease.

In medieval times, dead animals would be thrown into towns and forts, and Europeans spread smallpox through native populations in North America.

English doctor Edward Jenner developed the first smallpox vaccine in 1796. (Photo: DEA Picture Library/Getty Images)

Vietnamese guerillas would use feces on spike traps, and in 2001 five Americans were killed through anthrax letters.

The indiscriminate nature and inhumane means by which these weapons kill called for some kind of action.

A hazardous materials response team removes a hazardous materials suit from an investigator emerging from the U.S. Post Office in West Trenton, N.J., on Oct. 25, 2001. (Photo: Tom Mihalek/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1972 the Biological Weapons Convention banned the use, stockpiling, and development of biological weapons.

Although, it’s relatively toothless with no one to enforce the regulations.

Poisoned Bullets

The rules banning poisoned bullets are one of the first examples of an agreement between militaries and governments regarding warfare. The Strasbourg Agreement of 1675 between Rome and France prohibited using poison bullets.

Leonardo da Vinci created these rounds by packing shells with sulfur and arsenic.

These shells would be used in cannons against ships and forts and cause a choking, poisonous effect on their victims.

(Photo: Getty Images)

The United States Army experimented with ricin-coated bullets and artillery weapons in World War I. The exploding rounds would create dust clouds over the enemy’s positions. They wisely stopped and decided they’d develop an antitoxin before deploying the weapons.

It seems like a great way to expose your troops to ricin, but what do I know?

Frangibles from Sinterfire and Inceptor, left to right 9mm, .45 ACP, 10mm, and .50 Beowulf. Inceptor is easy to distinguish from others due to its dark brown color & fluted bullet
Gotta stick with the regular bullets…no shenanigans.

The Hague Convention of 1899 extended the definitions and who was included under the agreement. And the Geneva Convention also prohibited using weaponized chemicals, so it seems like poisoned bullets would also be covered.

Although, it’s worth noting that according to a few articles, lead poisoning can begin as soon as a bullet enters the body, so take it for what it’s worth.

Undetectable Fragmentation

The 1981 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, Protocol 1, bans the use of undetectable fragmentation.

Most fragmentation is metal and is quickly found and identified when it enters the body of a soldier. Detectability ensures soldiers can receive proper treatment and have the frag removed.

Body Armor Test RTS Level 4 Jacket Fragments
You can see fragments from the round in the gel

Undetectable fragmentation like plastic and glass can kill just as quickly as metal frag but are much harder to detect with modern tools. Especially the tools found in a battlefield trauma center.

Undetectable fragmentation does require some specialized molds, polymers, and designs. It’s rather tough to toss plain old plastic into an explosive and not have it melt or turn into dirt-sized bits.

Protocol 1 bans plastic fragmentation as the primary means to kill and disable but does not entirely ban the use of plastics in weapon design.

Expanding Projectiles

Banning expanding munitions is one of the most misunderstood pieces of war legislation ever passed.

It’s not against the Geneva Convention to use hollow points. But it was banned by the Hague Convention of 1899, which prohibited the use of expanding and exploding bullets.

Expanding bullets translate to hollow-point ammunition in modern parlance.

FMJ vs Hollowpoints (9mm and .45 ACP)
FMJ vs Hollowpoints (9mm and .45 ACP)

Hollow-point ammunition is designed to enter the body and expand in a soft target. This creates a larger projectile that causes further damage through the body, slows the projectile, and prevents it from exiting the body.

These rules only apply to those who signed on to the declarations, of which the U.S. did not, and neither did a whole lot of other countries.

Hollow-point ammo is currently being fielded in handguns by the United States military and has been in SOCOM’s armory for quite some time. However, 101 signatories are bound by the laws of the Hague convention.

PPTGel6
Hollow point in ballistic gel

Two signatories could not use expanding ammo against each other, but a signatory could use expanding ammo against a non-signatory.

Even so, it’s technically banned in certain warfare situations and deserves a spot on the list.

Cluster Bombs

Yo dawg, I heard you like bombs, so I stuffed a bomb full of bombs so you can bomb while you bomb. That’s cluster bombs, essentially.

These massive, unguided weapons would drop a bomb full of bombs in a cluster.

A cluster bomb

They would cause a brutal and violent effect on the area around them. These bombs open up in the air and saturate an area with explosives. They are indiscriminate and also very effective.

Cluster bombs can be fired from the ground or dropped from aircraft. Examples include Laos during the Vietnam war, where the United States dropped millions of explosives, including cluster bombs.

The Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2008 banned the bombs. They are too indiscriminate and cause significant numbers of civilian casualties.

More than 600 cluster bombs sits in a field in a southern village of Lebanon. (Photo: AP/Mohammed Zaatari)

Additionally, as Laos proved, many munitions fail to explode and leave unexploded ordnance in areas for decades which can harm the civilian population well after the war ends.

Lasers That Cause Blindness

I want freaking sharks with laser beams attached to their frickin heads! Well, if those lasers do not intentionally cause blindness, then you’re good to go.

The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons bans laser weapons purposefully designed to blind the enemy.

Suppose a laser is designed not to blind the enemy but has the aftereffect of doing so. Well, in that situation, the laser is not prohibited.

Lasers at 15 Yards
Laser aiming systems aren’t prohibited as these aren’t intentionally meant to cause blindness.

For example, the laser aiming systems attached to the weapons of most military members can cause serious blindness.

However, they are used for aiming and not to intentionally blind, so they are good to go.

Land Mines & Booby Traps

I’ve been in two situations where IEDs exploded in my general vicinity, which imparts a fear in you that can’t be described. The fear that every literal step you take is absolutely terrifying and not an experience I’d suggest.

Travis M240B Machine Gun Military

So, I can’t help but agree with the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons regulations of mines.

Undetectable anti-personnel mines are banned outside of remotely activated mines, a.k.a. claymores.

Minefields are also regulated and must be clearly marked and fenced. Anti-tank mines are allowed, but booby traps are not. Any mines placed outside of clearly marked, fenced areas must be self-destructing or self-deactivating.

Minefield warning on the Golan Heights, still valid more than 40 years after the field’s mining by the Syrian Army. (Photo: David Shay via WikiCommons)

We’ve seen what the callous use of mines can do, and it’s a smart move. Heck, it might not be enough as far as I’m concerned.

Explosive Remnants of War

The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons also bans the act of leaving behind unexploded ordnance.

If you drop a bomb that doesn’t explode, it’s your responsibility to find it, blow it up, and call it a day.

British Officers standing next to an un-exploded shell. World War I artillery ammunition.

This isn’t necessarily a banned weapon, but it’s worth mentioning that it’s a banned act with weapons. You can’t leave your explosives behind.

Final Thoughts

It’s pretty crazy how many cruel and brutal ways man has made to kill each other. Hawkeye said it best in the finale of MASH, war is war, and hell is hell.

Hopefully, we put a little more time and energy into saving and preserving lives rather than taking them, and we won’t create a new weapon that needs to find its way onto this list.

Have I missed any banned weapons of war? If so, let me know below. Interested in modern military guns? Check out our guide to the Unconventional Guns of the Military or grab your own version in Civilian-Legal Versions of Military-Only Guns.



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