Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

views updated

chapter 3


The use of gases, poisons, and toxins by states at war can be traced back centuries. As Table 3.1 shows, chemical and biological weapons have a long history dating back to the fifth century b.c.

One of the first people to contemplate the use of biological weapons in North America was Lord Jeffrey Amherst. Amherst was the commanding general of British forces in North America during the final battles of the French and Indian War (1754–63). Carl Waldman's Atlas of the North American Indian (New York: Facts on File, 1985) describes a siege at Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh) by the forces of Native American leader Chief Pontiac during the summer of 1763. Amherst sent a letter to another British officer, encouraging him to send smallpox-infected blankets and handkerchiefs to the Indians surrounding the fort in an effort to start an epidemic. Although there were epidemics of smallpox among some of the Indian tribes in the area, it is uncertain if such a plan was executed or if the smallpox was related to this early proposal of "germ warfare."

Still, the transformation of biological, chemical, and nuclear agents into weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of warfare. What exactly is a weapon of mass destruction? Several definitions exist. Some analysts include only nonconventional chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons in this category. According to the U.S. Code, Title 5, "War and National Defense," a WMD is "any weapon or device that is intended, or has the capability, to cause death or serious bodily injury to a significant number of people through the release, dissemination, or impact of (A) toxic or poisonous chemicals or their precursors; (B) a disease organism; or (C) radiation or radioactivity."

However, several other policy analysts and experts look at WMDs more broadly. Conventional weapons capable of creating widespread casualties or "mass destruction" are also classified as WMD. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, for instance, in "The FBI and Weapons of Mass Destruction," August 1999, stated that a "weapon of mass destruction (WMD), though typically associated with nuclear/radiological, chemical, or biological agents, may also take the form of explosives, such as in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1995. A weapon crosses the WMD threshold when the consequences of its release overwhelm local responders." For the purpose of this text, WMD shall hereafter solely refer to CBRN weapons and their delivery systems.

It was not until World War I (1914–18) that WMD were first used strategically in a battlefield environment to inflict massive casualties. On April 22, 1915, the German army released chlorine gas from cylinders in Ypres, Belgium, causing at least 2,800 casualties. The British retaliated later that year, using the same gas against German troops. In total, about 124,000 tons of chemical weapons were used by all sides during World War I.

Japan made use of chemical and biological weapons while fighting in China and Manchuria before and during World War II (1939–45). World War II also saw the introduction of nuclear weapons, when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. After World War II, the use and stockpiling of WMD continued. The ensuing cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union witnessed an alarming buildup of WMD arsenals and the spread of WMD capabilities to such nations as the United Kingdom (1952) and France (1960).

Though the timeline in Table 3.1 ends in 1998, several additional deployments of WMD have occurred since. In 1998 the United States bombed sites in Iraq that allegedly contained WMD. Between 1998 and 2001 several anthrax hoaxes and actual attacks were launched by various individuals


Chronology of biological and chemical weapons use and control, 429 B.C.–1998
CW: Chemical Weapons Use
BW: Biological Weapons Use
source: Adapted from "Chronology of State Use and Biological and Chemical Weapons Control," in Chemical and Biological Weapons Resource Page, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, October 24, 2001,, (accessed September 23, 2004)
  • 429 B.C. - Spartans ignite pitch and sulphur to create toxic fumes in the Peloponnesian War (CW)
  • 424 B.C. - Toxic fumes used in siege of Delium during the Peloponnesian War (CW)
  • 960-1279 A.D. - Arsenical smoke used in battle during China's Sung Dynasty (CW)
  • 1346-1347 - Mongols catapult corpses contaminated with plague over the walls into Kaffa (in Crimea), forcing besieged Genoans to flee (BW)
  • 1456 - City of Belgrade defeats invading Turks by igniting rags dipped in poison to create a toxic cloud (CW)
  • 1710 - Russian troops allegedly use plague-infected corpses against Swedes (BW)
  • 1767 - During the French and Indian Wars, the British give blankets used to wrap British smallpox victims to hostile Indian tribes (BW)
  • April 24, 1863 - The U.S. War Department issues General Order 100, proclaiming "The use of poison in any manner, be it to poison wells, or foods, or arms, is wholly excluded from modern warfare"
  • July 29, 1899 - "Hague Convention (II) with Respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land" is signed. The Convention declares "it is especially prohibited… To employ poison or poisoned arms"
  • 1914 - French begin using tear gas in grenades and Germans retaliate with tear gas in artillery shells (CW)
  • April 22, 1915 - Germans attack the French with chlorine gas at Ypres, France. This was the first significant use of chemical warfare in WWI (CW)
  • September 25, 1915 - First British chemical weapons attack; chlorine gas is used against Germans at the Battle of Loos (CW)
  • 1916-1918 - German agents use anthrax and the equine disease glanders to infect livestock and feed for export to Allied forces. Incidents include the infection of Romanian sheep with anthrax and glanders for export to Russia, Argentinian mules with anthrax for export to Allied troops, and American horses and feed with glanders for export to France (BW)
  • February 26, 1918 - Germans launch the first projectile attack against U.S. troops with phosgene and chloropicrin shells. The first major use of gas against American forces (CW)
  • June 1918 - First U.S. use of gas in warfare (CW)
  • June 28, 1918 - The United States begins its formal chemical weapons program with the establishment of the Chemical Warfare Service (CW)
  • 1919 - British use Adamsite against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War (CW)
  • 1922-1927 - The Spanish use chemical weapons against the Rif rebels in Spanish Morocco (CW)
  • June 17, 1925 - "Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare" is signed - not ratified by U.S. and not signed by Japan
  • 1936 - Italy uses mustard gas against Ethiopians during its invasion of Abyssinia (CW)
  • 1937 - Japan begins its offensive biological weapons program. Unit 731, the biological weapons research and development unit, is located in Harbin, Manchuria. Over the course of the program, at least 10,000 prisoners are killed in Japanese experiments (BW)
  • 1939 - Nomonhan Incident - Japanese poison Soviet water supply with intestinal typhoid bacteria at former Mongolian border. First use of biological weapons by Japanese (BW)
  • 1940 - The Japanese drop rice and wheat mixed with plague-carrying fleas over China and Manchuria (BW)
  • 1942 - U.S. begins its offensive biological weapons program and chooses Camp Detrick, Frederick, Maryland as its research and development site (BW)
  • 1942 - Nazis begin using Zyklon B (hydrocyanic acid) in gas chambers for the mass murder of concentration camp prisoners (CW)
  • December 1943 - A U.S. ship loaded with mustard bombs is attacked in the port of Bari, Italy by Germans; 83 U.S. troops die in poisoned waters (CW)
  • April 1945 - Germans manufacture and stockpile large amounts of tabun and sarin nerve gases but do not use them (CW)
  • May, 1945 - Only known tactical use of biological weapons by Germany. A large reservoir in Bohemia is poisoned with sewage (BW)
  • September, 1950-February, 1951 - In a test of biological weapons dispersal methods, biological simulants are sprayed over San Francisco (BW)
  • 1962-1970 - U.S. uses tear gas and four types of defoliant, including Agent Orange, in Vietnam (CW)
  • 1963-1967 - Egypt uses chemical weapons (phosgene, mustard) against Yemen (CW)
  • June, 1966 - The United States conducts a test of vulnerability to covert biological weapons attack by releasing a harmless biological simulant into the New York City subway system (BW)
  • November 25, 1969 - President Nixon announces unilateral dismantlement of the U.S. offensive biological weapons program (BW)
  • February 14, 1970 - President Nixon extends the dismantlement efforts to toxins, closing a loophole which might have allowed for their production (BW)
  • April 10, 1972 - "Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction" (BWC) is opened for signature
  • 1975 - U.S. ratifies Geneva Protocol (1925) and BWC
  • 1975-1983 - Alleged use of Yellow Rain (trichothecene mycotoxins) by Soviet-backed forces in Laos and Kampuchea. There is evidence to suggest use of T-2 toxin, but an alternative hypothesis suggests that the yellow spots labeled Yellow Rain were caused by swarms of defecating bees (CW)
  • 1978 - In a case of Soviet state-sponsored assassination, Bulgarian exile Georgi Markov, living in London, is stabbed with an umbrella that injects him with a tiny pellet containing ricin (BW)
  • 1979 - The U.S. government alleges Soviets use of chemical weapons in Afghanistan, including Yellow Rain (CW)
  • April 2, 1979 - Outbreak of pulmonary anthrax in Sverdlovsk, Soviet Union. In 1992, Russian president Boris Yeltsin acknowledges that the outbreak was caused by an accidental release of anthrax spores from a Soviet military microbiological facility (BW)
  • August, 1983 - Iraq begins using chemical weapons (mustard gas), in Iran-Iraq War (CW)
  • 1984 - First ever use of nerve agent tabun on the battlefield, by Iraq during Iran-Iraq War (CW)
  • 1985-1991 - Iraq develops an offensive biological weapons capability including anthrax, botulium toxin, and aflatoxin (BW)
  • 1987-1988 - Iraq uses chemical weapons (hydrogen cyanide, mustard gas) in its Anfal Campaign against the Kurds, most notably in the Halabja Massacre of 1988 (CW)
  • September 3, 1992 - "Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction" (CWC) approved by United Nations
  • April 29, 1997 - Entry into force of CWC
  • 1998 - Iraq is suspected of maintaining an active CBW program in violation of the ceasefire agreement it signed with the UN Security Council. Baghdad refuses to allow UNSCOM inspectors to visit undeclared sites (CW/BW)

and organizations. Media organizations including NBC and the Washington Post, government offices in the U.S. State Department, the White House, congressional offices, U.S. post offices, and abortion clinics across the country were targeted. Anthrax exposure, infection, and even deaths resulted from some of the attacks on media organizations and in post offices where anthrax-laced mail was handled. Intelligence and homeland security planners must assume that this type of weapon will continue to be used intermittently in the future.


The dangers of modern WMD are significant enough to warrant increasing global concern, especially given the large number of countries that possess some sort of WMD capabilities. While it is difficult to posit a single explanation of various nations' rationales for developing WMD capabilities, in many instances the reasons include one or more of the following:

  • National security/lack of conventional weapons capability
  • Perception of an imminent threat
  • Deterrence/balance of power
  • Regional stability
  • Leadership personalities
  • Pride/prestige
  • Politically powerful commercial defense industries
  • Technological imperatives (the race to acquire the best technological capabilities in order to maintain positions of leadership)

The enormous and widespread damage and costs of WMD, especially nuclear weapons, have discouraged states from using them during conflict. Instead, most stockpile them primarily for purposes of deterrence. Most countries that possess nuclear weapons have a "no first strike" policy that calls on WMD for defensive purposes only (i.e., they will not launch nuclear weapons at another country first but only in reaction to an attack against their own nation). Many countries and international organizations have spearheaded arms control plans because they recognize the potential disastrous effects of WMD proliferation, and they cite such reasons to control them as fear of retaliation, moral considerations, and difficulty controlling their effects. These initiatives designed to curb WMD buildup generally take the form of treaties and agreements, although compliance with, and adherence to, such treaties has varied.


Chemical warfare agents are poisonous chemical materials used to kill or incapacitate. These agents can be delivered in a variety of ways, including canisters, artillery shells, artillery rockets, aerial bombs, mines, missile warheads, grenades, sprayers, and even released by individuals. Although the international community generally condemns the use of such weapons, several states have had or do have full-fledged chemical weapons programs. Figure 3.1 shows which countries have abandoned chemical weapons programs and which may have or were suspected to have chemical weapons as of 2004.

Besides their use in World War I, chemical weapons saw limited application during the twentieth century. Weaponized chemical releases after World War I include those during the 1930s by the Italians in Ethiopia and the Japanese in China, as well as Iraq's use against Iran during the 1980s. In addition, the United States, Russia (the former Soviet Union), United Kingdom, North Korea, Libya, Iran, Israel, and Syria have all been accused of having developed chemical weapons.

One factor that makes chemical weapons programs hard to detect is the dual-use nature of many of the chemicals used—these same chemicals have legitimate uses in medicine, scientific research, farming, pest control, and other applications. Table 3.2 provides examples of chemicals used both in weapons and in other fields.

Characteristics of Chemical Weapons

The weaponization of a chemical agent, or the process that turns an ordinary chemical into a weapon, is a laborious process. The compound must be stabilized, a delivery method must be created and implemented, and the weapon has to be stored and transported. The potency of a chemical agent greatly depends on environmental factors, the quality of the agent, and its means of delivery.


The usefulness of chemical agents vary depending on their intended purpose. Chemical weapons are usually categorized according to the following factors:

  1. Toxicity, or the lethality of an agent. Less-toxic substances can be used to incapacitate (as in riot control) rather than kill.
  2. Physical state. Whether an agent is in solid, liquid, or gaseous form plays a significant role in its weaponization and delivery.
  3. Mode of action, or whether the agent is delivered via inhalation (breathing), ingestion (eating or drinking), or through the skin.
  4. Speed, or the amount of time between exposure to an agent and the appearance of symptoms.
  5. Half-life or ability to persevere. This refers to how long an agent can retain its characteristics in the environment in which it is used and continue to pose a threat. The ability to persevere is relevant for response and decontamination following a chemical attack.

Classes of Chemical Weapons

Chemical weapons fall under one of the following classes: blister agents, blood agents, choking agents, nerve agents, or nonlethal agents. Table 3.3 provides a summary of common examples of each type and their effects.


Common chemical warfare agents
23-Quinuclidinyl Benzilate
source: "Common Chemical Warfare Agents," in Proliferation: Threat and Response, U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, January 2001, (accessed September 23, 2004)
BlisterMustard Nitrogen
Causes large skin blisters; respiratory damage; long-term debilitating injuries, including blindness
ChokingPhosgeneDeath from lack of oxygen
Cyanogen Chloride
Interferes with body's oxygen supply, causing death
Fourth generation
Loss of muscular control, respiratory failure, and death
Penetrates air filters; Incapacitation

blister agents. Classified as first-generation chemical agents (World War I–era agents—among the first chemical agents used on the battlefield), blister agents are also known as vesicants. Their primary physiological effects include burning sensations to the eyes, skin, and mucous membranes. As the name implies, large, watery blisters can form, along with severe damage to the upper respiratory tract. Lewisite, nitrogen mustard, sulfur mustard, and phosgene oxime are all different types of vesicants. They can be dispersed in aerosol, liquid, or vapor form, and (except for lewisite) cause no immediate pain at the time of exposure. Blister agents are used primarily to incapacitate rather than kill the enemy, but large doses can result in death.

blood agents. Blood agents enter the body primarily via inhalation and incapacitate the blood tissues' ability to use oxygen properly, causing the target to asphyxiate. Hydrogen cyanide, cyanogen chloride, and arsine are blood agents that are highly volatile and disperse quickly under normal conditions.

choking agents. Also known as lung irritants, choking agents usually come in the form of heavier gases that tend to settle at ground level or in depressions such as trenches and foxholes. Chlorine, chloropicirin, phosgene, and diphosgene are choking agents that, when inhaled, cause a fluid buildup in the lungs so that victims drown and die of oxygen deficiency.

nerve agents. Nerve agents come in various forms, including VX and the G-series agents (so called because their U.S. Army codes begin with the letter "G") tabun, sarin, soman, and cyclosarin. Highly deadly, these agents block the flow of acetylcholinestrase, an enzyme crucial to the functioning of the nervous system. Effects of exposure to nerve agents include seizures and a loss of body control as the agents exhaust their victims' muscles, including the heart.

nonlethal agents. These incapacitants (which may be used separately or in conjunction with other chemical agents) include less potent chemicals that can be further subdivided into psychochemicals, tear gas agents, and vomiting agents. Psychochemicals are mainly hallucinogenic compounds such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate that cause delusions and can incapacitate victims for a period of time. Tear gas agents, often used in riot control, are highly irritating to the eyes and respiratory tract. They include orthochlorobenzylidene malononitrile, chloroacetophenonoe, and brombenzyl cyanide. Vomiting agents, such as adamsite, are arsenic-based. They not only cause vomiting and but may also irritate the eyes and respiratory system.

Chemical Weapons Attack in Tokyo, 1995

In 1995 a sarin gas attack was perpetrated on civilians in the Tokyo subway by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo ("Supreme Truth"), led by Shoko Asahara. The Aum cult, a religiously motivated apocalyptic terrorist group, spent the late 1980s and early 1990s experimenting with various warfare agents, seeking out chemical weapon components and other WMD from various states. In one instance they attempted to buy a MIG-29, one of the Soviet Union's most advanced fighter aircraft, and a nuclear warhead from Russia. They succeeded in buying a large Russian military helicopter. They also tested anthrax on sheep in Australia.

Sarin, in terms of its symptoms, is in a class with two other deadly nerve agents, soman and tabun. Symptoms of exposure to these chemicals include reduced vision, diar-rhea, vomiting, paralysis, and respiratory failure (asphyxiation). Those sufficiently exposed can lapse into a coma and die. With sarin, doses that are potentially life threatening may be only slightly larger than those producing the least effects. Symptoms of overexposure occur within minutes or hours and include constriction of pupils (miosis), visual effects, headaches, runny nose and nasal congestion, salivation, chest tightness, nausea, vomiting, giddiness, anxiety, difficulty in thinking, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, muscle twitches, tremors, weakness, abdominal and thoracic cramps, diarrhea, and involuntary elimination. Severe exposure can cause convulsions, asphyxiation, and death.

During the morning rush hour on March 20, 1995, Aum Shinrikyo cult members carried bags of sarin onto five separate trains in the Tokyo subway system. They punctured the sarin-filled bags with the tip of a specially sharpened umbrella, then disembarked at the next stop. The five packages leaked onto the floor of the trains, and the sarin fumes began spreading almost immediately. Soon, many passengers were coughing and feeling nauseated. As the trains reached their next stops, some passengers collapsed on the platforms and others ran for the station exits. Within a few hours, twelve commuters were dead and 5,500 others were injured to varying degrees, some permanently.

In 2000 Toru Toyoda and Kenichi Hirose, two of the perpetrators of the attack, were sentenced to death by hanging. Another, Shigeo Sugimoto, was sentenced to life imprisonment. All three claimed that they had been brainwashed by the cult. By 2004 a total of thirteen cult members had been sentenced to death for their roles in the subway attack, though none had yet been executed.


Certain biological organisms and toxins have been developed as weapons that can be used against humans, livestock, and crops. Biological weapons are different from their chemical counterparts because they use living organisms or their products—viruses, bacteria, or toxins—such as ricin (which is derived from the castor bean) or mycotoxin (which is produced by fungi). Biological weapons attack a target by causing a deadly disease via inhalation, injection, ingestion, or entry through the skin into the body. They can be delivered through a variety of means, including bombs, warheads, sprayers, and individual delivery. Figure 3.2 shows the nations possessing or suspected of developing biological weapons as of 2004.

Depending on the agent, the incubation period for biological agents, or the time span between exposure and the first appearance of symptoms, can vary from a few hours to weeks. When it comes to weaponizing biological agents, certain characteristics make some organisms more ideal than others. These include the agent's ability to reliably infect, its contagiousness (whether or not it will spread easily from one person to another), stability, incubation time, ease of transportation, resistance to common antibiotics, and virulence (lethality). Weaponizing biological agents can be difficult because it is important to keep the pathogen alive and virulent through the delivery process and to make sure that the size of the agent is just right for optimum delivery.

Common Classes of Biological Weapons Agents

bacteria. Bacteria are single-celled organisms that can vary in lethality. Common bacteria used in biological weapons include Bacillus anthracis (causes anthrax), Vibrio cholerae (causes cholera), Yersina pestis (plague bacteria), and Francisella tularensis (causes tularemia). The bacterial incubation period is usually a few days.

rickettsiae. Named after Howard Taylor Ricketts, the American pathologist who first identified them, rick-ettsial organisms are similar to bacteria, except that they exist within the intracellular environment and reproduce only in animal tissue. Rocky Mountain fever, Q fever, and typhus are all diseases caused by rickettsiae.

viruses. Small in comparison with bacteria, viruses are also intracellular parasites and can affect plants and animals alike. Some diseases caused by viruses include smallpox, encephalitis, Ebola, yellow fever, lassa fever, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis.

toxins. Toxins differ from the other classes in that they are poisons produced by living organisms rather than living organisms themselves. Toxins may be proteins or nonproteinacious in nature, and they act by disrupting nerve impulse transmissions or blocking protein synthesis. Examples of toxins include Clostridium botulinum (causes botulism), found on poorly preserved food; Ricinus communis (ricin), found in the castor bean seed; and saxitoxin, found in certain shellfish.


Nuclear and other radiological (radioactive) weapons are some of humankind's deadliest creations. In August 1945 two atomic bombs were detonated in Japan by the United States. These bombs were a product of the top-secret Manhattan Project, which cost the U.S. government approximately $2 billion. The attack devastated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing about seventy thousand and forty thousand fatalities, respectively. The bombs destroyed everything except concrete-reinforced buildings in a mile-wide area below the blast point (ground zero), which was 1,800 feet in the air. Casualties from the immediate blasts were relatively small. Most victims were killed in subsequent fires caused by the tremendous heat from the blast, estimated at several million degrees. Blast winds from the explosions destroyed buildings several miles away. More than 150,000 people were injured by the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The after-effects of the nuclear radiation, such as radiation-induced cancer, persisted for decades. Today nuclear technology, which is much cheaper and easier to acquire than it was in 1945, poses one of the gravest international threats.

A nuclear reaction results from atomic fission or fusion, with the former being easier to accomplish in a weapons production process. When the atom of a material is bombarded by neutrons it is broken into two roughly equal fragments which releases energy. This process is called "fission," and the substances that are manipulated to release energy through fission are called "fissile materials." In a nuclear chain reaction, the minimum amount of fissile material required to sustain the reaction is called "critical mass." When additional material is added to the reaction, it results in the creation of a supercritical state


(one in which the rate of the reaction constantly increases), where the mass rapidly expands because of the intense heat and pressure. The critical mass of a particular nuclear device depends on the type of fissile material used, its density, and the design of the weapon.

Fission weapons can be delivered in a number of ways, including bombs, several different types of missiles, and other dispersal devices. Most nuclear devices are either implosion-type weapons (those that burst inward) or gun-type assemblies (those that propel outward), and the most typical fissile materials used are plutonium and highly enriched uranium. Other fissile isotopes, such as cesium and cobalt, can also create significant damage as radiological weapons. The blast effects of a nuclear bomb are similar to those of a conventional bomb, but the results are far more deadly because of the high temperatures caused by an atomic explosion and because of the nuclear radiation that follows.


The illicit trafficking of nuclear and fissile material was a grave U.S. national security threat in the early and mid-1990s. In the aftermath of the Soviet breakup, the amount of this trafficking increased dramatically. Major factors contributing to this problem were political and economic crises in the newly independent states and inadequate security and inventory systems at former Soviet nuclear facilities, especially the civilian ones used for energy production. Budget cuts severely reduced salaries for many scientific and security personnel, which increased incentives for such "insiders" to trade matériel for money.

From 1992 to 1994 seven cases were reported involving weapons-usable fissile materials, which are often referred to as "the seven significant cases." These cases are considered significant because of the quantity and/or quality of the materials involved. The last of the cases involved the seizure of 2.7 kilograms (six pounds) of highly enriched uranium in Prague on December 14, 1994. The uranium confiscated in Prague can be traced to a large criminal network, members of which are also linked to a seizure of highly enriched uranium in Landshut, Germany, in July 1994 and a seizure of plutonium-239 in Munich, Germany, in August 1994. Evidence suggests that the materials in all three of these cases originated at the Institute for Physics and Power Engineering (IPPE) in Obninsk, Russia, although Russian authorities continue to deny that the material came from Obninsk.

Although many gaps and uncertainties remain, certain conclusions may be drawn from the events that followed the seizure of the uranium in Prague. All the suspects indicted were middlemen—no buyer or supplier was ever arrested or even identified. The IPPE is an important research facility in the Russian Federation, and it is hard to imagine that such a sizable amount of uranium was diverted or stolen by a novice, or even by a single person. If the uranium did come from IPPE, it suggests the presence of an elaborate network of smugglers.

Cases such as this focused the world's attention on the urgent need to improve security inventory procedures in Russia and other republics of the former Soviet Union. According to the Russian-language newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti, at the time of the Prague incident, IPPE desperately lacked adequate security and systems of registering, controlling, and physically protecting nuclear materials.

The U.S. and Russian governments jointly initiated the Materials Protection, Control, and Accounting Program (MPCA) with nuclear facilities of the former Soviet Union in 1995. The IPPE was one of the first pilot facilities for the program. Under the auspices of the MPCA, U.S. laboratories cooperated with Russian facilities to introduce advanced material protection and accounting systems. These included developing computerized materials inventory and accounting databases, training Russian specialists, and implementing video monitoring systems and portal monitors. To guard against nuclear theft, portal monitors are placed in such facilities as uranium enrichment plants, weapons manufacturing and storage plants, nuclear laboratories, and nuclear waste disposal sites. They scan vehicular or human traffic and sound an alarm if they detect radioactivity. The project was successful in securing tons of fissile materials, and by March 1996 the program had received more funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and a new computerized MPCA system was established at IPPE. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration pushed to accelerate the MCPA timeline, moving forward the date for securing all weapons-usable nuclear material to 2008 from a projected 2010 (Nuclear Threat Initiative Web site, The 2004 budget for the MCPA was $227 million.

Since 1995 no thefts or diversions of significant quantities of weapons-grade fissile material have been confirmed. Less clear, however, is whether this change is permanent, or merely a hiatus. Some nonproliferation experts believe that lack of demand, increased awareness, and international assistance to the newly independent states have all contributed to this ebb in the flow of smuggled nuclear substances. On the other hand, the international intelligence community's failure to share information and the increasing sophistication of nuclear smugglers may have merely created the false impression that nuclear thefts and diversions no longer occur.


An international treaty is usually negotiated between two (bilateral) or more (multilateral) states and typically enumerates the rights and duties each party has in reference to the issue being addressed. They are usually signed by the legitimate ruling administration of a sovereign state, but signing the treaty is not usually the last step taken in its approval; it also needs to be ratified in order for it to take effect. In the United States, treaty ratification requires the approval of two-thirds of the U.S. Senate. When the parties have achieved ratification, a treaty comes into effect.

International biological, chemical, nuclear, and missile capabilities are covered under several treaties and agreements, including the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), among others. In addition, treaties declaring certain territories to be either entirely weapons-free—such as the Antarctic—or nuclear weapons-free—such as the Caribbean and Africa—are also in effect.

The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)

The BTWC, which prohibits the development, production, and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons, was opened for signature in 1972. As of 2004 it had 167 signatories, 151 of which had ratified the treaty. Its biggest drawback is the lack of an overarching monitoring or verification body to ensure that parties abide by the treaty. This shortcoming was especially evident when President Boris Yeltsin of Russia announced in 1992 that the former Soviet Union had aggressively pursued an offensive biological capability despite having signed the BTWC. So far, all negotiations for the proposed verification system have proved fruitless, especially since it would apply only to those states that ratify the protocol. The result would be two tiers of states, those subject to verification procedures and those that would be exempt. Also, there is no single way to distinguish which biological facilities fall under the BTWC. It must be noted, however, that unlike the NPT or the MTCR, the BTWC is nondiscriminatory—all parties involved are subject to the same procedures.

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)

The CWC was developed and opened for signature in 1993; as of 2004 it had 164 member states. The CWC has intrusive and strict measures. It calls for the prohibition of the development, production, stockpiling, and retention of chemical weapons. It also discourages states from assisting or inducing other parties to develop such capabilities. The organization responsible for overseeing the CWC is the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), based in The Hague, Netherlands. The OPCW conducts routine inspections as well as challenges inspections of facilities believed to be violating the CWC. Its September 2004 status report indicated that a total of 1,800 inspections in sixty-five countries had been conducted from 1997 to 2004.

The Australia Group

In addition to the BTWC and the CWC, an informal group of thirty-eight countries and the European Commission came together in 1985 in response to the use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war and formed the Australia Group. These states created a list of materials that could potentially be used to develop biological and/or chemical weapons and restricted exports of these materials to known or suspected states of proliferation concern.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty entered into force in 1970 and as of 2004 had 189 member states. The NPT is a two-tiered agreement, which means there are separate obligations for nuclear weapons states (including the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, China, and France) and nonnuclear weapons states. The nuclear weapons states are required not to transfer any weapons capabilities to nonnuclear weapons states and to work on eventual disarmament. Meanwhile, the nonnuclear weapons states resolve not to develop nuclear capabilities, in return for technological assistance (in the energy sector) from nuclear weapons states. The NPT has an escape clause that allows a country to withdraw upon three months' notice. To date, the only states of concern that have refused to sign the NPT are India, Pakistan, and Israel; North Korea, which signed the NPT in 1985, announced in January 2003 that it intended to withdraw from the treaty.

The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)

The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is a group of forty nuclear supplier countries that seeks to ensure that the international trade in nuclear items for peaceful purposes does not contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The group's guidelines for trade cover a range of nuclear materials and technology relating to nuclear reactors and the equipment needed to operate them. The NSG helps member countries engage in peaceful nuclear cooperation while meeting existing international nuclear nonproliferation agreements.

The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)

Unlike the NPT, the MTCR is not a formal treaty; however, it is by far the most effective regime that addresses the proliferation of missile technology. Formed in 1987, the MTCR is a group of thirty-four states that aim to limit or prohibit transfer of missile and dual-use nuclear/missile capabilities. In 1993 the MTCR extended its guidelines on export controls and restrictions to cover missiles with biological and chemical capabilities.

The Treaty on the Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies

The Treaty on the Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, also called the Outer Space Treaty, was signed January 27, 1967, and has 127 parties, although it was negotiated predominantly by the United States and Soviet Union. Its intent is to limit the militarization of the moon, outer space, and celestial bodies. The treaty requires that countries use celestial bodies for peaceful purposes only—not for any military bases, fortifications, or weapons testing.

The Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union on the Limitation of Antiballistic Missile Systems (ABM Treaty)

The Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union on the Limitation of Antiballistic Missile Systems, also called the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, was signed May 26, 1972, and had only two parties: the United States and the Soviet Union (whose obligations were later assumed by the Russian Federation). It prohibited deployment of an antiballistic missile (ABM) system, or one designed to counter missiles in flight, for the defense of territory or the building of bases for such a defense. In December 2001 President George W. Bush formally notified Russia of his intention to pull out of the ABM treaty by the following June. On June 13, 2002, he explained, "With the Treaty now behind us, our task is to develop and deploy effective defenses against limited missile attacks. As the events of September 11 made clear, we no longer live in the Cold War world for which the ABM Treaty was designed. We now face new threats from terrorists who seek to destroy our civilization by any means available to rogue states armed with weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles. Defending the American people against these threats is my highest priority as Commander-in-Chief."

The Interim Agreement between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on Certain Measures with Respect to the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (SALT I)

The Interim Agreement between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on Certain Measures with Respect to the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, also called the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty I (SALT I), was signed May 26, 1972, and included as parties the United States and the Soviet Union. This agreement, like the ABM treaty, arose from the first series of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), which ran from November 1969 through May 1972. The United States and the Soviet Union agreed in this treaty not to build any more intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the largest and most powerful type of nuclear missiles. An increase in the number of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) was allowed to each side if an equal number of land-based launchers were destroyed.

The Treaty between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (SALT II)

The Treaty between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, also called the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty II (SALT II), was signed June 18, 1979, by the United States and the Soviet Union. It was negotiated as a result of the SALT II talks, which ran from 1972 to 1979, and set limits on the number of ballistic missiles and their launchers. Each country was limited to 2,250 launchers plus 1,320 launchers for multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVed) missiles. A MIRVed missile is a nuclear delivery vehicle capable of carrying more than one warhead, where each warhead can be independently targeted toward different objectives. Newer ICBMs and air-to-surface ballistic missiles (ASBMs) were limited to ten warheads per missile, while SLBMs were allowed fourteen warheads per missile. Also under this treaty, space-based weapons were prohibited.

A protocol (a less formal agreement than a treaty) lasting two years was also signed at the same time as the treaty, and called for a prohibition on the deployment of air-launched ballistic missiles, mobile ICBMs, ground-launched cruise missiles, and sea-launched cruise missiles with a range of over six hundred kilometers (373 miles).

Although President Jimmy Carter submitted the treaty for ratification to the U.S. Senate immediately after signing, congressional concerns and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 caused the treaty to be removed from consideration. For that reason, the treaty was never signed and never became a binding legal agreement, although for approximately seven years it had the force of a politically binding agreement. In May 1986 President Ronald Reagan, citing Soviet violations, declared that the United States would no longer honor the SALT II limits. The United States then exceeded those limits in November of that year.

The Treaty between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START I)

The Treaty between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, also called the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I (START I), was signed July 31, 1991, by the United States and the Soviet Union. As of 2004 the following states of the former Soviet Union have agreed to the treaty limitations: Belarus, Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine. The point of START I was to reduce the numbers of U.S. and Soviet strategic offensive arms, including ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers, and to limit the number of nuclear warheads for each party to six thousand. The parties agreed to limits of 4,900 warheads on deployed ballistic missiles and 1,100 on deployed mobile ICBMs. The treaty also limited the former Soviet Union to only 154 deployed heavy ICBMs, versus the 308 that were in place before the treaty (with each allegedly carrying ten warheads). The parties agreed to exchange telemetric information, or data radioed from the missiles themselves, from all test flights of ICBMs and SLBMs and to exchange the equipment necessary to interpret these data.

Compliance with the START limits is achieved through verification measures. Verification is an obstacle to the ratification of many arms control agreements because it is inherently intrusive and is often used as an excuse by politicians not to reach an arms control agreement. Verification includes both verification itself and monitoring. Monitoring involves intelligence gathering, analyses, and data exchanges. Verification is more of a legal formality and a policy process that either supports or questions the conclusions reached through monitoring. For START signatories, the chief body assigned to monitor compliance is the Joint Compliance and Inspection Commission, which has met in Geneva, Switzerland, since 1991.

The Russian Federation succeeded the Soviet Union as a party to the treaty after the latter's breakup, but many strategic offensive arms had been located in the former Soviet states of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Consequently, a protocol was signed in Lisbon, Portugal, on May 23, 1992, making START I a multiparty treaty of five nations (the United States, the Russian Federation, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine) instead of a bilateral treaty exclusively with the United States and the Russian Federation.

The Treaty on Open Skies

The Treaty on Open Skies, signed March 24, 1992, in Helsinki, Finland, is composed of members of NATO and the former Warsaw Pact. The thirty participating states have the right to conduct, and the obligation to receive, overhead flights by unarmed observation aircraft, excluding helicopters. These aircraft are authorized to carry certain accessories such as cameras—panoramic, still-frame, and video—and infrared scanning devices. Host nations may require that a host aircraft be used during the flight; this is known as the "taxi option." Otherwise, the inspecting party provides the aircraft used in the flight. All aircraft and sensor suites, prior to use, must undergo certification inspections. Negotiated annual quotas limit the number of flights each country can conduct and must receive. Each country must accept as many flights as it is allowed to conduct. Countries with larger landmasses are allotted larger quotas. For example, in 2004 the U.S. and Russian quota was forty-two flights per year whereas Portugal had only two. Data from any such flight may be acquired by any state.

The Treaty between the United States and the Russian Federation on Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START II)

The Treaty between the United States and the Russian Federation on Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, also called the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II (START II), was signed January 3, 1993, by the United States President George H. W. Bush and the Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin. The objectives of the START II treaty were the elimination of all MIRVed ICBMs (missiles carrying multiple warheads) and a significant reduction in SLBMs. START II took nearly all of its definitions, procedures, and compliance schemes from START I. Each party agreed to decrease its deployed strategic weapons to 3,000–3,500 warheads by 2003. Bombers, such as the B-2, were to be held up to more scrutiny. B-2s must be exhibited and inspection-ready and could no longer test with long-range nuclear air launched cruise missiles (ALCMs).

The Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and Other Measures

Proposed in May 2003 by President George W. Bush, the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) is an agreement concerning specific steps to follow to prevent shipments of WMD, their delivery systems, and related equipment and materials. The PSI is not a formal treaty but rather a partnership between participating countries. It calls for joint training exercises and the development of common activities designed to stop, search, and seize WMD shipments, especially in international waters. In February 2004 President Bush called for the PSI to be expanded beyond seizing WMD shipments in transit. He called for partner countries to work together to identify and break up the criminal networks that traffic in such weapons.

In September 2003 President Bush called upon the UN to pass a resolution requiring all states to criminalize proliferation, enact strict export controls, and secure sensitive materials within their borders. In April 2004 the UN Security Council did just that, adopting Resolution 1540, a measure concerning the spread of WMD. It decided that "all States shall refrain from providing any form of support to non-State actors that attempt to develop, acquire, manufacture, possess, transport, transfer or use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and their means of delivery." The resolution also calls for states to criminalize the creation or possession of WMD by nonstate actors and to "take and enforce effective measures to establish domestic controls" of WMD.

The Future of WMD Arms Control

On May 24, 2002, President Bush and Russian president Vladimir Putin signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which calls for each country to deploy no more than 1,700 to 2,200 strategic warheads by December 31, 2012. At the time, the U.S. reduction plan specified the retirement of all fifty of its ten-warhead Peacekeeper ICBMs and the conversion of four Trident submarines from strategic (carrying nuclear warheads) to conventional service. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty in March 2003, and the State Duma (the lower house of Russia's legislature), approved it the following May.

In November 2002 the International Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation went into effect. By January 2004, 111 countries had signed the agreement. It is intended to supplement, not supplant, the earlier Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and focuses in particular on efforts to prevent the spread of ballistic missiles.