Global Security: Non-Proliferation - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Submission from Dr Brian F G Jones

The Case for Challenging Convention


  1.  The National Security Strategy generally reflects that one of the consequences of the end of the Cold War was to re-order the significance of the various security risks to which the British government should respond. From shortly after World War II until 1990, the perceived threat to the freedom and democracy of our nation[6] from the Soviet Union dominated all other potential challenges. Since 1990 non-military risks of a different kind have assumed greater relative significance. Although the government draws attention to these changes it is not clear that its reaction across the broad range of potential threats is yet as "joined-up" as it might be.

  2.  With regard to physical (military-like) challenges from other nations or entities two other events have occurred since the demise of the Soviet Union that seriously alter the context in which we need to consider any potential threat from WMD.

  3.  First, as the National Security Strategy identifies, the rise of international terrorism, culminating in the suicidal mass casualty[7] attack on America on 11 September 2001, has added new dimensions to the security problem. Whilst the attacks in London on 7 July 2005, and the attempted attacks two weeks later which failed, did not have the same overtones of mass destruction, they highlighted yet another dimension to Britain's security concerns—the links that exist between a very small but significant elements of our indigenous population with Islamic terrorist organisations, and the sympathy which exists in a larger, but still small, element of that ethnic minority for the perceived grievances expressed by al Qaida (AQ). The significance here is that AQ has demonstrated it can achieve its declared intention to execute mass casualty attacks against the west, that it has identified WMD as one important means of achieving this, and that it has actively pursued, and is probably still pursuing, the acquisition of the capability to do so.

  4.  Some argue that non-state actors are unlikely to master the complexities of developing a significant WMD capability and that the risk of a mass casualty attack is low. Even if this judgement proves to be valid in the long term, the uncertainty about it in the shorter term introduces a significant additional security concern. Perhaps the highest risk is associated with the deniable covert use of biological warfare agent by a state which has used its resources to develop an effective weapon. The potential threat from non-state actors make the attribution of any such attack more difficult.

  5.  Second, although ignored in the National Security Strategy, the false assertions about the status of Iraq's WMD capabilities that were used to justify the war in 2003 has challenged confidence that the compliance of states with their international obligations relating to these weapons can be reliably monitored. It is an important omission.

  6.  Further, there is a tendency to treat the three types of weapon—nuclear, biological, chemical—that make up WMD as a single entity. In reality they are very different and present individually and collectively a range of challenges to our security that appear not to be recognised in the National Security Strategy.

  7.  There is a strong case for a fuller evaluation of the challenge to the national security and the national interest than appears to underpin the National Security Strategy with respect to WMD. Whilst attempts to limit the proliferation of WMD remain important and should continue to be a short term policy goal, the broader approach should give greater recognition to the relationship between WMD policy and the other significant non-military risks to Britain's security that are separately acknowledged in the National Security Strategy. In other words WMD policy should acquire a more pragmatic dimension in recognition of the other security issues, and the likelihood of further WMD proliferation in the future.[8] The following paper provides background and argument on these points.


  8.  The new challenge presented by WMD is but one of a number which are rooted, not so much in the latest scientific and technological advances, but more in the increasing availability of established capabilities across a multitude of disciplines. Detailed consideration of the other challenges, which are listed in the National Security Strategy, is beyond the scope of this paper but I must consider some in outline to provide context and comparison to facilitate decisions on priorities in policy. The devotion of academic, diplomatic, military, and political resource to prevent national destruction by WMD will be of little consequence if other more urgent security problems, capable of the same effects, are neglected in the process. The National Security Strategy offers little indication of the priorities which the government attaches to the various security challenges.

  9.  Foremost among the other challenges identified in the National Security Strategy is the strong possibility that man is contributing to irreversible changes in the climate that are dangerous. Another is the potential for disease pandemics to ravage humanity, whether the micro-organisms that cause them develop naturally or arise accidentally due to shifts in the behaviour or location of populations. Shortages of food and water or energy, however brought about, are a potential source of instability which could trigger chain reactions of conflict and suffering. And, as recent events have shown, increasing inter-connectivity represents a national vulnerability to events in the global market place, that has a technical dimension the failure of which could have the most serious of consequences. It is perhaps the disproportionate impact of these changes on some transnational, national, or intra-national groupings of people that will highlight inequalities that could lead on to conflict.

  10.  There is little doubt that an acceleration in what we now call "globalization" has brought many of these challenges to our door at this time. The easing of the brake that the cold war exerted on global integration has contributed to a rapid growth in international civil trade, transport, migration, and the communication by electronic means of messages about ideas, concepts, plans, capabilities, and technologies. In the main, the problems that arise from this share a common characteristic—they can be addressed effectively only by the collaborative effort of many nations.

  11.  With regard specifically to the risks of aggressive acts that generate mass destruction, although events have demonstrated that there are alternatives, WMD remain the most potent means by which a nation or group could achieve such a thing. But the government provides no indication that it has questioned whether the traditional approach to preventing the proliferation of WMD remains compatible with the efforts to reduce tension or resolve conflict which it rightly regards as essential, or examined whether alternative strategies are now appropriate.


  12.  It is as well to remind ourselves of the differences between the weapons embraced by the term WMD.[9] I offer no apology for revisiting what may be familiar ground because there is little doubt that the failure to understand these differences can lead to a seriously flawed approach to their control.[10] There is nothing in the National Security Strategy to suggest that its authors have understood the importance of these differences or considered the implications of the possession of more than one type of WMD. It is disappointing to note that the government bases its strategy for dealing with WMD almost entirely on the potential nuclear weapons threat. Whilst I believe nuclear weapons to be of vital importance, the focus on their unique properties should not be allowed to exclude detailed consideration of the other WMD and their very different properties and concepts of use. This is particularly important for biological weapons. Neither should the three main WMD systems—nuclear, biological, chemical—be treated only in their individual compartments. The overall concept of WMD use, and hence the strategy for defence, could be significantly modified by the possession of more than one system.


  13.  Nuclear weapons are generally taken to be relatively small devices that cause enormous explosions which almost instantly destroy and kill most things that happen to be within a mile or so of where they are detonated. The more sophisticated the design, the smaller (and hence more easily hidden and transported) the device can be to achieve a given explosive power. There is little that can be done to protect people within the primary zone (and this is in contrast with biological and chemical weapons where it is possible to protect people at least to some extent). There are additional complications with nuclear weapons caused by the release of radioactive material that can generate very wide area effects and, in the medium and long term, greatly magnify the immediate impact. However, the overall effect of a single device would be unlikely to exceed that of a number of occasional natural catastrophic events (earth quakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, disease pandemics such as Spanish "flu") which mankind has repeatedly demonstrated the capacity to absorb, and the resilience to recover from.

  14.  A national nuclear weapons capability large enough to threaten our national security would have to be mature and comprise tens or hundreds of weapons. This would require many experts and a large dedicated infrastructure, even if the weapons were supplied by another nation. It would be difficult to hide such a mature or maturing programme from a competent national intelligence organization. A full nuclear test would not be an essential precursor to having confidence in a fission weapon capability, but once acquired there is probably little advantage for a nation to keep its nuclear weapons capability secret, deterrence generally being its most valuable property. This means that under most circumstances a stockpile of nuclear weapons for rapid availability, or the components of the weapons for rapid assembly, would define a true nuclear weapons capability.

  15.  It would be very difficult, but not impossible, for terrorists to acquire one or a very limited number of nuclear weapons. They would probably need the witting or unwitting assistance of a nuclear capable nation to do so. It would be more difficult for intelligence to detect such activities with a high degree of reliability.


  16.  Biological weapons work by infecting their victims with diseases. There are many different biological warfare (BW) agents (diseases) which can be spread (by "weapons") in a number of quite different ways.[11] Biological weapons do not flatten buildings or other structures. If an explosion is part of the operation of a biological weapon its sole function is to release and/ or disperse BW agent. Some, but not all, BW agents can kill humans. A few kilograms of the more lethal BW agents have the potential to kill as many or more people than a single large nuclear explosion, the device for their delivery would be much lighter and less bulky.

  17.  It is possible to protect people from BW agents by providing masks, respirators and possibly other protective clothing but some advance warning of the presence of agent would be necessary for this. Vaccines against some agents are available to provide almost continuous protection from infection, and some medical treatments can arrest the development of disease if applied soon enough after exposure. But some foreknowledge of the exact nature of the agent likely to be used and, for timely treatment, a means of detecting its release in an attack are essential requirements. All protection options are expensive and potentially disruptive of normal life. Some elements of protection themselves carry risks and have the potential to cause incidental deaths. It would be highly optimistic to expect any protective regime to be completely effective.

  18.  Those few kilograms of BW agent mentioned above can be made by a nation or knowledgeable terrorists within days with dual-purpose equipment in a very small facility by one or two experts. Relatively simple devices can be made to spread the agent, for example by spraying. It would not be difficult to conceal such a programme and capability, even from the best intelligence organizations. However, large scale field testing to ultimately validate the effectiveness of the systems involved would be highly desirable in a military programme and this would be more vulnerable to detection. The biological weapon produced would be much easier to conceal and transport than a nuclear weapon.

  19.  It takes many hours, or more usually a few days, for people exposed to a BW agent to develop symptoms, become ill and die. Because of this, such weapons are of limited use in conventional military scenarios or on the battlefield. This means that for many concepts of use, which tend to the covert and pre-emptive,[12] the accumulation of a stockpile of weapons for a rapid response is not a pre-requisite of an offensive BW capability. The maintenance of secrecy about possessing a capability would be advantageous to maximize surprise, and perhaps assist denial of use.

  20.  It would not be difficult, but neither would it be easy, for terrorists to produce or acquire lethal BW agent and to improvise a way of spreading it efficiently enough to cause many thousands, even tens of thousands, of deaths.[13] Failed early attempts at operations are not so significant for terrorists because they tend to learn by practice and while the assistance of a nation with an offensive BW capability would help in the learning process it would not be an essential requirement.


  21.  Chemical weapons work by poisoning, blistering or asphyxiating their victims. There are many chemical compounds that have potential as chemical warfare (CW) agents and their effects and properties vary widely. They do not damage structures. Many produce an effect within seconds, minutes or hours. But small amounts, or a few weapons, even of the most lethal CW agents do not have the potential to produce nearly as many deaths as is the case for nuclear or biological weapons. They are by far the least "destructive" of the classes of weapon we place in the category of WMD. Perhaps they should not be there at all, because such large quantities of agent and hundreds of bombs or warheads would be needed to cause the same level of "destruction" as a single nuclear or biological weapon.

  22.  It is possible to protect people against CW agents in much the same way as for BW agents. The same requirements and limitations apply.

  23.  A few kilograms of CW agent can be made by a nation or knowledgeable terrorists within days with dual-purpose equipment in a very small facility by one or two experts. But such quantities would not be of great value to an offensive national military programme, and would not have the same potential impact for the terrorist as an equivalent amount of BW agent. But the modification of large legitimate chemical plant to provide a stand-by capability for the production of CW agent in time of crisis would provide a degree of disguise which would not be possible for nuclear weapons. Similar, relatively simple devices can be made to spread the agent, for example by spraying, but they would be less easy for the terrorist to handle and transport. Military programmes would tend to use suitably modified munitions such as warheads, bombs and shells. It would not be so easy to conceal a national military offensive CW programme and capability which would require quantities of up to many hundreds or thousands of tons of agent and weapons. Large scale field testing to ultimately validate the effectiveness of the systems involved would be highly desirable in a military programme and this would add to the vulnerability to detection. The chemical weapon produced would be as or more difficult to conceal and transport than a nuclear weapon.

  24.  Those anti-human CW agents which kill or incapacitate relatively quickly or are persistent and contaminate terrain or equipment could be extremely useful on the modern fast-moving battlefield. The maintenance of secrecy about the existence of a capability, or at least the details of it, would reduce the enemy preparedness to deal with it. Although chemical weapons are not ideal as a deterrent (because a single or a few weapons will not kill large numbers) there may be circumstances where they could provide a degree of deterrence against even a nuclear capable enemy. In this case there would be an advantage to advertising its existence in a general way but without revealing any detail.

  25.  Terrorists would have no greater difficulty in producing some CW agents than some BW agents, but the most lethal ones would be more difficult to produce and handle than BW agents with much greater potency. This is even the case for terrorists willing to take great personal risks or sacrifice their lives because the much greater speed of action of CW agent could compromise an attack if the participants were accidentally exposed.


  26.  Why not "Disarmament"?

  27.  The term "non-proliferation" is used to accommodate the peculiar circumstances relating to nuclear weapons and the nuclear weapon states (NWS).[14] The states that already have nuclear weapons are reluctant to relinquish them and the political and military advantages that possession gives them. Those advantages would be lost or reduced if other states were to acquire nuclear weapons. "Disarmament" might be OK for biological and chemical weapons, but not for nuclear. The result is "non-proliferation" rather than "disarmament."

  28.  There is a significant disadvantage in choosing the term non-proliferation rather than disarmament as pursuing it as an ideal is limiting. Leaving aside, for the moment, the differences I have discussed between the three WMDs, and the significance of that with respect to their control, there is a more fundamental question that must be addressed about why we have been trying to prevent the spread of such weapons.

  29.  It is, of course, the potential of WMD, directly or indirectly, to kill or maim very large numbers of people using only a few individual weapons that singles them out for special attention.[15] However, in the limit it is the relationship between peoples rather than the existence of the weapons that is the more fundamental factor. Persuading one nation to accept a lesser state of military capability than other nations is ultimately about instilling a confidence in them that they can trust the others not to exploit their weakness. Any threat to penalize them simply for seeking parity with more powerful nations, even by asymmetric means, is hardly likely to boost such confidence. In a general way, the National Security Strategy recognises the importance of gaining the confidence of states it wishes to influence, but it is not clear how it squares this requirement with some of the more aggressive policies it has pursued (Iraq) and continues to threaten (Iran) in relation to non-proliferation.

  30.  It is important to consider the extent to which the pursuit of non-proliferation and its enforcement is compatible with the development of tolerant, respectful and trusting international relationships. That it should be compatible is a vitally important pre-requisite to dealing with any more urgent challenges facing the national security.

  31.  The National Security Strategy recognises how globalization has brought with it a weakening of national borders, and that ethnicity, culture and religion are becoming increasingly important factors in governance and security at both the national and international level. This important change of context was brought into focus by the London terrorist attack of 7 July 2005 and it must not elude the thinking about non-proliferation.

  32.  In framing the first international agreement that addressed the issue of WMD arms control in terms of non-proliferation, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), those responsible specified the objective of eventual total disarmament. Perhaps they were being pragmatic in recognizing that, in the depths of the cold war of the late 1960s, that ultimate goal had to be deferred. After the NPT was signed, the two main protagonists, the United States and the Soviet Union, with fluctuating degrees of enthusiasm, continued to give the impression at least of trying to pursue the higher principle of total elimination. However, overriding these efforts is the fact that sixty years on from the arrival of nuclear weapons, and forty on from the NPT, no significant progress has been made by the NWS towards elimination.

  33.  Unfortunately, any opportunity that was offered by the demise of the Soviet Union and the sudden end of the Cold War was swept away in the deluge of largely unanticipated social, economic and political changes that quickly ensued. Western capitalism, which was expected to replace the failed socialist experiment, showed itself unsympathetic to the problems created by the changes demanded in cultural attitudes, and the west lacked the generosity of spirit that was surely in its own long term interest. Russia was left emasculated and impoverished in all but its nuclear capability as the United States and the west sought to exploit the disappearance of a challenging superpower. All of the NWS held on to their nuclear weapons, and latterly the United States and Russia appear to have been further developing aspects of their slightly reduced but still vast arsenals. The layers of mutual distrust proved insoluble and limited progress was achieved before a recovering Russia began to find new ways of flexing its muscles. Although Russia no longer has the ideological attachment to communism and the expansionist philosophy that accompanied it, there is little doubt that it continues to see itself as a separate, embattled society and the possession of nuclear weapons as essential to its security and future economic wellbeing.

  34.  Meanwhile, outside the NPT Israel, India, Pakistan, apartheid South Africa (albeit briefly), and probably North Korea became dissociated members of the nuclear weapons fraternity. South Africa which abandoned its nuclear weapons may well be replaced in the peripheral gang by Iran in the medium term. (The National Security Strategy is probably right to recognise the possibility of a direct nuclear threat to UK re-emerging in the next 50 years.)

  35.  As the Soviet Union collapsed, western intelligence assessments that it possessed extensive secret offensive CW and BW capabilities were confirmed. These revelations somehow added greater substance to the developing picture of chemical and biological weapons proliferation in a number of countries, mainly in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. The impression that WMD non-proliferation efforts were failing was further reinforced in 1998 when India and Pakistan decided to conduct underground nuclear explosions, and publicly proclaim their success, despite pressure from the west to refrain from doing so.


  36.  Another lesson for the new millennium has been that those who do not have weapons of mass destruction will find alternative means to achieve the goal of killing large numbers of people. AQ has shown that a non-state actor has the capability to terrorize even the most powerful nation in the world despite geographical remoteness. In 2001, the fundamental Islamic organization AQ, based in Afghanistan, supported a group that achieved the near simultaneous flight of a number of commercial aircraft into the large, densely populated World Trade Center buildings in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington DC.

  37.  Whilst this act of terror was a powerful reminder that there is more to worry about than WMD, the events in the United States of the following weeks showed that it remained essential to include the potential threat from such weapons in any rationale for tackling international, mass casualty terrorism. The anthrax attacks that affected various parts of the Eastern Seaboard in the autumn of 2001 were limited in the scale of resulting casualties, but caused enormous and costly disruption as well as demonstrating that a lethal biological agent of a quality suitable for a weapon was within the reach of non-state actors. An additional lesson has been about the difficulty of attribution of attacks of this sort.[16] Whether the objective of that individual or group was to cause random mass casualties is not clear (23 people contracted anthrax and five died, apparently having inhaled spores). The methodology of the attack itself was crude and poorly executed with a false start alerting authorities before a second attack was conducted. However, the potential for the achievement of much greater damage was clearly demonstrated and advertised on a global scale.

  38.  Although the AQ attacks on the United States in 2001 came as a bolt from the blue to many, there had been hints that this might be the future, first in a truck-bomb attack on the same World Trade Center in 1993, and then by Aum Shinrykio's[17] partially successful nerve gas attacks in Japan in 1994 and 1995. Throughout the 1990s intelligence agencies accumulated evidence of the intention of AQ to acquire the means of conducting mass casualty attacks on western targets and of its interest in WMD. But the political reaction was muted, partly because of the non-specific nature of the intelligence, and partly because there was resistance to the notion of the existence of a new (suicidal) form of international terrorism unconstrained by local political considerations, and which could not be deterred by traditional means.


  39.  If the terrorist attacks on America on September 11, 2001 illuminated one facet of the evolving problem, the background of the fractious relationship between the west and Iraq that had existed since shortly before the first Gulf War in 1991 was another. Iraq has been a complicating factor in redefining the non-proliferation challenge since that time. Almost two decades and another war on from the first conflict, the wider implications of the Iraq experience in the context of the changed, uni-polar world remain largely unrecognized, undefined or ignored by many. It is not acknowledged as having been an influential factor in the National Security Strategy.

  40.  Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 occurred whilst the dust was still settling on the collapsing Soviet empire. Like many others, a relatively isolated and unworldly Saddam Hussein had not understood the implication of the disappearance of one of the two global superpowers. The latter event had offered the United States a new freedom of action to use its military might in response to a range of perceived threats to its interests. Saddam's invasion of Kuwait threatened the future disruption of the oil supplies from the Middle East that are essential to western economies. The shock for the US-led military coalition of nations licensed by the United Nations to liberate Kuwait was that, at both the political and military level, they encountered a range of novel strategic and operational issues the like of which had not been faced for more than a generation.

  41.  In the wake of their use in the second world war, nuclear weapons had come to dominate strategic military thinking in the old bipolar world. Since the early 1970s little more than lip-service had been paid to biological and chemical weapons by the most senior western policy makers and military commanders. Biological weapons were supposedly constrained by the 1973 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), and, although not yet banned by international agreement, chemical weapons were of doubtful strategic utility. Suddenly, having committed to the liberation of Kuwait, coalition leaders were faced with a combatant that did not have nuclear weapons but had more than just a conventional capability. Iraq possessed chemical weapons and demonstrated at al Faw in 1987-8 that, during the course of its war with Iran, it had learned how to use them effectively on the battlefield. Western intelligence knew much about Iraq's chemical weapons and identified the existence of its offensive biological weapons programme, estimating this had probably matured to the point of possession of an actual military capability, at least with a few agents.

  42.  Ironically, the assessment that Iraq did not have nuclear weapons placed the coalition in a strategic environment that the western nuclear weapons states involved had not thought about. The constraints of the NPT meant that a threat to use nuclear weapons could not be made overtly against a non-nuclear enemy. The coalition possessed no chemical or biological weapons that it could use to counter Iraq's capability in these areas[18] and thus faced the potential problem of undertaking offensive military action against an enemy with markedly superior usable WMD capabilities. Unfortunately, the state of preparedness for the military of the coalition to operate in a chemical and/or biological environment was not well developed and the sudden appreciation of the vulnerability of coalition forces came as a surprise to many.

  43.  In the event, the coalition completed its UN sanctioned mission without Iraq using its chemical or biological weapons. It is not clear whether this was because coalition military action stopped short of directly threatening Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad, or because Iraq feared using them against such a powerful enemy. However, the uncertainty about whether they would be used if Baghdad was threatened had an impact on both sides. Saddam claimed it was his possession of chemical and biological weapons that deterred the coalition from extending its mandate. The coalition were left uncertain as to whether it would have been challenged with such weapons if the advance had threatened Baghdad, and what their impact might have been.

  44.  The upshot was that the ceasefire terms embodied the United Nations Security Council Resolution 687 of 3 April 1991 required Iraq to demonstrate the elimination of its chemical and biological weapons and all its WMD and ballistic missile programs, and subsequently to submit to a regime of continuous monitoring to ensure it did not resurrect them. Suddenly, all the abstract discussions about non-proliferation and the much debated ideas about compliance monitoring were given substance as a specially constituted United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) and the existing International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) accepted the responsibility of judging whether Iraq was fulfilling its obligations.

  45.  Despite a degree of authority and access beyond that which any current international arms control agreement offers, or is likely to offer in the foreseeable future, these two organizations, together with the intelligence agencies of contributing countries, were unable to establish in the seven years to 1998 that Iraq had, to all intents and purposes, abandoned its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs in 1991. The Iraq Survey Group that was established in 2003, after the second war, confidently reported in October 2004 that Iraq had done so, although it did note that essential know-how had been retained, and Saddam had the intention, to quickly re-establish the 1990-91 status of its programmes and capabilities when circumstances allowed.[19]

  46.  It appears that no official body has yet undertaken a comprehensive examination of why it was not possible to generate an accurate picture of the status of the WMD programs in Iraq before inspectors left in 1998. It is highly desirable that this should be done and reflected in future iteration of the National Security Strategy as well as inform future international non-proliferation initiatives.

  47.  Casual observation suggests that at some point before 1998, the IAEA had a high degree of confidence that it understood what the Iraqi nuclear weapons effort had achieved, and was satisfied that the programme had been abandoned. The IAEA clearly believed that the monitoring regime it had established was adequate to ensure that no significant elements of a programme could be reinstated covertly. The judgment of UNSCOM with respect to chemical weapons was that, although Iraq continued to be less than frank about the totality of its achievements in the development of agents and weapons technologies, it did not possess a militarily significant stockpile of either. Nor could it have resurrected a such a stockpile without early detection in the presence of the monitoring regime that was in place.

  48.  It was uncertainty about Iraq's biological warfare programme that most hindered progress towards a resolution of the WMD problem. Intelligence was confident that a BW program had existed, but unsure whether it had advanced to the stage of generating a capability to deliver agent before Iraq admitted it had filled bombs and missile warheads with three BW agents. Iraq denied the existence of even a programme until 1995 and was then unable to provided evidence enough to give UNSCOM confidence that the programme had been dismantled and that the regime had changed its intention to retain or resurrect it. There were three main reasons for this.

  49.  First, there was the inherently more subtle nature of biological weapons programmes and related aspects of BW arms control compared to nuclear and chemical. Biological weapons, by virtue of their greater potency, low cost, ease of production, small size, ease of transport and difficulty of detection, are a much greater challenge to detection by intelligence and inspection. The small quantities of BW agent needed to have large effects, and the ease with which a capability can be concealed probably encouraged Saddam to believe that evidence of a past programme could be denied, and measures to keep elements of it alive concealed, even in the face of intense inspection. The BW inspectors' suspicion that this may have been what was happening prolonged their uncertainty.

  50.  The second factor that undermined UNSCOM's confidence in Iraq's BW declarations was the related decision of Iraq to undertake unilaterally the destruction of the few weapons it had produced and most of its biological weapons infrastructure, before it could be discovered. This decision had the additional effect of obscuring whether the bombs and missile warheads it had produced were sufficiently advanced to achieve efficient dissemination of viable agent.

  51.   And third, there was the lack of a plausible explanation from Iraq of its rationale for various aspects of the BW programme that was eventually acknowledged, most specifically regarding the envisaged concepts of use. The biological weapons produced by Iraq appear to have been the result of a crash programme instituted in 1990 and are unlikely to reflect the full scale and scope of the background programme. An examination of the full range of potential agents that were part of that programme suggest that some concepts other than the delivery of agent by bomb and missile were part of the broader thinking.

  52.  In fact, the Iraq experience and the decision by American and British politicians to conflate all three WMD systems—nuclear, chemical and biological weapons—when they were making a case in 2002-3 for the invasion of Iraq, has highlighted the fundamental but often neglected truth about the individual properties of each weapon type and their control from a non-proliferation perspective.

  53.  The problem for those trying to establish the status of Iraq's WMD capability after 1998 was complicated because, rather than estimating the progress in a developing programme, the problem was one of judging the degree of the resurrection of capabilities that had existed but been rolled back earlier in the decade. Previously the inspectors of UNSCOM and the IAEA had struggled to gain confidence that the capabilities they had uncovered would not be regenerated all the more quickly and effectively because of the existence of a reservoir of expertise and experience. (This, in a nutshell, is a major problem that faces those who aspire to a future of total WMD disarmament). One of the many tragedies of the Iraq war is that, by conflating nuclear weapons with chemical and biological ones, embroidering intelligence assessments, ignoring the UN inspectors' appeals for more time, and making WMD the central and ultimately flawed reason for invading Iraq, those who made the case for invasion have undermined the main instruments of arms control: the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention, the Chemical Weapons Convention and even the NPT itself. The effectiveness of such international treaties and conventions were balanced precariously on the belief (and fear) that intelligence will detect and weapons inspectors confirm any significant attempt to cheat. The real situation in Iraq was found to be very different from that claimed by senior intelligence advisers before the war, and weapons inspectors were perceived to be unable to establish the true facts within a reasonable timescale. Confidence in both these processes has been severely shaken if not irrecoverably damaged.


  54.  Tony Blair said that he concluded in the early years of this millennium that global terrorism and weapons of mass destruction represented the main security issues for the 21st century.[20] He and US President Bush both expressed concern that international terrorists would acquire weapons of mass destruction. Few would dispute that these issues represent a major challenge and that non-proliferation efforts in the future must address them.

  55.  As I have argued above, biological weapons are the WMD that are likely to be the most readily available to non-state actors and the least difficult for terrorist groups to employ, albeit at a lower level of efficiency and effect that would be the objective of a national military capability. A forward-looking report in 2000 by the US National Intelligence Council[21] forecast that terrorists were likely to try to use biological agents: "Bioterrorism appears particularly suited to the smaller, better-informed groups. Indeed, the bioterrorist's laboratory could well be the size of a household kitchen, and the weapon built there could be smaller than a toaster." Final production of a weapon by a skilled cell of operatives could take place in the country of intended use, avoiding the need to transport significant and possibly identifiable elements through international border controls. British authorities are clearly conscious of this potential threat because they have intervened when there has been suspicion of related activities, such as the alleged attempt to produce ricin in a Wood Green flat shortly before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the raid on a house in Forest Gate in 2006.

  56.  Some would argue that a substantial and successful biological attack would be beyond the scope of terrorists, citing the limited success of the anthrax attacks in the US in 2001 and the failure of Aum Shinrykio's attempts to develop a lethal anthrax agent in the 1990s. However, the US anthrax attacks demonstrated that a lethal biological agent of a quality suitable for a weapon was within the reach of an individual. It was the dissemination method chosen that lacked precision and efficiency. AQ continues to threaten major attacks against the West and its determination to acquire biological weapons was confirmed by the discovery of a dedicated laboratory near Kandahar in Afghanistan in 2001.

  57.  Tony Blair also observed that the objective of international terrorism is to undermine the power of states by creating an environment of chaos in which national and international institutions will be unable to function. He argued that the struggle must be about retaining and enhancing order in the world so that our civilization can survive and progress. The National Security Strategy recognises that the primacy of nation states is fundamental to the way in which the world is governed and is indeed fundamental to non-proliferation. Strong national governments that can secure their own institutions and oppose and control terrorism within their borders would appear to be a pre-requisite for global order. It is important, therefore, to consider how non-proliferation efforts can contribute to this objective or, at the very least, avoid undermining it.

  58.  Since the Iraq war the west's main thrust in arms control has switched away from WMD in general and focused on nuclear weapons in particular. The countries of primary concern, as identified in the Strategy, have been Iran, North Korea, Pakistan and, to a lesser extent India. There is little positive evidence that previous concerns about the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons have evaporated, but they appear to have been returned to the second division of arms control. In the last year or so, there have been strong calls in the United States and Britain for renewed efforts towards total nuclear disarmament,[22] but there is little evidence of new thinking behind these exhortations. They do not take us beyond the undefined period when non-proliferation remains the limited goal, and there is nothing to suggest a breakthrough is any more likely than in recent decades. It is notable that these calls come most earnestly from the west and from states that possess nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, no constructive alternatives to the status quo have been advanced by other NPT members, or those nuclear weapons states on the fringes.

  59.  The divisive potential of WMD non-proliferation initiatives, especially concerning nuclear weapons, has been well illustrated in recent years. Such divisiveness can only be counter-productive to the solution of the other global threats discussed earlier. Arguably, it also undermines the requirement to establish and maintain a cooperative and collaborative nation based global effort to contain terrorism. The strong pursuit of nuclear non-proliferation, even as a precursor to total nuclear disarmament, also threatens the control of biological weapons and chemical weapons which some nations will see as the next best thing to nuclear. Success in the nuclear non-proliferation realm could well have a negative influence on disarmament efforts for the other WMD and, whilst this may be of lesser concern in the case of chemical weapons, it could have disastrous consequences in relation to biological weapons. If biological weapons are recognized as dangerous in the hands of terrorists who will be operating from a relatively restricted technological, financial and industrial base, how much more dangerous they would be in the hands of nations disaffected by the attempts of other nations to prevent their acquisition of a nuclear deterrent. Indeed, an initial reaction to the anthrax attacks in the United States in 2001, was to suspect that it had been inspired or conducted by Iraq—a suggestion that was far from incredible.

  60.  Therefore, there is a need to examine whether the way forward is simply through the reinforcement of the status quo by attempting to extend and strengthen existing arms control agreements, or whether a fundamental rethink of our approach to arms control is necessary. The NWS have already been forced into the unacknowledged compromise of accepting Israel, India and Pakistan as fellow possessors of nuclear weapons and have, I assume, seen it as in their own interest to provide back-channel advice to them on the safety and security of those weapons. Whilst it would be foolhardy to rush to abandon the NPT and related agreements which have made a positive contribution up to this point, or to depart from efforts to discourage nuclear weapon development, it would be wise to explore medium to long term alternatives in this rapidly changing security environment. Those countries which have long had the potential to produce nuclear weapons but chosen not to do so remind us that there are powerful arguments in favour of abstinence. Stronger security guarantees by the NWS to non-nuclear members of the NPT, perhaps linked to arrangements to ensure the future energy needs of compliant states, may be one way of discouraging any future rush to nuclear capability.

  61.  We must be prepared to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions. Would a world with more nuclear weapons states necessarily be a less safe place? Could an increase in the number of nuclear weapons states lead to more enthusiastic collaboration in the control of other WMD and terrorism, and encourage cooperation in tackling other global problems? These are issues that demand more active consideration than they have so far received.

26 September 2008

With regard to "weapons of mass destruction," if they are described simply as chemical, biological and nuclear weapons without further definition, then not all systems that qualify as WMD would be capable of producing "mass casualties." I suggest that weapons that qualify as WMD should be those with the potential to produce 1000 or more human fatalities in a single use.

George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons," The Wall Street Journal, 4 January 2007.

Carnegie Endowment speech by UK Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, Washington DC, July 5, 2007
George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons," The Wall Street Journal, 15 January 2008.
Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind, David Owen and George Robertson, "Start worrying and learn to ditch the bomb," The Times, 30 June 2008.

6   The term "national security," which might have been used here, tends to be employed without clear definition. I use it here in the context of the continued existence of the United Kingdom as a democratic entity capable of self government because this better enables the establishment of policy priorities. It is often politically convenient to use the term to encompass a range of security related matters ranging from national interests to personal safety and, whilst there is a good degree of overlap in the systems required to deal with them, it is important not to lose the essential definition. Back

7   "Mass casualty" and "mass destruction" are also terms that are used vaguely and this is the case in the National Security Strategy. I use these terms in relation to events and weapons that have the potential to cause human fatalities on a scale that exceeds those with which our national emergency systems are normally expected to cope, eg natural disasters such as are caused by extreme weather, or major accidents such as air or rail disasters. I have in mind that the transition figure from "large scale" to "mass" is about 1000 deaths but it would be difficult and perhaps unwise to establish an official definition of this sort. On this basis the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001 with almost 3000 fatal casualties is correctly described as a mass casualty attack. The 7/7 attack in London in 2005 with about 50 deaths is not. Back

8   I recognise that to acknowledge or publicise such a lack of faith in present non-proliferation efforts might tend to undermine them, and that the status quo probably offers some security advantages in the short to medium term. This presents the government with an unenviable dilemma. Back

9   A number of detailed studies contain comparative information on the nature and properties of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Amongst the most informed and useful are:
Foreign Broadcast Information Service translation of a report of the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation, Moscow 1993: "A New Challenge after the "Cold War": The Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction," and
U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: Assessing the Risks, OTA-ISC-559 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, August 1993). 

10   J Cirincione, J Wolfsthal, M Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats, Second Edition (Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2005), p 13. Back

11   The term "weapon" is problematic in that the BWC and the CWC classify BW agents and CW agents as "weapons," whereas more normal convention is to classify the entire entity involved in delivery and/or dissemination as a weapon. Back

12   By this I mean the delivery of agent by special forces, intelligence operatives as well as terrorists. Nationally developed capabilities are likely to be more reliable and potent than terrorist capabilities. As indicated in the following paper, the Soviet/Russian authorities were particularly alert to this potential threat: Foreign Broadcast Information Service translation of a report of the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation, Moscow 1993: "A New Challenge after the "Cold War": The Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction." Back

13   Judgements regarding the feasibility of the development of a BW capability by terrorists sometimes make the mistake of assuming the problems experienced in national programmes are indicative of the difficulty a terrorist might have. Traditional military requirements demand levels of scale, reliability, efficiency and safety that would not be of such great concern to many terrorist organisations. Back

14   The 1968 Treaty for the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) which entered force when the US and Russia had ratified it in 1970 differentiated between states which possessed nuclear weapons and those which did not, requiring the latter not to attempt to get them, and the former to retain them, but work towards their elimination. The five states which possessed nuclear weapons when it entered force are now parties to the Treaty. They had acquired them between 1945 and 1964 in the following sequence-US (1945), USSR (1949), UK (1952), France (1960), China (1964). US, UK and Russia were full nuclear weapon states when the Treaty entered into force, but France and China did not join until 1992. Back

15   The term WMD is thought by some to include all versions of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons regardless of whether it is their purpose or capability to directly cause death on a massive scale. Whilst this is probably appropriate for all nuclear weapons, it is arguably less so for those chemical and biological weapons based on agents that are designed to incapacitate rather than kill target populations. Back

16   From early on the U.S. security authorities encouraged the view that the perpetrator was a US government official with access to anthrax through his work. Until July 2008 a former government scientist, Steven Hatfill, appeared to be the FBI's main suspect. When Bruce Ivins, an experienced microbiologist who was employed at the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases in Maryland, committed suicide at the end of July, the FBI announced that it believed it was he who had conducted the attacks. Many US BW experts remain sceptical of this suggestion. Back

17   Aum Shinrykio was an apocalyptic cult with a large membership and considerable resources known to the Japanese authorities. There is reason to believe that its experimentation with chemical and biological agents was still immature when pressure from the authorities triggered what may have been a premature and hastily arranged attack. Back

18   Although the Chemical Weapons Convention had not been concluded and the United States retained some chemical weapons, there was a widespread international commitment to the negotiation of a treaty which constrained the coalition from contemplating their use. Of course, the BWC already excluded biological weapons. Back

19   The Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI [Director of Central Intelligence of the USA] on Iraq's WMD, September 30, 2004. This is a three volume report running to several hundred pages to which a short addendum was later added. It is published under the title "Iraq Survey Group Final Report, 30 September 2004" in a convenient format by Global Security.Org and can be found at: <> Back

20   See, for example, the British Prime Minister's speech at his Sedgefield constituency on 5 March 2004, available in the Tony Blair Archive at the No 10 website. Back

21   US National Intelligence Council, "2020 Project Mapping the Global Future," December 2000 Back

22   For example: Back

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