Rome '08 Workshop

WMD Proliferation: The Three Pillars of Prevention 

Mr. Joseph A. Benkert

U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense 

Mr. Joseph A. Benkert


Let me begin by saying a few words about the threats, about how we are seeking to prevent the proliferation of these threats, and, in particular, the acquisition of WMD by terrorists in today’s dynamic and changing environment. I want particularly to emphasize the importance of what we do in partnership with other nations. I assume that we agree that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction poses an enduring threat to our common peace and stability, that terrorist organizations seek to acquire and use WMD, and that there are a number of avenues terrorists can pursue. 


Chemical weapons (CW) can kill large numbers of people and cause economic dislocation, although the effects of these weapons are relatively easier to mitigate than those of other types of WMD. Terrorists can acquire CW from states, either directly or through networks of facilitators. They can also produce CW or use available toxic industrial chemicals in improvised CW devices. The Aum Shinrikio attacks in the Japanese subway several years ago and the insurgent use of industrial chlorine in improvised devices in attacks in Iraq today are cases in point. Chemical weapons can be a serious threat in the hands of terrorists, but they are also the weapons we have the most experience dealing with. 


There is pretty broad consensus that biological and nuclear-related threats can cause the most harm and are the focus of concern. Biological weapons (BW) can conceivably cause more deaths than CW and have more lasting economic and social effects. Capable terrorists can produce BW in labs. More likely, however, terrorists acquire BW from states, either with their cooperation or from unsecured biological sources. BW are a concern because of the range of naturally occurring and man-made pathogens and the large number of places where they might be acquired or weaponized. 


Nuclear weapons are difficult and expensive to develop, but would have grave and possibly spectacular consequences. A terrorist group might steal or be given a nuclear weapon, or such a group could acquire special nuclear material—HEU, plutonium—and build an improvised nuclear device. Finally, a terrorist could build a radiation dispersion device—an RDD, or a so-called dirty bomb—that uses conventional explosives to spread radioactive materials. 

The risk of terrorists acquiring a nuclear weapon or material is a serious one. In the 1990s, there was a great deal of worry about “loose nukes” in former Soviet states. This is relatively less of a concern today for several reasons, including one that I will mention shortly. Today, we worry more about irresponsible states acquiring and supplying nuclear weapons or nuclear materials to proxy terrorists, a nuclear weapons state becoming destabilized and losing control of its nuclear weapons or nuclear materials to terrorists, and terrorists acquiring nuclear materials through networks of facilitators. 


What is to be done about these threats? The strategy for dealing with enemies who may not respond to traditional tools of deterrence requires that we build partnerships with nations who share our concerns about WMD terrorism. Building partnerships and partner capabilities to counter the threat posed by WMD terrorism is not optional. We, the United States, don’t have the resources to do it alone, and we won’t succeed if we try. Let me mention briefly three pillars for preventing WMD proliferation where partnerships matter greatly. 

Dealing with the Sources of WMD 

One pillar is preventing terrorists, and those who might facilitate their work, from getting their hands on weapons of mass destruction or WMD material by dealing with the sources of WMD. This includes supporting a range of multilateral nonproliferation regimes including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Biological Weapons Convention. It also includes national and international export control regimes such as Wassenar. In addition it includes taking action in support of U.N. Security Council resolutions. It also includes bilateral and multilateral programs to help partner governments improve controls over weapons materials and expertise. 

One example of such programs is the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR). CTR’s original and continuing focus has been securing or eliminating WMD at its source—particularly nuclear weapons and materials and chemical weapons in Russia and the other former Soviet states. But as we continue to make progress in securing nuclear materials, the focus of the CTR program, which has been successful, is shifting. We are increasingly focused on the threat posed by biological programs. CTR’s biological weapons threat reduction programs in several former Soviet Union states are doing two things: First, they are securing biological materials in central reference laboratories and improving accountability; and, second, they are developing threat agent detection and reporting systems. One particularly fruitful area of cooperation is exploiting the nexus between our biological program and public health, particularly in the area of disease surveillance. 

The U.S. Congress last year approved expansion of the CTR program outside the states of the former Soviet Union. We are now evaluating options to make it a more nimble, global tool in the fight against WMD threats—nuclear, biological, and chemical. Our focus is also on moving CTR from an assistance program to a program of partnership and collaboration. 

Stopping WMD in Transit 

The second pillar is stopping WMD—and the materials necessary to create them—in transit. Interdiction is an essential component in our efforts to counter the proliferation activities of both suppliers, customers, and facilitators. Perhaps the most visible partnership interdiction activity is the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). More than 90 countries on 6 continents have expressed their support for PSI’s principles and participate in its discussions and exercises. Such exercises have helped improve cooperation among member-nations and processes for decision making regarding interdictions, an area in which we have made the most progress. But much remains to be done. We have not really addressed the air aspect of interdiction at all, and land border interdiction hasn’t progressed much beyond portal monitoring. Even in the maritime area, where much work has been focused, we have much to do. 

What we need to remember about stopping WMD on the move—interdiction in particular—is that the goal is rarely sinking the bad guys’ ship or shooting down their plane. The goal of our interdiction policy is a systemic one—the goal is to raise the costs of proliferation that would-be proliferators must bear. If we achieve this, we can modulate proliferators’ behavior and change the way they do business. We get there by applying pressure where we can, when we can, and by keeping it on. 

Improving Intelligence 

A third pillar in preventing WMD proliferation is intelligence. Interdiction, for example, is critically dependent on good intelligence. We need to cooperate on achieving a much better understanding of the networks that contribute to proliferation. Will criminal networks smuggling contraband be used to move WMD materials? Will the proceeds from drug trafficking fund WMD terrorism? 


I would like to note that preventing WMD proliferation is only part of what we need to do. We need to deter WMD use; defend our populations; prepare security forces to operate in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear environments; and mitigate WMD attacks, which other speakers will address. 

I am going to conclude here now. But in our discussion, I will be pleased to talk with you about the role technology can play in detecting WMD, the use of off-the-shelf technologies to monitor and predict trafficking behavior, or any of the many bilateral or multilateral programs and initiatives geared to preventing the proliferation of the WMD. The work of NATO’S Senior Defense Group on Proliferation is but one such effort designed to build partner capability and keep the pressure on. 

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