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Weapons of Mass Destruction



Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Weapons

Even as the smoke and ash swirled above the island of Manhattan, Americans turned their attention to the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Terrorists, using box cutters and astute planning, had turned airliners into devastating weapons. What if they acquired chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons (CBRN)? In today’s climate of fear, leaders and the media have continually hyped the threat of WMDs, but are the threats realistic and, if so, what specific threats are most feasible or likely?

Chemical Weapons (CW)
Biological Weapons (BW)
Radiological Weapons (RW)
Nuclear Weapons (NW)
Nuclear Proliferation: New Dangers

North Korea
Saudi Arabia

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21st Century Warfare
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Weapons of Mass Perception


Chemical Weapons (CW)

Chemical weapons (CW) are defined as weapons using the toxic properties of chemical substances rather than their explosive properties to produce physical or physiological effects on an enemy. During World War I “gas” (actually an aerosol or vapor) was used effectively on numerous occasions by both sides to alter the outcome of battles. A significant number of battlefield casualties were sustained. Chemical weapons were also used in the Iraq-Iran war, when the Iraqi army used weaponized mustard, tabun and sarin to repel human wave attacks by Iranian forces.

Attributes of CW:

Chemical weapons (CW) are relatively inexpensive to produce.
CW can affect opposing forces without damaging infrastructure.
CW can be psychologically devastating.
Blister agents create casualties requiring attention and inhibiting force efficiency.
Defensive measures can be taken to negate the effect of CW.
Donning of protective gear reduces combat efficiency of troops.
Key to employment is dissemination and dispersion of agents.
CW are highly susceptible to environmental effects (temperature, winds).
Offensive use of CW complicates command and control and logistics problems.

Chemical weapons include such agents as: mustard, tabun, sarin (GB), and nerve gas (G and V agents). VX gas is a V-type nerve gas. In the 1960’s considerable work went into developing CS gas as a quick-acting, non-lethal tool for controlling riots and civil disorder. Later, a class of non-lethal, mental incapacitants that cause mental disorientation, were developed, most notably BZ agents.

Cyanides (Sodium, potassium, or hydrogen) are better described as poisons than CW agents. They must be disseminated in high concentrations, or in enclosed and unventilated areas to be effective.

Relatively large quantities of CW are needed to achieve mass casualties. According to a pentagon estimate 22 pounds of sarin would be needed to kill 50 people in an outdoor environment. It would take about 220 pounds to kill five hundred, and 2,200 pounds to produce 10,000 casualties. Naturally, less would be needed in an enclosed space. Although this level of damage is higher than that from conventional explosives, the problems of collecting and disseminating sufficient quantities are formidable.

The efficiency of disseminating the agent is critical to the effectiveness of CW. The methodology depends on whether the agent is designed as an aerosol, liquid or solid and how it is to be absorbed by the target. Weaponized CW agents are often disseminated by explosives, such as artillery shells.

While tactical chemical weapons can be used in a battlefield environment, they are inappropriate and problematic for use by terrorists as weapons of mass destruction. To qualify as WMDs, weapons must be able to produce mass casualties. This would require large quantities of chemicals, combined with an effective dispersion system. It’s simply impractical for terrorists to secretly obtain, transport and disperse the large quantities of chemicals required to attain a significant result.

Chemical weapons have a relatively small area of influence and quickly disperse into the air or settle to the ground. When combined with explosives to increase dispersion the active chemicals are often destroyed or degraded by the explosive blast. Terrorist groups have extensive experience with conventional explosives and gain little advantage from chemical weaponry.

Many countries have the ability to produce, or have produced chemical weapons, and terrorist groups could acquire, or produce such materials. In Japan the Aum Shinrikyo cult used sarin gas in an attack in a Tokyo subway. Although this incident is often cited to alert people to the threat of chemical weapons, only 11 people died from the attack, which was carried out in an enclosed area.

The terrorist threat from chemical weapons is over stated. The sheer volume of chemicals required to have a significant impact is a major barrier to the use of CW. It would be difficult to acquire, produce or transport chemical agents in sufficient quantities without attracting attention. Equally challenging is managing dispersal effectively and to do so without impacting on those releasing the chemical agents.

However…Many common toxic industrial chemicals could be used as weapons. What they lack in toxicity is made up by the large quantities commonly available and accessible. During WWI, the Germans used common chlorine gas as a weapon by simply opening containers and allowing the chemical to drift downwind into enemy forces. Chlorine and phosgene gases are industrial chemicals that are regularly transported in bulk road and rail shipments. Saboteurs could easily target commercial containers and rupture them to release the gases. The effects of chlorine and phosgene are similar to those of mustard agent. Chlorine and other chemical spills from trucks and railcars are not uncommon; terrorists would simply need to select targets and timing to maximize the effects on the public. Trucks and railcars are notoriously vulnerable targets to which little attention has been directed.

Security measures must be improved to protect trucks and railcars passing through, or parked in population centers. Similar precautions are needed where ships are off-loading bulk chemicals.

In December 1984, an explosion at the Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, India, released methyl isocyanate (MIC), a highly toxic gas. MIC, hydrogen cyanide and at least 65 other gases spread across the city in a cloud, killing over 5,000 people within three days. At least 20,000 people have died as a result of exposure to the gases.

This incident demonstrates the lethal effect of toxic and the large quantities needed to produce a disastrous impact. It should also serve as a reminder of the need to improve security at chemical plants where terrorists could seek to replicate the Bhopal incident.

Another point of vulnerability exists in building heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. HVAC systems. Building HVAC typically recirculates air from the occupied space to the air handling units and back again. The systems add a small percentage of outdoor, make-up air to replace that lost through exfiltration. It’s possible to deliver a chemical or biological agent at the point where outdoor air is drawn into the building system, and this can be done without entering the building. The air handlers will disseminate the toxic agent throughout the building. Air intakes are often difficult to access, but those that are not must take precautions.

Chemical or biological agents could also be introduced through return air inlets in virtually any building where terrorists had access, including many apartments, commercial offices, or public facilities (sports stadiums, theaters, etc.) As tenants, terrorists would have time and access to build up sufficient inventories of CW and BW agents to maximize the effect.

Building owners and operators must be alerted to these possibilities and encouraged to implement measures to deny access to air intake points. High value target buildings, with highly vulnerable HVAC systems must receive special attention.



Biological Weapons (BW)

A biological weapon disperses organisms, or micro-organisms to produce disease in humans, plants, and animals. The mortality rates vary among the various diseases. The most dangerous are those that are communicable and can be passed from one infected victim to others, but not all are communicable. Anthrax and ricin are nor communicable; smallpox is.

While chemical weapons have been used for decades, biological weapons are a relatively new development because the production and weaponization of biologicals is far more difficult and sophisticated, and has been made possible by technological advances during the late 20th century.

Given the complexities in producing, managing and disseminating biological agents effectively to maximize fatalities, BW is probably the least feasible approach for large-scale terrorist attacks. On a smaller scale, BW becomes a more attractive option, but still entails considerable technical prowess that is not required for conventional explosives.

The anthrax scare following the terrorist attacks of 9/11cast attention on the emerging threat of biological warfare. The threats most commonly mentioned are from Anthrax, Botulism, Ricin and Smallpox.

Anthrax - Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes anthrax, is capable of causing mass casualties. Symptoms usually appear within one to six days after exposure and include fever, malaise, fatigue, and shortness of breath. The disease is usually fatal unless antibiotic treatment is started within hours of inhaling anthrax spores; however, it is not contagious. Few people are vaccinated against anthrax. Anthrax can be disseminated in an aerosol or used to contaminate food and water; when ingested mortality rates are highest. Anthrax can be contracted by skin contact and is rarely fatal.

Botulinum toxin - Botulinum toxin occurs naturally in the soil. Crude but viable methods to produce small quantities of this lethal toxin, have been found in terrorist training manuals. Symptoms usually occur 24 to 36 hours after exposure, but onset of illness may take several days if the toxin is present in low doses. Botulinum toxin would be effective in small-scale poisonings or aerosol attacks in enclosed spaces, such as movie theaters. The toxin molecule is likely too large to penetrate the healthy skin.

Ricin - Ricin is a plant toxin that is 30 times more potent than the nerve agent VX by weight and is readily obtainable by extraction from common castor beans. There is no treatment for ricin poisoning after it has entered the bloodstream. Victims start to show symptoms within hours to days after exposure, depending on the dosage and route of administration. Terrorists have looked at delivering ricin in foods and as a contact poison, although it’s not known to penetrate healthy skin. Ricin remains stable in unheated foods and has few indicators because it does not have a strong taste, or color.

Smallpox – As a result of a successful worldwide vaccination program, smallpox has been eradicated. Only two stockpiles of the variola virus are known to exist in Russia and the United States. Generally, direct and fairly prolonged face-to-face contact is required to spread smallpox from one person to another. Smallpox also can be spread through direct contact with infected bodily fluids or contaminated objects such as bedding or clothing.

Rarely, smallpox has been spread by virus carried in the air in enclosed settings such as buildings, buses, and trains. Humans are the only natural hosts of variola. Smallpox is not known to be transmitted by insects or animals. Smallpox is small enough to be inhaled, so it could be spread in an aerosol. The virus is very stable, which means it isn’t easy to destroy, and it retains its potency for days outside a human host.

Since there is no cure for smallpox, the only way to deal with the disease is by vaccinations. Since the variola virus is essentially extinct, it would be extremely difficult to produce and because of its lethality stockpiles are unusually secure.

Terrorist would face enormous technical challenges to produce weaponized smallpox virus and would be unable to control the direction an outbreak would take, meaning it could be turned against their own people.

Pathogen Feed Stocks

There are four sources of pathogen feed stocks: 1) natural sources; 2) culture collections; 3) research laboratories and public health facilities; and 4) state sponsors of BW programs.

Developing biological agents from scratch (natural sources) is a significant challenge, requiring sophistication, financing and considerable luck to produce quantities needed for mass destruction. Experts suggest that producing small quantities of some biologicals is reasonably feasible, even by unsophisticated methods. However, fears of large-scale attacks appear to be an over-reaction.

Since 9/11, intelligence and police have become far more aware and vigilant to signs of attempts to produce WMDs of any sort, including identification of purchases of related materials and the security of existing stockpiles.

The U.S. and Germany have passed laws regulating the transfer of pathogens from laboratories and commercial firms, but many countries have not.

Encouraging nations to adopt laws and international regulations on the transfer of biologicals would make development and proliferation of biologicals significantly more difficult at little cost.

BW Delivery Systems

Most biologicals are not communicable, which means the agent must be delivered to each target individual. Biological agents are susceptible to adverse effects from improper storage, temperatures, humidity or exposure to sunlight, oxygen or other materials. Most have limited shelf life and lose their potency over time. Given the lethal effects of BW agents, they require extremely careful handling.

BW agents begin in a liquid form, which presents technical challenges to effective dissemination methods. The active agents must be also be reduced to a specific size in the range of 1-5 microns, requiring elaborate and difficult procedures. Converting the materials to dry form offers a number of advantages, but even greater technical prowess and equipment.

The processes are complex and fraught with potential for failure. These are not the kind of tactics favored by terrorist, who prefer simple plans, cleverly and flawlessly executed. One does not simply hijack a crop duster and pour BW agents into the tank as a substitute for pesticides.

Notwithstanding the heinous attacks of 9/11, even the worst terrorists must consider the consequences of their acts. While any attack is designed to hurt and weaken the enemy, the primary goal is to expand the base of support for the movement. No nation has ever used biological warfare and being the first to re-introducing an extinct disease to mankind is of dubious propaganda value.

The fact is that a BW attack is unnecessary – WMDs are in the news daily and Americans are already reacting with frenzied spending to upgrade homeland security against every conceivable form of attack.


Radiological Weapons (RW)

Radiological Dispersal Devices (RDDs), also called “Dirty Bombs,” combine a conventional explosive with some from of radioactive material. Such an improvised device does no produce a chain reaction or nuclear detonation; it merely uses the explosive to spread radioactive material across a localized area. Ideally, for the terrorist, the winds will help spread the radioactivity to a larger area.

When press reports mention a “backpack bomb,” they’re referring to a small, improvised RDD that includes a small explosive charge and radiological material in a shielded tin can called a “pig.” It’s improbable that such a device could produce a nuclear detonation, as some press accounts have suggested. A backpack bomb would probably not even qualify as a weapon of mass destruction.

The CIA reports that, “A variety of radioactive materials are commonly available and could be used in an RDD, including Cesium-137, Strontium-90, and Cobalt-60. Hospitals, universities, factories, construction companies, and laboratories are possible sources for these radioactive materials.”

The Department of Homeland needs to require increased security measures at all sites and facilities that store and utilize radiological materials, while EPA should enact new regulations addressing such materials.

An RDD detonated by terrorists would cause casualties in the immediate area as well as health, environmental, and economic effects. It’s greatest impact would undoubtedly be the psychological effect – the terror. Depending on the amount of radioactive material released, the size of the area affected land levels of contamination such an incident could force closure of the affected area for long period to conduct expensive cleanup and remediation work.

Despite the expert analysis and predictions regarding potential terrorist targets, none have mentioned the most vulnerable, highest risk radiological target, likely to attract the attention of terrorists – nuclear waste shipments.

The US Department of Energy ships tons of transuranic radioactive waste every week from national laboratories and other nuclear sites across the country to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The “hot” materials are stored in heavy-duty casks, designed to withstand truck crashes, but not explosives. The entire transportation security system was designed with little consideration of potential terrorist attacks. The flat-bed trailers with two or three huge casks are easily identifiable. (See photo)

The truck fleet follows the same routes along major Interstate highways, with dozens of trucks and tons of transuranic wastes on the road at any one time. The published routes funnel the trucks into several choke points in several major metropolitan areas, namely Denver, Dallas and Albuquerque. A coordinated terrorist attack, timed to coincide with optimum wind conditions could easily use an improvised explosive device (IED), like those employed in Iraq, or a car or truck bomb to rupture the casks and disseminate radioactivity across several large cities.

Al-Qaeda has already demonstrated a proclivity for nearly simultaneous attacks against remote targets on 9/11 and in the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. This is precisely the kind of operation that appeals to their sense of strategy.

The US Department of Energy should suspend transuranic waste shipments immediately and conduct a thorough re-evaluation of their transportation security measures. At a minimum truck trailers should be re-designed to disguise the nature of the shipments. DOE should also incorporate high security measures into plans for high-level nuclear fuel waste shipments to Yucaa Mountain depository in Nevada.


Nuclear Weapons (NW)

Nuclear weapons are the real threat of mass destruction. Fortunately, the technical barriers to producing enriched uranium or plutonium are prohibitive. The technical skill to produce a nuclear warhead are even more difficult, and if successful one must then have a delivery system, or the ability to transport a radioactive device without detection by sophisticated sensors.

Few states have been willing and able to devote the financial resources to a long-term nuclear weapons program and it would be far beyond the reach of non-state actors.

Nonetheless, it is conceivable that non-state organizations could acquire nuclear weapons by stealing or buying them from a desperate nuclear power, or by seizing power in a weak nuclear state like Pakistan. This still doesn’t address the problem of getting a warhead to its target.

The apparent solution is to procure a so-called suitcase nuclear bomb. Although there has been much speculation about suitcase-sized nuclear bombs, it’s not been demonstrated that such devices actually exist. In 1997, Russian Alexander Ledbed, Russia’s former National Security Advisor, claimed that the Soviets had developed such weapons, but the question remains:

Are Suitcase Bombs Possible?

According to Fox News, “A ‘suitcase’ bomb is a very compact and portable nuclear weapon and could have the dimensions of 60 x 40 x 20 centimeters or 24 x 16 x 8 inches. The smallest possible bomb-like object would be a single critical mass of plutonium (or U-233) at maximum density under normal conditions. The Pu-239 weighs 10.5 kg and is 10.1 cm across. It doesn't take much more than a single critical mass to cause significant explosions ranging from 10-20 tons. These types of weapons can also be as big as two footlockers. The warhead consists of a tube with two pieces of uranium, which, when rammed together, would cause a blast. Some sort of firing unit and a device that would need to be decoded to cause detonation may be included in the suitcase."

Russian scientists have testified they are "absolutely sure" suitcase bombs were created, Although the Russian government has steadfastly denied the existence of man-portable nukes, Russian scientists have testified that they are certain the devices were created. There are also allegations that Usama Bin Laden has purchased nuclear suitcase and backpack bombs from Chechen organized crime groups, but FBI officials claim there is no evidence to verify the allegations.

If there are no suitcase nukes, then the prospects of them falling into the wrong hands is a moot point. If the Russians did produce such bombs, one can only hope that the Russians have them secured. They do have more than ample motivation. If man-portable nuclear bombs fell into the hands of Islamist terrorists, Russia itself is a likely first target, owing to their policies in Afghanistan and Chechnya.

Given the radiation emitted by a lightly shielded mini-nuke and the existence of highly sensitive sensors, it seems unlikely that they could be smuggled easily. One of the most feasible conduits, however, would be via shipping containers, the vast majority of which are not inspected.

Given that even a small nuclear device has enormous destructive potential and could be more feasible than a large-scale chemical or biological attacks, port security appears to be one area where homeland defense expenditures would be prudent.



Since World War II, the list of nuclear-armed states has grown to include the United States, Russia, France, England, China, South Africa, Israel, Pakistan and India. To its credit South Africa abandoned its nuclear weapons, but is the only country to do so. Others are anxious to take their place, including North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Iraq is no longer a threat and Libya has abandoned its program.

If these potential nuclear states are to be deterred, it’s essential to understand why and how nuclear weapons enhance their security, or strategic position. The assumption is that there is a reasonable, logical basis for these decisions, which entail considerable risk, international condemnation and isolation.

During the Cold War, the United States and Russia were engaged in a dangerous game of nuclear chess, but the game had rules; each side knew and understood the strategy and intent of its adversary. When Russia attempted a secret move to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, a crisis resulted. Strategic transparency was critical to deterrence; subterfuge was a dangerous gambit.

The grand purpose of Russian and American nuclear programs was deterrence – to preclude the opposition from aggression that would alter the balance of power, threaten vital interests and world peace. The result was a nuclear standoff that helped prevent another world war, and which placed a premium on international diplomacy. When England and France became nuclear powers, they too were motivated by the desire to deter future aggression in Europe. In the run-up to World War II America had been a reluctant ally, rendered impotent by an internal struggle between isolationists and interventionists. England and France felt compelled to provide their own nuclear deterrent to avoid reliance on the U.S.

In Asia, China and Russia share a long border and contentious history. Despite their shared communist ideology, they were uneasy allies, insecure of the other’s intentions. China also has a long and troubled history with neighboring Japan, whose forces had invaded and occupied China in the early stages of World War II, and not for the first time. Confronted with external threats from Russia and Japan, uncertain of the intentions of former European occupiers, and facing internal instability as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) sought to consolidate its revolution, China also felt compelled to develop a nuclear capacity.

South Africa’s decision to develop atomic weapons seemed less rational. The most developed and powerful state in sub-Saharan Africa, they faced no imminent threat, except that from their own repressed population. South Africa has since abandoned its nuclear weapons.

For years, these states remained the world’s only nuclear powers and their strategic intentions seemed transparent and defensive. As members of the UN Security Council, the nuclear states seemed reasonably responsible, accountable and subject to the court of international public opinion. They also shared common goals – self-protection and a desire to avoid world war.

The next generation of nuclear states and those actively seeking the technology is more problematic – Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia.


Israel developed its first atomic weapons in 1967 and was all too prepared to use them in the 1973 Yom Kippur War if events had not turned to their favor. Israel has steadfastly refused to admit their nuclear capability and has refused to join in any international treaties to control nuclear weapons.

Israel’s secretive nuclear policy reminds one of the movie Dr. Strangelove, when the Russians admit to having a secret doomsday machine, and Dr. Strangelove questions the illogic of having such a deterrent and keeping it secret, thus defeating the whole point of having it. Even after the Israeli program was revealed, they have refused to admit its existence. In 2004, it’s estimated that Israel has about 200 nuclear warheads, including smaller scale weapons adaptable to cruise missiles. Israel has also purchased German submarines that are outfitted with nuclear-armed Harpoon cruise missiles.

Israel’s purpose is obvious. Arab enemies have denied Israel’s right to exist and call for Israel’s destruction. As a small country, surrounded by enemies, Israel indeed faces an existential threat. For decades, Israel has wanted a mutual defense pact with the US, whereby America would use its military might to deter and defend Israel, but the US has refused. Instead, the US has negotiated on Israel’s behalf, helping to secure peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, which remove the imminent threat to Israel. The 2003 Iraq War has removed Israel’s most troublesome enemy.

In 1981, Israeli jets attacked and destroyed Iraq’s Osirik nuclear reactor in a preemptive strike to deny the success of Iraq’s nuclear ambitions. By accepted international standards, this attack was an act of war and set a dangerous precedent. The motivation is understandable, but the logic of starting a war in the absence of a direct and imminent threat of attack is contrary to just war theory.

Israel’s overall behavior raises very legitimate concern and fear throughout the Middle East. The theocratic foundation of Israel calls for the Jews to inhabit all of the Land of Israel, which extends into Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia and parts of Egypt. To its Arab neighbors, Israel is seen as an existential threat that has demonstrated its aggressiveness by launching the 1967 War, invading Lebanon and constantly annexing Palestinian lands for Jewish settlements.

The ever-increasing size of Israel’s military and nuclear arsenal can certainly be perceived as far beyond that necessary to ensure its survival. The addition of nuclear-capable submarines and long-range missiles suggests preparations for aggressive action.

Where Russia and America sought a balance of power; Israel appears committed to maintaining a disproportionate imbalance of power. By building stronger relations with India, the Israelis are place a number of Muslim states between a nuclear vice.

It’s essential to look at the developing strategic situation from a Muslim perspective. And from that perspective the Middle East is becoming a very dangerous place, with Muslim states in the sights of Israeli and Indian nuclear weapons and American forces from Pakistan to Morocco.


Pakistan, impoverished, unstable and nuclear-capable, is reported to be at the nexus of nuclear proliferation efforts linking China, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Saudi Arabia.

It’s reported that China was instrumental in helping Pakistan develop nuclear weapons and that the Saudis helped fund Pakistan’s nuclear program. After testing a nuclear warhead in 1999, Pakistan focused on finding a suitable delivery vehicle, again turning to the Chinese. Area experts also suspect that Pakistan then traded its new found nuclear know how to North Korea in exchange for North Korean missiles. Since, Saudi Arabia helped finance the Pakistani program it’s likely that the Saudi also have access to modernized North Korean missiles.

Naturally, this puts China at odds with its regional competitor, India, as these Asian powers vie regional hegemony. Arguably, China’s relations with Pakistan may enhance regional stability by helping create greater equilibrium between nuclear adversaries India and Pakistan. While this may be seen as a positive factor by the U.S., it does give China leverage to influence events in the immediate region, where American forces are no engaged, only miles from the Chinese Afghan border.

The short range Hatf-1 and Hatf-2 are apparently of Pakistani design and construction. They were developed by the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO), apparently on the basis of French prototypes. These missiles seem to have proven a disappointment, due probably in no small measure to their modest range, and do not appear to have entered operational service in any significant numbers.

The Shaheen series of solid-propellant missiles are imports from China by the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), which is also responsible for Pakistan's plutonium bomb program. The Chinese M-11 missile was obtained from China in the early 1990s, and tested with considerable publicity in mid-1999. The longer range Shaheen-I and Shaheen-II appear to correspond to the Chinese M-9 and M-18, respectively, and it appears that these are the product of domestic manufacture in Pakistan, rather than the result of a sale from China.

More recently, the A.Q. Khan Research Laboratories, which is also responsible for Pakistan's uranium bomb program, has imported and tested the North Korean Nodong missile under the name Ghauri. Imports of the longer range Taepodong missiles may also be under consideration.

Pakistan Facts.com

North Korea

In August 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reported that North Korea had enough plutonium to produce two to five nuclear warheads.

North Korea signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985. Between 1980-1987, North Korea constructed a 5-megawatt nuclear reactor that can produce uranium for reprocessing to plutonium sufficient to build 1-2 nuclear warheads per year. In 1994, the reactor was shut down and thousands of spent fuel rods were removed. It’s estimated the material could be used to produce 4-5 weapons. Two additional reactors are under construction. In 1997 The Defense Intelligence Agency reported that a potential nuclear weapons-related was being built at an underground site at Kumchangri, just north of Yongbyon, about 60 miles north of Pyongyang. DIA extimated the Kumchangri facility could be operational by 2003.

To encourage the DPRK to disband their early-stage nuclear program President Bush-41 agreed to remove US nuclear missiles from South Korea in exchange for pledges from North and Sout Korea to forgo nuclear development. In October 1994, after learning of DPRK nuclear activities, President Clinton the US negotiated an Agreed Framework, calling for the U.S. to provide a package of nuclear, energy, economic, and diplomatic benefits to North Korea; in exchange DPRK would stop construction of nuclear-related facilities, suspend nuclear operations and submit to IAEA inspections. To offset the loss of electrical generating capacity, North Korea would receive two light water reactors (LWRs) with a generating capacity of approximately 2,000 megawatts. Until the new reactors were built DPRK would receive free heavy oil.

In 1994, Kim Jong-il became President after his father’s death and reportedly directs the DPRK weapons programs and a scientific and technical staff of about 3000. The focus shifted to developing missile delivery systems. In reaction, the US prepared The Perry Report, which recommended a new agreement calling for (1) “verifiable assurances” that North Korea does not have a secret nuclear weapons program, and (2) “verifiable cessation” of North Korea’s missile program. A deal was struck in 1999 and in return for DPRK pledges and site inspections the U.S. provided over 500,000 tons of new U.S. food aid for the starving population. In June 200, the US removed its economic sanctions.

Taking a page from Saddam Hussein’s playbook, DPRK began a shell game to hide and disguise its weapons programs. Frustrated with the inspections process, the US has threatened to delay shipping and completing the light water reactors. In 2004, Jane’s Defense Weekly reported that, “North Korea is deploying new land- and sea-based ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads and may have sufficient range to hit the United States.” It also reported that DPRK had purchased 12 decommissioned Russian Foxtrot-class and Golf II-class submarines which were sold for scrap in 1993. The implication is that North Korea is working to refit the subs with new missiles and firing systems, which would enable them to strike targets anywhere from the sea

Kim Jong-il appears to a chancer committed to a game of nuclear blackmail to feed his starving people and keep the lights on until he can find a way to reclaim South Korea. The problem has parallels to those in Iraq where sanctions are ineffective and only punish the innocent, while the potential threat comes closer to reality. Conversely, it may turn out that the DPRK, like Iraq has produced no weapons.

Meanwhile, recent press reports in 2004 have suggested that nine missing Pakistani nuclear scientists may be in North Korea, while Pakistani nuclear expert Abdul Qadeer Khan said in April that he had visited North Korea in 1999 and saw three nuclear devices at a secret underground plant. (Khan received a pardon from President Pervez Musharraf after confessing to selling Pakistan’s nuclear secrets abroad.)

Aside from using DPRKs nuclear program to barter for desperately needed goods, it’s unlikely that they would use nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, thereby bombing their entire people into the dark ages. A more likely target is Korea’s ancient nemesis Japan. Their main objective though is probably to deter the U.S. from intervening militarily in any fighting that might break out between North and South Korea. Reunification of Korea is inevitable; the question is when and how, and on whose terms?

North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program


Iran has the world’s third largest known oil reserves and has been trying to recover from the adverse effects of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the protract Iraq-Iran War from 1980-1988. Iran Shi’a Islamic government has been isolated and under US economic sanctions. It’s neighbors, Afghanistan and Pakistan, are a constant source of concern, while the US focus on Iraq since 1991 has helped relieve one source of potential conflict.

It’s reported that Iran began its current nuclear development program 1984, despite Ayatollah Khomeini’s religious reservations to such weapons. Iran began building nuclear reactors at Busher-1 and Busher-2. In 1987 and 1988, Iraqi fighters attacked and damaged the reactor sites during the Iraq-Iran War. This long and deadly war of attrition is a key motivation for Iran’s continued nuclear aspirations.

On the surface, the US invasion of Iraq has eliminated the Iraqi threat to Iran’s western border, but the long-standing animosities between Washington and Tehran give the Iranians little comfort and much to fear from an imminent American presence adjacent to Iran’s border. Saber rattling by the Bush Administration serves only to heighten Iranian security concerns, in what looks like a replay of the pre-invasion propaganda assault on Saddam Hussein.

Some recent US statements over-state Iran’s stage of nuclear development, portraying the threat as more imminent than it is. Other reports suggest that Iran is still 5-10 years away from having a nuclear warhead. There’s no doubt of Iran’s intentions, but there is ample time to discourage their efforts short of war.

To its east, Iran shares borders with US-occupied Afghanistan and nuclear-armed Pakistan, a Sunni dominated state with a strong Islamist movement. Iranians had a full dose of American “Westoxication” during the Shah’s regime, nonetheless, there is a movement demanding modernization and liberalization. America has managed to build bridges with its former enemies, Germany, Japan, Russia, and even communist China and Vietnam, why not Iran? If there is one bright spot in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region, it is the potential for rapprochement between the US and Iran.

Real diplomacy could help dissuade Iran’s nuclear ambitions, expand oil supplies and even mitigate external pressure and influence on Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Saudi Arabia

Presumably, part of the deal between China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia included an agreement for China to sell medium-range missiles to Saudi Arabia. According to former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, Thomas Woodward, “In the late 1980s, China sold thirty-six CSS-2 IRBMs to Saudi Arabia; Chinese military personnel maintain the CSS-2s at the two bases China built for the Saudis south of Riyadh. With a range of some 3,000 kilometers, the CSS-2s in Saudi Arabia can theoretically target almost all of the Middle East and parts of India.” But without nuclear warheads these missiles have little value. Woodward suggests the possibility that China might be willing to provide nuclear warheads in a crisis.

Certainly, the Saudis wouldn’t risk alienating the Americans by basing such weapons in the region, but the possibility of acquiring them from China on short notice could have a chilling effect on US regional influence and give the Saudis leverage in their dealings with the US.


Additional Resources


Federation of American Scientists

Project for Defense Alternatives

Union of Concerned Scientists

Center for Defense Initiatives


Terrorist CBRN: Materials &Effects
This CIA report focuses on al-Qaeda and their potential use of CBRN weapons

United States WMD Strategy
The official White House statement

Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Terrorism
A Canadian perspetive on the WMD threat

U.S. Air Force Counter-Proliferation Center

Weapons of Mass Destruction Intelligence Threat Assessment

Militarily Critical Technologies List (MCTL) Part II: Weapons of Mass Destruction Technologies
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