Nuclear warfare

Going by the recent trend, in another 15 years from now the terrorists will be able to acquire the capability for new types of mass attacks as the potential availability of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) materials are going to be easier to obtain.

The potential future use of CBRN materials as weapons in the next 10 to 15 years is growing with rapid change in geopolitical atmosphere and some states are trying to secretly sell them to meet their political ambitions.

Similarly, production and proliferation of CBRN materials is expected to evolve continuously resulting in potentially lower entry barriers to aspiring CBRN actors.

While this will undoubtedly affect the composition of the CBRN actor landscape, it is unclear whether this will automatically produce an increase in the frequency of CBRN weapons’ use.

Overall, however, the literature seems to converge that this does open up the possibility that CBRN materials may be utilised and deployed as weapons in novel ways, both at the battlefield and in the civil domain, in times of war as well as in times of peace.

The US is visualizing a scenario where terrorists could access to CBRN material in future.

Given the demonstrated capacity of sub-state actors to employ non-conventional tactics, such as the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo’s use of chemical and biological weapons in the 1990s or the anthrax letters used against political and media targets in the US in 2001, it would seem imprudent to discount the possibility of this kind of terrorism increasing in the future.

However, the technical difficulties of acquiring, weaponising and disseminating these weapons remain the same problems that ultimately led the major powers to walk away from offensive military programs in the 1950s and 1960s.

It is true that the information revolution has increased public knowledge about these types of weapons. The Central Intelligence Agency has noted that more than 40 terrorist organisations are actively seeking a CBRN capability.

But, as yet, no terrorist group has mastered the complex technical difficulties to achieve a CBRN capability that would match the lethality of previous conventional plots.

There is clear evidence that the Al Qaeda network remains determined to achieve a CBRN capability. And even a low-grade chemical or biological attack using a simple method of dispersion can have a disproportional psychological impact. So for intelligence agencies around the world, the net assessment on CBRN remains ‘maybe’.

The combination of increasing lethality in terrorist attacks motivated by religious extremists such as Al Qaeda, who view the world in apocalyptic, Manichean terms, combined with the relative ease of acquiring low-grade chemical or biological agents, suggests that this threat will remain at the forefront of intelligence and security considerations for many years ahead.

Indeed, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons have been employed throughout the twentieth century.

From the mustard gas (chemical weapon) used by both sides in World War I, the experiments with various types of biological agents conducted by Japan in the 1930s and 1940s in China, tell the story. The nuclear bombs dropped by the US on Japan at the end of World War II, the chemical weapons (CW) used by Iraq against its own population in 1988 and the sarin gas (CW) dispersed in the subway system of Tokyo by the religious sect Aum Shrinikyo in 1995 are well documented.

Yet, despite a handful of other examples, overall CBRN use at a large scale has been limited. States have dedicated significant attention and resources to countering the proliferation of CBRN weapons and preparing for the potential effects of CBRN attacks.

Nonetheless, attaining or retaining CBRN weapon capabilities continues to be a priority for numerous state and non-state actors.

CBRN weapons are often lumped together under the header of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This is odd, to say the least, given their different nature, both in terms of their make-up, ease by which they may be produced and potential for destruction.

The material for chemical and biological weapons, for instance, is oftentimes readily available in the open market, yet the actual weaponization and the effective dissemination of these agents, is the more tricky part, requiring technological knowhow that until now has largely eluded the capacity of non-state actors.

In contrast to this, the key obstacle to attaining a nuclear capacity is attaining or mastering the production of the key materials-enriched uranium or plutonium-which, even in 2009, remains a significant hurdle to aspiring nuclear states.

The weaponisation of these materials, although still requiring substantial technological expertise, is a somewhat lesser challenge-especially for state actors-with rough drawings for the construction of fission and fusion devices being available in the open literature.

Similarly, C, B, R, and N weapons are often treated as functional equivalents with regards to their effects, despite the fact that they play very different roles in strategic doctrines of state and non-state actors.

For example they may be designed as tactical weapons, geared towards applications on the battlefield or in the civil domain, or as strategic weapons that serve a deterrent value or can be used to wreak massive havoc.

The subject of CBRN weapons remains subject to continuing scrutiny and intense debate amongst policymakers, academics and military professionals.

The debate on the potential future use of CBRN materials in the security and safety domain in the next five to fifteen years is a great concern.

It includes an in depth-analysis of over 120 key documents that were published over the last decade by authoritative governmental and non-governmental sources, including military institutions, treaty organisations, think-tanks, and universities.

The assessment touches upon technological and geopolitical aspects of the production, proliferation and actual use of CBRN materials as weapons, and examines the capacities and potential intentions of state and non-state actors.

Chemical weapons

Chemical weapons (CW) come in many shapes and forms, with most conventional weaponry also relying on chemical explosives.

CW, however, are distinct to the extent that they are understood to be ‘non-living, manufactured chemical agents combined with a dispersal mechanism that, when activated, produce incapacitating, damaging or lethal effects on human beings, animals or plants.

Chemical agents are dispersed in three different forms: gas, (solid) aerosol, or as a liquid, and are delivered through inhalation, ingestion, or absorption by the skin.

Effects of such agents as blister, blood (cyanides), chocking (pulmonary), and nerve agents may surface immediately or only over the course of days.

State Proliferation, the Chemical Weapon Convention (CWC) and Challenges Modern chemical weapons where first used on a large scale during World War I.

Active research and development continued through the interwar years and World War II, although actual use was rather sporadic.

The Cold War saw the development of extensive stockpiles of CW on both sides, and several developing countries successfully acquired CW capabilities.

They were extensively used by the Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein against Iran, as well as parts of their own population.

The introduction of the Chemical Weapon Convention (CWC) in 1997 has significantly reduced existing stockpiles and there are a number of states that have declared CW stockpiles and have started their destruction under the rules of the convention, including the US, Russia, India, South Korea, Libya.

Despite the fact that all state parties have committed to destroy their chemical weapon-stockpiles by 2012, some countries are behind schedule, most notably the US and Russia, and it is unlikely that they will be able to meet the deadline.

There are a number of reasons for this delay, including insufficient funding, technical difficulties, CW-destruction related accidents resulting in increasing attention for public health issues, and lack of political will.

It is also impossible for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to inspect every facility in the country to verify actual compliance and huge discrepancies exist in the depth and scope of implementation between the different state parties.

Over half of the CWC member states have so far failed to provide the legal framework to regulate the import and export of chemicals and related technology, and in many countries no licensing regime is yet in place.

Furthermore, progress in the field of chemical materials and weapons disposal is behind schedule and (illegal) chemical weapon dumpsites, for instance at sea, pose an environmental hazard.

Finally, it should be remembered that while a very large number of states have signed the CWC, its membership is not universal. Some of the non-signatories as well as some of the signatory states are suspected of retaining a clandestine CW capability, including China, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Israel.

A further challenge arises from the huge amounts of chemical compounds that are continuously processed and transported around the globe in industries with a wide variety of purposes.

Some of these chemicals are toxic and generally referred to in the literature as Toxic Industrial Chemicals (TICs).

The median lethal toxicity of TICs is between 10-100 times lower than that of CW agents, but as compared to ca. 70 existing CW agents there are approximately 70,000 different TICs, many of which are produced in great quantities and stored and transported around the world.

Chemical Terrorism Universal adherence to and strict national implementation of the CWC are also deemed to be vital in meeting the threat of the use of toxic chemicals by terrorist organizations.

In their absence, terrorist organizations will find it easier to acquire a chemical weapon capability. Nevertheless, it should be borne in mind that the CWC was not designed as a counter-terrorist convention.

As such, the CWC focuses on the production of militarily significant quantities of chemical agents and not on smaller quantities which might be useful to terrorist organizations.

Within the current verification regime, it is impossible to guarantee that a diversion of a kilogramme of quantities of key toxic chemicals will be detected.

Although the fabrication of advanced and effective CW will likely remain a technological challenge to non-state actors, the intent of non-state actors to use CW is certainly present.

The Monterey WMD terrorism database reports both attacks and ‘plot incidents’, in which the perpetrators were able to acquire CW agents, but failed to use it.

In a sample drawn from the Monterey WMD terrorism database from the period 1988-2004, 207 of the 316 CBRN incidents recorded involved CW.

Yet, these incidents mostly involve conventional explosives mixed with openly available chemicals to make them more deadly, or are failed attempts to weaponise chemical agents.

The only attack that involved a standard CW agent-the Tokyo Sarin gas attacks by Aum Shrinikyo in 1995 -showed how difficult it is to mount an effective CW attack, even for an organization with high levels of expertise and sufficient funding.

Technological Developments and Future Use of Chemical Materials Rapid developments in science and technology have also complicated the nature of the work of the OPCW.

The globalisation of chemical industry, with thousands of facilities spread all over the world, and many ‘multipurpose batch facilities that can be readily switched from one product to another,’ is a challenge to any inspection regime and provides an increased logistical burden to the OPWC.

The introduction of micro-reactors allowing for safe, small-scale production of chemical agents, which are easy to hide and thus more difficult to detect, create additional difficulties.

A key trend in science and technology that is likely to affect the future of CW is the increasing convergence of chemistry and biology.

This might result, among other things, in different synthesis routes to existent toxics and the possibility of new, laboratory-designed toxics.

Discoveries in nanotechnology offer additional possibilities to assist in dispersal methods. States with a relatively weak knowledge base will be able to produce and effectively deploy advanced CW.

However, the production and effective deployment of advanced CW will likely remain a considerable technological challenge to non-state actors, although according to some analysts not an insurmountable one.

Cruder ways of chemical agents’ dispersal-such as currently practiced by Iraqi insurgents, who combine chlorine with conventional explosives, to name only one known example-may certainly belong to the realm of possibilities, especially within an asymmetric context.

Biological weapons

A biological weapon (BW) is combining ‘a biological warfare agent with a means of dispersing it. Biological warfare agents are microorganisms such as viruses or bacteria that infect humans, livestock or crops and cause an incapacitating or fatal disease.’

They are delivered through ingestion, inhalation or through absorption by the skin. Symptoms of illness have a time lagged effect and appear after a period ranging from days to weeks.

Biological agents, according to scientists, are categorised in three different forms of micro-organisms: bacteria; viruses; and rickettsiae, fungi and toxins.

The last category, toxins are sometimes also considered to be chemical agents as they are non-living poisons, although produced by living plants, insects and animals.

State Proliferation, the Biological Weapon Convention (BWC) and Challenges Primitive biological warfare has been waged by humans since ancient times.

However, only in the 20th century the advent of modern medicine and biology allowed for the systematic development of a range of biological warfare agents and their weaponisation.

Several countries manufactured and used experimental BW during WWI and WWII, even though with rather limited success.

Research and development of BW has continued throughout the Cold War with US and the Soviet Union at the forefront, leading to the successful weaponisation of such deadly agents as anthrax or the smallpox virus.

The threat of BW was significantly reduced with the introduction of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1972, which outlawed the development, use, and stockpiling of all BW and mandated their destruction.

Nonetheless, several countries, such as the Soviet Union or Iraq, are known to have continued extensive clandestine BW programmes, sometimes until well into the 1990s.

Despite recent successes in dismantling BW programmes (e.g. in Iraq or Libya), at least half a dozen countries around the world are suspected to retain at least some form of offensive BW capacity today.

There are several countries that have not ratified or signed the treaty, including Israel, Egypt, and Syria. The dangersfrom state-led BWs programmes have been reduced in recent years, but concerns remain over residual capacities and possible clandestine BW programmes.

Worries about future proliferation focus mainly on non-state actors and the fact that advanced biotechnology is growing in an increasingly important part of the global economy, also in developing countries.

The fundamentally dual-use character and accelerating diffusion of biotechnology leads to a mushrooming of actors with potential access to material, infrastructure and expertise needed to develop BW and even advanced BW (ABW).

This may include many developing countries and potentially even subnational actors. Non-proliferation efforts will also be challenged by the fact that potential BW programmes are likely to be very difficult to distinguish from legitimate biotechnology enterprises.

These developments pose a fundamental challenge to the existing non-proliferation regimes for BWs.36 Biological Terrorism In recent years, the debate around BWs and non-proliferation has increasingly focused on non-state actors, and terrorist groups in particular.

At least 25 ‘distinct subnational actors’ are known to have ‘shown concerted interest’ in acquiring BW, with at least eight of them known to have been successful.

The experiments of Aum Shrinikyo with Anthrax and Ebola, as well as the 2001 Anthrax attacks in the US are well-documented examples.

If successfully deployed, a terrorist attack with BW could have devastating consequences, with 10 grams of anthrax spores being theoretically able to kill as many people as a ton of the nerve gas sarin, and 30 kg as many people as a nuclear bomb of the size used in Hiroshima.

Handling BW agents is obviously hazardous but obtaining them is considered relatively easy and very cheap in comparison to chemical or let alone nuclear weapons.

However the key challenge for a non-state actor would be to effectively weaponise and deploy an agent, which demands extensive scientific and technological know-how.

In most cases, this will make the use of BW by terrorist groups ‘more difficult or less effective than most people realise’.

Radiological weapons

Radiological Weapons Radiological weapons (RW) combine radioactive material with a means of dispersing it among a target population, resulting in the inhalation or ingestion of, or immersion with, radioactive material.

The resulting exposure to alpha and beta particles, gamma rays and neutrons produces incapacitating or lethal effects through external and internal radiation.

Dispersal could take place through combining radioactive material with conventional explosives in a ‘dirty bomb’, by dispersing it in form of aerosols or liquids, or even by contaminating water or food supplies.

The effects of RWs and the speed with which they manifest will vary considerably, depending on the type of radioactive material used, the length and form of exposure, and the countermeasures taken.

A RW thus essentially relies on spreading hazardous radioactive material among a target population.

While some R&D towards RWs was conducted during the Cold War, state actors have rarely developed RWs49"presumably preferring to concentrate their efforts on acquiring much more powerful and deadly nuclear weapons (NW).

However, interest in RWs has increased in recent years as it has been claimed that they may constitute an attractive weapon for non-state actors with limited capacities and resources.

Far less destructive than a NW, an effective RW could nonetheless cause considerable casualties, widespread panic and disruption, as well as sizeable economic damage.

Availability of Radioactive Material Much of the argument for RWs as terrorists ‘weapon of choice’ has concentrated on the fact that acquiring radioactive material in sizeable quantities is thought to be relatively easy: different suitable isotopes are used in large quantities in various civilian applications around the globe, some of which lack strict monitoring or security arrangements as will be discussed more in depth in the section on NWs.

Radioactive material may also be obtained from the civilian nuclear fuel cycle by harvesting it from widely used mixed oxide fuel (MOX), which is a relatively simple technical procedure.

The more potent the material and the greater the quantities acquired, the more hazardous it would become to transport and handle the material.

However, it has been suggested that terrorist groups with a fanatical following with little regard for their own life might be willing to accept their own exposure to harmful radiation while preparing and executing an attack.

The typical example discussed in the literature for dispersing radioactive material in order to harm a target population is the so-called ‘dirty bomb’: a dirty bomb simply packs the radioactive material together with powerful conventional explosives.

The explosion of the dirty bomb would then disperse particles of radioactive material over a large area.

There are divergent opinions on effectiveness of a dirty bomb and much of it will depend on the force of the explosion, the type of radioactive material used, the particle-size of the dispersed material, weather conditions, counter measures etc.

However, there seems to be a consensus that the amount of casualties would be relatively low and probably not reach the three figures.

Nonetheless, the repercussions of a RW are likely to be severe due to the large scale disruption of public life, an enormous stress on the health care system, extremely expensive clean-up operations, and the likelihood of a sizeable psychological impact.
While it is not trivial to produce a dirty bomb with optimal particle size and dispersion pattern to maximise casualties, it is considerably simpler than constructing a nuclear device, as no fission or fusion reactions have to be triggered.

Experts have drawn attention to alternatives to dirty bombs in dispersing radioactive material. It has been suggested that a variety of approaches could be used to disperse fine particles amongst an, in most cases unwitting, target population, provoking it to inhale, ingest or to become immersed with radioactive matter.

This could be achieved e.g. by radioactively contaminating water or food supplies, aerosolizing radioactive material or dissolving it in water which could be used to soak victims with it.

Such an approach could be considerably more dangerous than a dirty bomb if it is successful in getting victims to absorb radioactive material into their bodies, as miniscule amounts of radioactive material are likely to be lethal if ingested or inhaled.

In the aftermath of 9/11, a fervent discussion has ensued on the prospects of terrorist groups attacking civilian nuclear reactors in order to either seize dangerous radioactive material for the purpose of assembling a ‘dirty bomb’ or to sabotage the nuclear plant in order to cause the hazardous leakage of radioactive material.

Experts seem to agree that the threat from using spent fuel rods in a RDD is relatively minor, paradoxically because of the fact that they are so dangerous: unshielded exposure to fuel rods is likely to cause a lethal radioactive dose in a very short time span and the extremely hot and heavy rods are difficult to manipulate, let alone to transport to a suitable target for detonation.

Nuclear weapons

According to the Lexicon for Arms Control, nuclear weapons are explosive devices that are based on nuclear reactions.

Nuclear explosives are based on self-sustained nuclear reactions which transform the nuclear structure of atoms and in the process release great bursts of energy.

These processes are characterised by either fission reactions or (more powerful) fission and fusion reactions.

Devastating damage accrues through a combination of effects comprising a powerful blast wave, thermal radiation, and initial and residual radiation.

Whether based on fission only (atomic bomb), or fission and fusion (hydrogen bomb), the assembly of nuclear weapons requires fissile material (typically highly-enriched uranium or plutonium) and substantial engineering expertise.

It has been suggested that cruder ‘improvised nuclear devices’ (INDs) might also be constructed. If successful, the latter might compare to a smaller ‘conventional’ nuclear bomb.

If failing to reach a critical mass for a self-sustained nuclear reaction, the impact might nonetheless compare to a gigantic conventional explosion and would include dangerous radiological fall-out.

State Proliferation, Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and Challenges Developed and deployed first by American forces during World War II, NWs have become the epitome of WMD and symbol of ultimate destructive power.

Around the mid-20th century, only handful countries had managed to develop their own NWs, but today it is estimated that between 35-40 countries possess the knowledge and capacity to attain a nuclear capability in a relatively short time span.

In 2009 there exist nine states with a nuclear capability of some sort: US, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea.

Iran is suspected to seek a nuclear capability. Only four states are not party to the principal nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)-India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan.

Nonetheless it has been argued that the NPT is plagued by a number of fundamental weaknesses. Foremost, a number of nuclear ‘don’t-haves’, seem to be increasingly interested in acquiring NWs, especially since the nuclear ‘haves’ seem to do little to fulfill one of the key tenets of the treaty: giving up NWs.

Furthermore, the prerogatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the institution charged with the enforcement of the NPT, are limited.

The IAEA is charged particularly with ‘preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to NWs or other nuclear explosive devices.’

However, the IAEA has only limited verification responsibilities and lacks clear authority to secure nuclear material, to install near-real-time surveillance devices at the sites it inspects, or to conduct the wide-area surveillance needed to monitor activities covered under the so-called Additional Protocol to the NPT.

Neither can the IAEA prevent the indigenous weaponisation of states that are not signatory to the treaty.

Furthermore, it is beyond the capacities of the IAEA to monitor the tremendous amounts of fissile material worldwide.

Finally, the NPT features a three month withdrawal clause, allowing states to acquire technology and nuclear material under the auspices of the IAEA, and, having obtained this technology, withdraw from the treaty.

Additional non-proliferation agreements and organisations cover the trade in dual use technologies, such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Recent years have provided ample evidence about the existence of a thriving black market in nuclear materials and technology.

Materials traded are dual use goods and subcomponents for example for gas centrifuges, reactors, computernumerically controlled machine tools, laser alignment systems and hot cell technology, among other things.

It is projected that concealing such technologies will be easier in the future. The existence of poorly guarded nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union continues to form a source of proliferation concern.

Technology and knowledge will very likely continue to proliferate as a result of increasing mobility of information and people, and a diminished capacity on the part of states to monitor and control these flows.

The globalisation of education opens up myriad possibilities to gain the necessary scientific expertise, both in the field of nuclear enrichment and in weapons design.

Mastering the production of the key materials-enriched uranium or plutonium-is the main challenge.

The weaponization of these materials, although still requiring substantial technological expertise, is a slightly lesser challenge-especially for state actors-with rough drawings for the construction of fission and fusion devices available in the open literature.

Experts have also discussed the development of new types of NWs and alternative uses. Specifically, they describe the development of low yield tactical weapons such as nuclear bunker busters and Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrators (RNEP), as well as electromagnetic pulse-effect bombs and high-altitude nuclear blasts designed to disrupt an enemy’s information networks and systems via a powerful electromagnetic impulse.