Proliferation Pathways: Critical Indicators of wmd pursuit Introduction

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Proliferation Pathways:

Critical Indicators of WMD Pursuit

For the second phase of the Proliferation Pathways study, Stratfor has been asked to analyze the processes state and non-state actors follow in deciding to acquire and deploy weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The second phase builds off of the first phase of the project, in which Stratfor identified the critical state and non-state actors that have the likely capability and intent to pursue the development and/or deployment of WMD.
The state and non-state actors identified in the first phase of the project as being capable of developing WMD, possessing the intent to acquire or develop WMD and posing a threat to U.S. security or interests are al Qaeda, Cuba, Iran, Kazakhstan, North Korea, Serbia, Syria, Uzbekistan and Venezuela. In this second phase of the project, in addition to these nine state and non-state actors, we also have looked at Russia and China as potential proliferators of WMD technology or material.
In assessing the critical factors that can be identified as precursor indicators that a particular actor has started down the path of WMD acquisition or development, we looked at two elements -- technological markers and geopolitical markers.
Technological Markers
Technological markers include chemicals, biological agents, technologies, materials and equipment necessary for a successful WMD program. There are well-established lists of precursor equipment, material and expertise necessary for the development of WMD systems, from the Convention on Chemical Weapons schedules to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s lists of dual-use nuclear equipment and technology. These lists are widely distributed and well-known and the items contained within are well-monitored.
In the first phase of the project, we reduced the list of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons that could feasibly be deployed for the purpose of “mass destruction.” [should we insert here again our definitions of WMD from Phase 1?] The list was short, given the technological constraints on the systems. WMD-level chemical weapons are primarily nerve agents, including VX, soman, sarin and tabun. Biological agents with a WMD-level potential include smallpox, Ebola, Marburg, plague, botulism and anthrax. We determined that radiological weapons do not match the definition of WMD (although they can cause significant psychological and economic damage) and therefore are not included in this assessment. Nuclear devices are the one type of weapon that nearly always fits the WMD category.
But even though we shortened the list of potential devices, the number of potential precursor technologies remained vast. Through internal analysis and consultation with relevant experts and agencies, Stratfor parsed the lists looking for the “Holy Grail” of precursors, something that was available from only an extremely small number of suppliers and, if acquisition were confirmed, would offer nearly undeniable proof of the pursuit of WMD. Unfortunately, there is no such Holy Grail component.
While reference will be made in this study to these technological precursors, there is little value added in rehashing or second-guessing such existing monitoring systems. Monitoring the supply and spread of the precursor technologies and materials is a necessary step in identifying (and, if deemed necessary, preventing) the spread of WMD technologies. But many of the precursor technologies have “benign” applications as well. Identifying the transfer of such technologies, then, provides a starting point for a more in-depth assessment of the supplier and receiver, but it still leaves a very large number of items to focus on.
Geopolitical Markers
Geopolitical markers are political, security and social factors that encourage or restrain state and non-state actors from pursuing WMD or participating in the spread of such technologies. We have kept with the initial model of the Proliferation Pathways study, winnowing the list of potential proliferators to focus on the high-risk, high-threat actors. We have looked at the capability, intent, targeting criteria and operational history and principles of each of the critical actors, laid those variables against a 10-year forecast framework (or “matrix”), and sought to identify critical inflection points and behavioral cues that would indicate and increased the likelihood of WMD proliferation.
There are two simultaneous trends emerging in the international system that will make the spread of WMD, particularly nuclear weapons, a more pressing concern over the next decade. The first is the shifting patterns of Russian behavior. Moscow’s push to reassert Russian influence and authority in its near abroad, and the inability or disinterest unwillingness of the United States and Europe to offer a significant counter to many of these Russian overtures, is bringing new pressures to bear. particularly in Central Asia. At the same time, there is growing competition between Russia and China over Central Asian resources and loyalties. This is raising the potential for Central Asian states, particularly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, to pursue WMD systems that would give them a greater sense of independence.
The second trend is a shift in global attitudes toward the expansion of nuclear weapons systems. The U.S. acceptance of India as a nuclear weapons state, the unpunished North Korean nuclear test, the open discussions of potential nuclear weapons development in Japan -- all are signs of a changing undercurrent in the nuclear weapons debate. This is shifting the perception of non-nuclear states of the potential repercussions of heading down the nuclear path. If the perceived “cost” of nuclear weapons development is lowered, the perceived benefits may outweigh the risks. The decision to pursue nuclear weapons, then, becomes easier to make.

Findings: Identifying Markers
The core purpose of the Proliferation Pathways project is to identify markers that could indicate that a state or non-state actor is pursuing the acquisition or development of WMD. Spotting such activity does not guarantee an actor is on a proliferation pathway, but it does provide a trigger for closer observation and intelligence-gathering, thus allowing for a more efficient and focused allocation of resources.
In determining where to look for potential proliferators, most studies focus on technological transfers and/or a perception of subjective intent to identify those state and non-state actors most likely to pursue WMD. We have modified this somewhat for the current study, looking at technology but shifting away from a subjective basis of intent and toward a more objective view of intent.
We have defined intent as an objective element -- not what an actor says, or whether they are perceived as “bad,” but the geopolitical realities that determine what an actor needs and enable or constrain certain courses of action. The choices, imperatives and actions of state and non-state actors are shaped by geography, ethnicity, support, alliances, resources, opponents and numerous other factors, most of them not alterable by the actor. Intent is very different from desire, and even further removed from the spoken or written word.
Technological Markers
Technological markers can be separated by the type of WMD system being pursued; chemical, biological or nuclear. In each case, the markers are a combination of technologies, precursor materials, machineries and skills or knowledge. While limited chemical, biological and radiological programs can be conducted using lesser precursors and in smaller quantities, thus largely avoiding detection, these limited systems do not meet the prior criteria laid out for WMD-class systems. Blocking all development of potentially weaponizable chemical, biological or radiological systems is an impossibility, but focusing on the most dangerous systems in the most likely proliferators offers the best opportunity to avoid a large-scale catastrophe.
Nerve agents are the only chemical weapons that can realistically effectively be used as WMD, given our definition. Nerve agents are generally divided into two categories, G-agents and V-agents. The high lethality G-agents include soman (GD), sarin (GB) and tabun (GA). The most lethal V-agent known is VX. The more lethal the agent, the fewer commercial applications its precursors have. G-agents are easier to produce than V-agents.
In any chemical weapons program, the key phases are acquisition, synthesis, formulation, testing, loading and waste disposal. While the actual synthesis steps for a particular chemical may not be especially distinctive, the handling, testing, “packaging” and disposal of these highly toxic materials often leave the most easily detectable traces.

Many of the precursors to these agents are listed on the Convention on Chemical Weapons schedules. [need a note here that will take us to the table listing all the class 1 and 2 chemicals] Schedule 1 chemicals have no legitimate commercial uses outside of making chemical weapons. Schedule 2 chemicals have limited commercial applications. Schedule 3 chemicals are readily obtainable and have legitimate commercial applications.
The acquisition of precursor materials can be either through purchase or through chemical synthesis. All of the key precursors of nerve agents can be made from very basic starting materials, such as phosphorus, chlorine and fluorine, in facilities that are not particularly large and could be part of an existing industrial complex. One indicator of the production of these precursors is the relatively large amount of energy required. [– need more detail here. How much more energy than for non-weapon chemical programs?]
In general, all [can something be both “in general” and “all but one?” teekell needs to clarify this, and the Israeli example.] nerve agents except for tabun have a bond between the methyl group and the phosphorus group of chemicals. Therefore, there is the need for a methylphosphorus precursor or a precursor to the methylphosphorus precursor such as trimethylphosphate. [where can these be acquired? Is there a limited number of suppliers???] This means that the methyl compound can be the giveaway to nerve-agent production.
Therefore, anyone buying significant quantities of methylphosphorus compounds should be regarded with suspicion. These compounds have few industrial uses and no agrochemical uses. If a suspect already being watched is observed acquiring methyl-phosphorus compounds, this action should be regarded as very significant.
The [recent?] crash of an Israeli cargo plane in the Netherlands exemplified this tell-tale connection. Thus, when On Oct. 4, [2006?], a Boeing 747 belonging to the Israeli airline El Al crashed in the Amsterdam suburb of Bijlmer, killing 43 people. The carrying a cargo allegedly includeding 190 liters of dimethyl methylphosphonate and other precursors chemicals, it raised suspicions of Israeli production of Sarin. for sarin, leading to speculation that Israel was producing the agent.
Disposal of by-products could be another indicator of a covert chemical weapons program. The treatment and disposal of waste products takes place during all phases of chemical weapons production and is an important consideration for producer and monitor.
Indicators of chemical weapons by-product disposal might come from air, water or soil samples. Most by-products are toxic but not lethal, such as QF and DL [??? What are QF and DL??? – teekell, please address]. These materials can be incinerated, but this must be done at very high temperatures in order to eradicate any traces. With very volatile materials such as sarin, it might be possible to do stand-off monitoring of plant vapors by airborne spectroscopy.
A more likely approach would be monitoring sewage discharges for methylphosphonates, which are quite stable in water. An example of this approach can be found in the controversy over chemical weapons disposal operations at the Newport Chemical Depot in Indiana. Disposal of wastewater from the facility has caused considerable public concern because methylphosphonates, which result from the neutralization of VX, are very persistent in water.
Looking for spillage in the soil is more difficult. Evidence of illicit activity can be found in the soil near production sites in the form of various methylphosphonate derivatives. The CIA reportedly used this approach in detecting such compounds in soil samples from the El Shifa Pharmaceutical Co. plant in Khartoum. However, access to the suspect site is required to detect this indicator.
There are six biological agents that are WMD-feasible -- smallpox, Ebola, Marburg, plague, botulism and anthrax.
Many of the technologies that support the production and development of organisms and toxins into biological warfare agents are dual-use. Therefore it is very difficult to pin-point tell-tale purchases of technologies intended for the production of these agents for nefarious [nefarious??? Anything less cartoonish?] purposes.
For the purposes of conducting an offensive biowarfare program, producing high concentrations of biological organisms or performing aerosolization experiments requires a series of controls that can be identified. These include the implementation of strict scientific measures in acquiring the seed strain, in maintaining biosafety standards and in minimizing health risks in the lab.
Some of the most indicative technical precursors to the six WMD-feasible biological agents are:

  • Complete containment facilities maintained at Biosafety Level (BL) 3 or 4 standards [will need a chart that explains these standards, what makes them unique over “normal” facilities]

  • Access to the actual pathogenic microorganism seed strain: smallpox, Ebola, Marburg viruses; anthrax-contaminated soil; plague bacterium; botulinum toxin.

  • Access to a vaccine treatment for smallpox, Ebola, Marburg, anthrax, plague and botulism agents.

  • A knowledge base of Ph.D. scientists [do they need phds or just the knowledge level of working with the organisms? The degree itself isn’t the marker, right?] trained in molecular and cellular biology, virology and bacteriology who can accurately and safely conduct biowarfare research and weaponization [– this seems a little circular – to do biowarfare you need people who can do biowarfare...???].

  • Personal protective equipment including full or half suits that utilize a tethered external air supply and that operate under positive pressure.

  • Processing equipment including fermenters (bioreactors, chemostats, continuous-flow station systems), centrifugal separators, cross-flow filtration units and steam-sterilizable freeze-dryers.

  • Aerosol-delivery equipment such as spray booms and fogging devices capable of fine particle-size delivery and that can be attached to aircraft (manned or unmanned). [why not trucks, or just mounted on buildings? Why on aircraft? What about in ventilation systems or in arenas or stadiums?]

Acquisition of seed stock
The smallpox virus has two known stores -- secure laboratories at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and at the State Research Center for Virology and Biotechnology in the Novosibirsk region of Russia. The seed strain of the Marburg virus is found in infected African green monkeys in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while the Ebola virus is thought to come from infected people or gorillas and chimpanzees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, the Philippines, Uganda and Sudan. Research has shown that guinea pigs also can host the Ebola and Marburg viruses [so should folks look for the importation of guinea pigs from high-risk countries?]. All Acquisition of these non-human primates are identifiable precursors.
Handling of agents
Because BL4 conditions are required for handling extremely infectious and hazardous agents such as Ebola, Marburg, smallpox, plague and botulism (BL3 is sufficient for anthrax), complete containment facilities constructed to these standards are a critical precursor to monitor. BL4 conditions include a negative-pressure environment with airlocks and other systems to neutralize the agents in waste and exhaust air. [how can you tell these facilities from the distance? Are there limited suppliers of the filtration or pressure systems to watch?]
Because of the high risk associated with developing biological weapons, it is critical to vaccinate people working with or around the agents. An effective vaccine is a necessary component in any biowarfare program and is therefore a significant precursor in signaling the existence of an offensive capability. With smallpox declared eliminated in 1980, there is no longer an incentive to invest time and money in developing a smallpox vaccine. Likewise, there is no vaccine treatment for plague, Ebola, or Marburg viruses. With this in mind, anyone developing a smallpox, plague, Ebola or Marburg vaccine wcould signal the intention to deliberately disseminate these agents as WMD, though there is significant room for legitimate research into vaccines for plague, Ebola and Marburg.
Since these agents are attractive as biological weapons mainly because of their high fatality rates (50-90 percent for Ebola, 23-70 percent for Marburg), and because there are no vaccines available to prevent infection (the only means of treatment is supportive medical care), attention to precursors must turn back to the use of biosafety containment facilities. While vaccine development for agents such as Ebola or Marburg would signal the intention to disseminate these agents, complete containment facilities constructed to BL3 or BL4 standards, necessary because of the lack of a vaccine treatment and the agents’ highly infectious nature, would be critical precursors to the development and weaponization of Ebola and Marburg. Facilities of this kind should be closely monitored. [this seems redundant with the first paragraph under “handling agents.” One or the other can be removed.]


In the case of anthrax and botulinum toxin, while there are treatments available -- an antitoxin for botulinum toxin and a vaccine for anthrax -- supplies and production capacity are limited and supportive care is the norm for infected people.

Botulinum toxin -- like plague, smallpox, Ebola and Marburg -- is highly unstable as an aerosol and is particularly unstable if exposed to an atmosphere of high humidity, high temperatures and direct UV sunlight. Exposure to these elements renders the agents less virulent. Smallpox is more viable and can survive as long as 24 hours in cooler temperatures and lower humidity, but it can be completely destroyed in six hours or less under unfavorable conditions (high humidity, high temperatures, direct sunlight). Anthrax spores can survive for years. [what is the purpose of this paragraph? It doesn’t seem to offer any insight into technical markers for production of the agent]
Technical hurdles in the weaponization process include the primary task of turning the agent into an aerosol. This requires a refined machining capability to manipulate the agent into a dry powdered form that is highly concentrated, of uniform particle size, of low electrostatic charge and treated to reduce clumping in order for the bacteria to penetrate the spaces of the deep lung.
Technological precursors also include equipment needed to deliver an aerosolized biological weapon. Such equipment includes spray booms or fogging devices that can deliver microorganisms and toxins with a particle size of less than 50 microns at a flow rate of greater than two liters per minute. [are these readily available? Are they also used for crop-dusting or insecticide or other industrial uses, like painting or powdercoating items? Where are they available, or are they commonly used in other applications?]
Medical controls are to prevent laboratory-acquired infections during the high-risk process of weaponization. For the scientists manipulating the biological agents, avoiding the risk of exposure is critical. Failure to take sufficient protective measures can eliminate the specialized knowledge base necessary for weaponizing the agents. Scientists are particularly vulnerable during the centrifugation and aerosolization process. [what is the purpose of this graph? In what way does it identify precursors or signals?]
International efforts in understanding and monitoring nuclear proliferation have actually left the world with few surprises in the last few years. Intelligence estimates raised concerns about Pakistan nearly a decade before Islamabad’s first test, as was the case with North Korea. None of the nuclear tests conducted by the newest members of the club have been truly startling. [moved]
Fissile material is the one distinguishing and ultimately limiting factor of a nuclear weapons program. It is at once the most technically difficult, time-consuming and expensive component of a nuclear device or weapon. Fissile material includes:

  • Weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU), which is uranium that contains 80 percent or more of the isotope U-235.

  • Uranium-233 (of similar purity).

  • Weapons-grade plutonium (plutonium 239 with less than 6 percent of the non-fissile isotopes Pu-240 and Pu-242).

Weapons-grade HEU can be acquired, stolen, or enriched from raw ore. Open transfer is carefully monitored by the international community (a further discussion of indicators that such transfers may take place is included in the discussion of geopolitical markers below). Stealing HEU is extremely difficult, with stocks being closely monitored whether in transit or at secure sites (although monitoring measures could be improved, particularly in places like the former Soviet Union and Pakistan).

Enrichment is a path of long-term investment and focus, with many technical markers that, combined with geopolitical markers, can indicate the probability of nuclear weapons development. The secure facilities, funds and expertise necessary for such a program represent an enormous commitment of national resources for all but the most advanced and wealthy nations, and the length of time to develop a program offers ample time for detection. The consequences of being caught by the international community are substantial, weighing on the decision-making process to pursue development.

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