Proliferation Pathways: Critical Indicators of wmd pursuit Introduction

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But because there are multiple pathways for uranium enrichment, no single definitive precursor or set of definitive precursors can be realistically identified. Furthermore, the intention to avoid international detection has driven certain actors -- Iraq, for example -- to pursue multiple pathways appropriate for the available resource base and international export controls. Potential enrichment methods include, but are by no means limited to, the following:

  • Thermal diffusion (only if used in conjunction with another pathway).

  • Gaseous diffusion.

  • Gas centrifuge.

  • Aerodynamic separation.

  • Chemical exchange.

  • Electromagnetic separation.

  • Laser isotope separation.

  • Plasma centrifuge separation.

The challenge is one of physics -- separating U-235 from the more prevalent U-238, which are distinguishable by their slight difference in mass. It is a difficult process, and while the most common enrichment methods receive careful monitoring, more obscure and inventive solutions have been, and will continue to be, devised -- especially to work around export controls and international monitoring efforts. South Africa is a case in point. It successfully devised its own form of aerodynamic enrichment using a vortex-tube separation process that limited the process’s visibility and was appropriate to the country’s resource base. It also allowed South Africa to field six rudimentary uranium gun-type devices.

Nevertheless, no enrichment process is easily devised or quickly executed. Several processes involve the highly corrosive, toxic and heated uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6), which reacts poorly to water and lubricants. Thus, in gas centrifuge enrichment, for example, centrifuges spinning at peripheral speeds in excess of 300 meters per second are connected to a hundred or more similar centrifuges in a single cascade that must remain clean, connected and sealed and maintain a vacuum. The tails [tailings? – nate?] remain highly toxic and require disposal.[is the disposal something that can be looked for and used to identify an active program?]
While a uranium enrichment program is a substantial investment, a plutonium-based weapons program represents a truly massive undertaking, involving the construction of a nuclear reactor, fuel-handling and storage facilities and a reprocessing plant. These facilities require enormous investments of time, money and expertise and are simply beyond the reach of most nations. [any more here? Something about how these are the facilities easily seen? More specifics on the facilities?]
Significantly, no nuclear weapons state since France has independently constructed its first nuclear reactor. Any initial reactor built has been of foreign design and constructed abroad or has required foreign assistance in its design and fabrication.
The challenges associated with handling UF6 pale in comparison to the monumental tasks of fabricating and operating an undeclared nuclear reactor without the knowledge of the International Atomic Energy Agency, extracting spent fuel and reprocessing it to produce plutonium[wouldn’t these steps be part of operating a nuclear reactor? – nate?]. More than any specific limiting factor, it is the sheer complexity of the process and the practical, hands-on experience necessary to competently plan, design and execute the process that make [uranium enrichment? – plutonium, right? – nate?] such a daunting task.
The fabrication of the actual implosion device is similarly complex. Both the fissile core and the explosives must be crafted to a high degree of geometric precision. The simultaneous detonation of dozens of explosive lenses and the spherically symmetric compression of the core is one of the most difficult and technically challenging exercises in explosive ordnance. Sub-critical testing and careful evaluation of those tests is absolutely necessary. Full-scale testing has been done by every nuclear power fielding an implosion device with the possible exception of Israel – [I thought Israel tested off south Africa. And can pre-tests of the high explosive lenses be an indicator?].
Technology transfers

[we may want to tighten this section, or at least identify from these case studies things or places to look for tech transfers]
What is perhaps most important in monitoring the path toward a nuclear weapons program is the transfer of technology and expertise, which can substantially decrease the time from program inception to completion. Sponsor-state assistance with civilian nuclear power generation has been quite common over the years, but it is direct or indirect sponsor-state assistance with military nuclear technology that has figured prominently in many successful nuclear weapons programs.
While both Israel and South Africa were involved at one point in the Eisenhower administration’s “Atoms for Peace” technology-sharing initiative, it would be another nation that carried them through to full program development. Israel found the civilian assistance insufficient for its purposes and began to look elsewhere, ultimately settling on France.
In the early years of the Cold War, the United States was far outpacing the Soviet Union in almost every faucet of the nuclear arms race -- weapons, delivery systems and missile technology. Despite the fact that the first Sputnik space probe was launched on Oct. 4, 1957, the modified R-7 missile on which it rode was too expensive to field in meaningful numbers, had a long pre-launch sequence and was not accurate. Thus, Moscow was in an extremely poor strategic position vis-a-vis Washington, with its hundreds of long-range strategic bombers.
This was surely a major motivation for sharing nuclear weapons technology with China, which the Soviet Union began doing well before Sputnik. Soviet assistance went so far as to promise a sample atomic device, although such a device was probably not delivered before the two communist nations’ paths began to diverge and Soviet weapons assistance was cut in 1959. However, this direct assistance allowed the Chinese to test their first nuclear device in 1964 and their first thermonuclear weapon only 32 months later -- twice as fast as any other nation in history.
French assistance to the Israelis began militarily, following the humiliation of the 1956 Suez crisis, during which both nations received poorly veiled threats of nuclear attack from the Soviets. French Prime Minister Guy Mollet allegedly intimated afterwards that France “owed” Israel assistance with a nuclear weapon. Not only was Israel vulnerable in a hostile region with no strategic depth, but it claimed a unique right to nuclear weapons as a means of guaranteeing self-preservation following the Holocaust. Nevertheless, foreign assistance would not last long. French President Charles de Gaulle decided to end the program upon entering office in [month?] 1959, but it would not be until June 1960, only months after France’s first nuclear explosion, that de Gaulle’s will was finally implemented. By then, Israel was already well on its way to having a functioning French-built reprocessing facility at Dimona and had completed construction of its own [finished Dimona without French help].[This is confusing. We’re talking about one facility, right? We’re saying it’s French-built. Do you mean French-designed? Are we trying to say Israel was already well on its way to completing, on its own, construction of a functioning, French-designed reprocessing facility at Dimona, or that Israel was already well on its way to making, on its own, a French-built reprocessing facility in Dimona fully operational?]
Israeli assistance to South Africa and Chinese assistance to Pakistan is less well- documented, and Chinese assistance was not necessarily of a military nature. However, the now well-chronicled back-channel network of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist who orchestrated the sale of nuclear weapons technology to Iran, Libya, North Korea and elsewhere, suggests the same motivation that drove Moscow and Paris to share weapons technology -- a common strategic interest.
The Khan case may be the first in which nuclear technology was shared by an individual rather than by a representative of a state. Of course, Pakistan may have approved his dealings in detail and later disavowed any knowledge of them. In any case, the world of nuclear powers and aspiring nuclear powers has become substantially less lonely since the 1960s.
One implication of the unipolar international system and U.S. dominance is that more nations have a shared interest in distracting and overloading Washington. Nuclear proliferation has become an effective means of accomplishing this goal -- witness the way Iran and North Korea have passed U.S. ire and attention back and forth over the past few years. It has been this shared strategic interest that has motivated nuclear powers to share their ultimate weapon. The list of potential proliferators continues to grow.
Geopolitical Markers
Robust systems are in place to monitor the technological markers of WMD proliferation. There is another effective measure as well, namely the geopolitical behavior of high-risk states, which can offer clues before any technological markers become visible.


For this study, we identified al Qaeda, Cuba, Iran, Kazakhstan, North Korea, Serbia, Syria, Uzbekistan and Venezuela as the high-risk actors/countries for WMD development over the next five to 10 years. Clearly, North Korea is already well on its way toward possessing nuclear weapons and is believed to possess chemical and biological devices. There is little that will convince North Korea to reverse its course toward nuclear weapons development now that it has already tested a preliminary device.

Iran is currently on its way toward a nuclear weapons program, following the enrichment path. Cuba and Venezuela may cooperate on the production of chemical weapons, although Venezuela is a far cry from heading down a nuclear path, limited by lack of technology and countries to assist. Moreover, any Venezuelan move toward a nuclear program would bring a swift response from the United States, given the geographic proximity of the two countries.
Syria could bolster its chemical weapons program, and could potentially pursue a nuclear capability. There also is a growing competition for influence in Central Asia by Russia, China and the United States. As this competition intensifies, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which possessed nuclear weapons when part of the Soviet Union, may resume dormant programs. And Serbia, fearing ethnic isolation, may also attempt to pursue a chemical weapons program. More details of each of these cases will be addressed individually below.
Decision-making process
In the decision-making process for each of these state and non-state actors, there is a cost-benefit analysis that takes place. The pursuit of WMD has an economic, technological, social and political cost, and can lead to isolation, or even preventive military action. There must be a sense of overwhelming need to pursue a WMD program -- particularly a nuclear program -- that outweighs the risks.
Pursuing a WMD program is not a decision made lightly. There is at minimum an international ostracism that comes with new forays into WMD development, and at the extreme the development program leads to pre-emptive military action against the producer. Further, particularly with nuclear weapons, there is a very large expenditure of technology and resources, as well as substantial time necessary for the completion of a WMD program. This requires a strong commitment to weather the international pressure and keep up the resources and attention necessary to bring a WMD program to fruition.
For state actors, then, there must be a very real sense of “need” for the weapon system to outweigh the risks and costs associated. WMD programs are pursued for the psychological impact (bargaining, changing the perception of a potential opponent), to counter another WMD system or a significant conventional threat, or for overtly offensive purposes (usually a combination of the first two). In each case there is a need for a unity of purpose in the leadership to weather the counter-effects of pursuit.
For non-state actors, pursuit of WMD capabilities is an attempt to significantly sway the balance of power and control the psychological battlefield. While there is less “risk” for a non-state actor to pursue WMD, in that it has neither state nor territory that it can lose, these same reasons make the development of true WMD systems by non-state actors nearly impossible. Rather, for non-state actors, the swiftest and most likely path to WMD capabilities comes via acquisition from a state-actor (whether bought, given or stolen).
Chemical Weapons Pursuit
In general, chemical and biological weapons programs take less time than nuclear weapons programs. Further, the use of chemical weapons does not appear to draw the same level of international reaction and condemnation as the use or even threatened use of nuclear weapons. Thus chemical weapons are systems that could be used against internal or external opponents, and even used by the aggressor in a first-strike situation. The development of chemical weapons has less of an international reaction, takes a shorter time, and requires fewer resources. Chemical weapons, then, are the “poor-man’s” WMD.
The use of chemical weapons, however, appears to largely belie their use as a WMD system. The 1995 attack against the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinryko doomsday cult is a test case for the release of a lethal nerve agent in an enclosed space – this one by a non-state actor. Members of the group punctured 11 sarin-filled plastic bags on five different subway trains, killing 12 people, injuring thousands and creating mass hysteria in Tokyo. In this case, a tech-savvy non-state actor with ample resources and time failed to bring about anywhere near the scale of a WMD attack.
The March 1988 Iraqi bombardment of Halabja with conventional and chemical weapons lasted for three nights and involved up to 14 runs per night of Iraqi bombers attacking in groups of six to eight aircraft. It is estimated that 5,000 to 7,000 people were killed outright out of Halabja’s total population of 70,000 to 80,000. While under a relatively ideal situation, where the large civilian population could not flee the attack, the sustained attack led to thousands of casualties, this was not a single device.
While not belittling their physical impact, chemical weapons are extremely difficult to deploy on a WMD scale. Their psychological impact, however, is rather great, particularly in the hands of a non-state actor, magnifying the actual death toll. While less effective as a WMD device, and not providing a significant deterrent to potential opponents or aggressors, there are a number of reasons why a state or nonstate actor would choose to develop a chemical weapons program, rather than the more complex and costly nuclear option.
First, chemical weapons are cheaper and easier to produce than either nuclear or biological weapons, and the loss of a facility or the decision to abandon the program has less impact on the bottom line. Second, such a program could be used to mitigate the military strength of a peer state, adding a psychological element to ones one defense by making a state’s ability to inflict physical harm on its enemies appear more formidable. Further, as a force multiplier on the battlefield, while not quite a WMD-level system, chemical weapons can bolster the firepower of a state or nonstate actor.
Chemical weapons programs may also be a compromise among a state or non-state actor’s top leadership, where there is not enough cohesion or capability to pursue a more complex nuclear program. For non-state actors, chemical weapons are easier to produce and require less infrastructure, making them more desirable among the CBRN options – though most nonstate actors stick to the tried and true high explosives. Finally, chemical weapons offer a psychological element not present in conventional weapons – the idea of being asphyxiated by a chemical weapon is somehow more disconcerting than being disemboweled by conventional munitions.
For a state actor to initiate a chemical weapons program, two primary factors must be in place: The state must perceive a threat from an adversarial or peer state, or an internal dissident group. Also, the state must have the means to support a weapons development program, both in terms of finances and technology and in regards to the political will to deal with the potential political ramifications of such a program.  


For a nonstate actor, autonomous development of an effective chemical weapon capable of inflicting casualties on a WMD scale is exceedingly difficult. However, compared to nuclear or biological weapons, the development of chemical weapons are much easier to conceal and complete. In particular, freedom of facility is necessary – the ability to operate in a fixed location for an extended period of time without interference, and the ability to acquire the precursors without arousing suspicion. For non-state actors, it is the additional psychological impact that is attractive in the pursuit of chemical weapons, given that even the simple deployment of conventional explosives has been shown to cause significant casualties as seen in the Madrid and London rail incidents.
Biological Weapons Pursuit
The pursuit of biological weapons is nearly as complex as that of nuclear weapons, though the infrastructure and materials necessary are significantly cheaper. Further, it is easier to conceal a biological weapons program than it is to hide a nuclear program. Like chemical weapons, biological weapons are extremely difficult to deploy on the WMD scale, but gain their most currency in their psychological impact. The fear of a super-bug has spawned numerous novels and Hollywood thrillers, but when used as a weapon, biological agents seem best suited for psychological or limited operations.
The pursuit of biological weapons, then, is primarily one of inducing fear in the potential opponent – particularly if the opponent is better armed. While chemical weapons can be deployed in a way that, mostly, targets a concentration of opponents, biological weapons by their very nature transfer between hosts with little heed to which side of the battlefield they are on. Thus the use of biological agents on the battlefield is highly unlikely. Rather, the systems, if deployed by a state actor, are more likely to target the civilian centers of production of an opponent, or the staging grounds of the military, rather than used on the battlefield.
Non-state actors have less concern for concentrations of their own supporters, and thus could target opponents and even use human vectors to deliver the biological agents (suicide infectors, as it were). However, effective deployment of biological agents on a WMD scale would require massive or widely dispersed releases of the agents. Pursuing the development of WMD-level biological programs, then, is largely beyond the reach of nonstate actors. Biological byproducts, like botulism toxin or ricin, are the exceptions, and these systems, effectively poisons rather than true biological agents, could be deployed against food supplies in a targeted attack, but massive quantities targeting simultaneous consumption would be necessary to reach WMD-scale effectiveness.
In general, biological weapons are the most dangerous to the developer and the least effective when deployed (the more lethal, the more self-limiting), unless used as an incapacitator, in which case it is not really a WMD system. Pursuit of the systems requires a strong commitment of time, resources, and often ideology, and brings minimal rewards. Perhaps even more so than nuclear weapons, the development of biological weapons systems draws the most criticism and punitive response from the international community.
Nuclear Weapons Pursuit
Nuclear weapons, since 1945, have remained out of use, though there have been several occasions where they were nearly used, and there is once again a discussion internationally about the potential limited use of nuclear weapons for specialized battlefield purposes, including their use as bunker-busters for deep CBRN facilities. The lack of use, however, has not stopped the development of nuclear weapons programs.
After the United States, Russia, France, the UK, and China quickly followed in the development of nuclear weapons. Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea have all developed nuclear systems, and South Africa developed and later disabled its nuclear program. Other states, including Iran, Iraq, Libya and South Korea, have demonstrated the pursuit of nuclear weapons systems, though Iraq’s program was destroyed by Israel, Libya gave up, and South Korea was persuaded by the United States to step its development.
Nuclear weapons programs are incredibly expensive, not only fiscally, but technologically and politically. To pursue a program seriously requires a very clear reason – usually a real or perceived threat that is too large to deter conventionally, or the possession of nuclear weapons or another WMD system by a peer competitor. Due to the complexity and cost, serious pursuit of nuclear weapons is never the act of a “crazy” power – the constraints are too large not to require a continual “rational” model for pursuit (though the actor’s definition of rational may not be the same as that of the observer).
Development of a peer system is the easiest to see an understand, though the dearth of such peer development remains perhaps testament to the extreme cost and complexity of the programs, as well as the established system of international constraints. Russia developed nuclear weapons to counter a peer threat from the United States. Pakistan’s weapons were in response to Indian development. Chinese development, initially for the pursuit of influence to strengthen and preserve the regime, evolved into a semi-peer system with an eye toward Russia and the United States. British and French development were part of a Cold War peer system (though with France in particular, it was also to ensure freedom of policy direction in the face of a nuclear world).
The second path to nuclear development is regime preservation. This is the case with “small” powers – North Korea being the most obvious, but Israel’s development followed a similar motivator, given the lack of strategic depth and the geographical fact that Israel is surrounded by larger competitors. Iran’s nuclear program was initially one of regime preservation, via bargaining and to dissuade U.S. military action and provide a domestic focal point for unity and nationalism. It is evolving into a tool for national influence and power.
There are four elements that go into the decision making process to pursue nuclear weapons.

  1. A sense of fundamental threat, either to the regime or to the pillars of regime support (which could include influence regionally)

  2. An internal consensus that the regime should survive.

  3. The resources to divert to the program (fiscal, social, technological and political).

  4. The time to devote to the pursuit of the system.

The actual technology for nuclear weapons production, while complex, is neither new nor particularly difficult to master for a committed state actor. After all, this is more than half a century old technology, and even isolated North Korea has proven capable of development of a rudimentary nuclear device. The assistance of an existing nuclear state, or rogue elements therein, can greatly accelerate the development of a nuclear program, but it also adds a layer of political complications.
For non-state actors, the development of a nuclear program becomes an impossibility. Rather, if they pursue a nuclear weapon, it must be bought, begged or stolen. As mentioned above, many state nuclear weapons programs had or have assistance from another state, and this trend is likely to continue. Pakistan has proven a central point for recent dissemination of nuclear technology or expertise, but Russia, China, France and at one point the United States have been the main spreaders of nuclear technology. These big powers use the spread as a way to enhance their own influence and keep other peer competitors off balance dealing with the rise of new nuclear threats.
Helping another state actor develop nuclear weapons does not bring the same international responses and ramifications as passing on nuclear devices to non-state actors. States are largely controlled by numerous internal and external forces that make the use of the systems highly unlikely (as has been seen over the past 60 years). Non-state actors, however, do not face the same constraints as state actors, and if they pursued and acquired a nuclear weapon, they would quickly use them. Thus, a state actor considers this use in its decision to spread technology or systems to non-state actors – and the state will face the consequences of the use of the device by the non-state actor.

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