TCS Daily

Knowledge Unhidden

By Dale Franks - October 30, 2002 12:00 AM

The issue of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) has become a high profile item in Washington. The Bush Administration's position on Iraq is, in large part, motivated by Saddam Hussein's program to build nuclear weapons. The possibility that international terrorist groups may be planning to use biological weapons in an attack on the US has prompted the administration to begin stockpiling vaccines and antibiotics, such as those for smallpox or anthrax. The recent admission by North Korea that they have maintained a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework has added even more urgency to this issue. Clearly, our efforts at maintaining an effective non-proliferation regime have been weakened in recent years.

Part of the problem is that the technology required to build an effective WMD program is so freely available. Nuclear weapons, for example, use technology that is over 50 years old. No technology can be effectively hidden for that amount of time, especially since the fundamental physics behind nuclear weaponry is so readily-and publicly-available. As far back as the 1980's, college physics students in the U.S. were producing workable schematics for producing nuclear weapons that were so precise that government officials launched investigations to see if classified information had been compromised. As it turned out, none had. The field of physics had simply become so advanced that 20-year-old college kids could figure out how to make nuclear weapons on their own.

The situation is much the same in the fields of chemical or biological weapons as well. The Japanese terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo used a bathroom to concoct Sarin nerve gas for its attacks on the Tokyo subway system.

When the knowledge itself can no longer be hidden, non-proliferation regimes must rely on identifying and preventing the export of items used to create the physical infrastructure of a WMD program. There are, however, problems with this approach, too. Many of these items have perfectly legitimate uses in other fields, and the exporting nations may not have the technical capacity or training to monitor such dual-use items effectively. Even more ominously, nations such as Russia and China regularly export dual-use items, as well as missile and missile guidance technology, as a matter of course.

Another problem lies in the nature of many of the non-proliferation regimes. Most multi-lateral export control regimes are voluntary, and operate under the assumption that the signatory states will live up to these agreements. But, as we have seen recently with North Korea, signing an agreement is no guarantee that the agreement will be followed.

Finally, even if the export control regimes were ironclad, there are many states that are not signatories to any of the various export control regimes, but which have, in recent years, developed the ability to build and export WMD or dual-use items on their own. Indeed, one of the more troubling aspects of the non-proliferation issue is the increasing trade in such items between states that are not signatories to any of the current non-proliferation or export control regimes. Moreover, the ability to produce such items means that some states can now produce these items on their own, without having to import them, thereby further marginalizing the effectiveness of export control agreements.

The non-proliferation picture, therefore, is not a bright one. We find ourselves in the unenviable position of trying to suppress a technology older than most people alive today.

There are certainly some things we can do to improve the effectiveness of the current non-proliferation regime. Diplomatically, we can insist that member states of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty adopt the International Atomic Energy Agency's Additional Protocol. Also, we can insist that all member states fully abide by their responsibilities under the Treaty. States that refuse to do so, like Russia, China, and North Korea should be publicly and repeatedly called to account for their failure to do so. Diplomatic efforts should also be made to increase the number of items covered under the various export control agreements, and to expand the ability of poorer countries to monitor and interrupt the shipment of dual use items and other WMD-related technologies.

One suspects, however, that while useful, these efforts will not be enough. The technology is too old, too freely available, and too cheap. The prospect of building a WMD program is, under these circumstances, simply too seductive for some leaders to resist.

If that is so, then we face an important national decision about how to deal with states that actively attempt to obtain nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, undeterred by the diplomatic non-proliferation controls already in place. This means we must weigh the threats from such states, and determine whether we are willing to live with the consequences of allowing them to create WMD stockpiles. If we are not, then we must understand that military action may be required to shut down the WMD programs of recalcitrant states.

The reality is that basic WMD technology is getting progressively older, cheaper, and easier to produce. We'd better start figuring out how we will deal with that reality.



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