In September of 2022, CEO of the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) Christine Parthemore and Senior Advisor Rear Admiral John Gower, CB OBE, served as featured speakers at the 24th International Conference on Chemical Weapons Demilitarisation in London. Their address, titled “The Outsized Importance of Addressing Chemical Weapons Threats,” described why it is increasingly important that nations meet chemical demilitarization commitments and address multifaceted chemical weapons threats—and why such work should be more publicly celebrated—given the state of the global security environment.
Among the many factors shaping that environment are the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the strained status of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), increasing risks of weapons of mass destruction use, changes in deterrence dynamics, a dire trust deficit among many nations, and technological change. This landscape makes progress in implementation and adherence to the Chemical Weapons Convention crucial—not just for the objective of reducing chemical weapons threats, but also for ensuring the international community continues to view collaborative threat reduction measures and nonproliferation agreements as foundational to their security.
The following are their remarks as delivered on this timely subject. Written jointly, the presenters alternated through the presentation.
Remarks as Delivered
Thank you to our hosts for including us in this conference, and to all of you for joining. We are so grateful for your dedication to this work and all you do to make the world safer.
For today’s session, we were asked to think about the current state of the world as well as potential future challenges related to chemical weapons threats and efforts to address them. As it turns out, we will be reiterating many of the things you heard from other speakers this morning, but these things bear repeating.
We have an hour allocated to talk and 30 minutes for Q&A. I know audiences lose the will to live well before an hour is up, so we plan to talk for no more than 45 minutes which will allow longer for the most interesting part – Q&A – or more time breaking and networking. Additionally, we will not use slides but we will post our remarks publicly shortly after CWD on the CSR website, so you don’t even need to take notes if you had felt so inclined!
Our overarching theme is that any continuing chemical weapons demilitarisation and elimination efforts, and preparedness for potential future efforts, hold an outsized importance in reducing WMD risks and encouraging international cooperation. Put simply, your work is far bigger than the sum of the specific efforts many of you are describing in this conference.
Our remarks today will touch on several angles:
- We will describe what we view as current trends and drivers that will shape the risks of chemical weapons possession and use over the coming decade.
- From there, we will name a few things that helped elimination efforts from the relatively recent past to work, as they must inform how the future is shaped.
- In the end, we will provide a few high-level recommendations for how our nations should shift our strategies and actions regarding chemical weapons threats in the years ahead.
First, John will describe the current security environment, which itself indicates the continuing importance of chemical demilitarisation and WMD threat reduction.
The Strategic Backdrop:
Movements Away from Arms Control & Today’s Trust Deficit
This section of our remarks will look at the failure of trust between current adversaries across the board of conventional and WMD threats. I make no apologies about looking at historical threads across the spectrum of WMD. It is our assertion and belief that there is a lack of broad understanding about how deep is the current level of mistrust and how far we have fallen in the last two decades and how toxic this is for the future of WMD and non-proliferation stability. I will try to paint a quick picture before we delve into the other points signposted in our abstract which I hope you have had the opportunity to skim.
I have been intimately involved with WMD and their counter virtually all my career, which started in 1978 when I joined the Naval College at Dartmouth, with a brief hiatus between 79-82 at university, and continued until my significant uplift in autonomy when I left MoD in 2014 just over 36 years later.
In my early years in the surface fleet, every ship of frigate size and above carried one or more nuclear weapons. These tactical depth bombs were effectively the kneejerk answer to the fast, deep diving Soviet submarines which longer thought and focused capability ultimately solved by faster and deeper diving torpedoes. In 1982, as the counter- Falklands invasion Task Force was hastily brought together from the UK and UK and Mediterranean waters, the ships all congregated off Ascension Island for a consolidation and order of the stores and equipment which had literally been embarked on the nearest ship at the time. An unknown at the time, and lesser known even today, activity was the removal of all these nuclear weapons from the warships into a Fleet Auxiliary which accompanied the Task Force south but spent the Falklands war well to the east of the furthest range of the Argentine Air Force.
I mention this for two reasons. Firstly, the obvious decision that the Falklands war was never going to involve nuclear weapons; secondly that the weapons went south because a strategic decision was made that the risk from the Soviet Union was not dissipated by a war in the South Atlantic and there might have been a need to re embark these weapons at speed.
I will concentrate on the Euro-Atlantic theatre, bulging to the Levant, although my remarks apply in parallel but differing circumstances to the Indo-Pacific region as well.
In parallel with this universal acceptance of an inevitable battlefield nuclear component to any conflict with the Soviet Union, I had trained with the Territorial Army at University and became the unit’s NBC officer, learning first hand the equipment, protective gear and procedures designed to allow land forces to survive, operate and fight in a chemical and biological environment which I later enacted as a watchkeeping officer on several frigates. Subconsciously I think one of the reasons I became a submariner was the implicit separation in conflict from the effects of these weapons, at least once in a nuclear submarine! Although the UK and most of her allies had long forsworn and removed any offensive capabilities and munitions, the threat from the FSU was very real and expected.
By the mid-1990s Europe and most of the planet basked in the relative comfort of an increasing range of confidence building measures and arms control and prohibition treaties arising within the latter days of the Cold War and post the collapse. From the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty (which developed the formation and ubiquity of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe), the Vienna Document and Open Skies, and in the nuclear domain, the INF treaty, the ABM treaty out of SALT, and START 1 and 2 as well as the three near global WMD limiting or prohibition treaties and conventions (NPT, CWC and BWC) the entire international security architecture was bolstered and underpinned by treaties and conventions; the turning of the millennium was undoubtedly the zenith of this relative comfort.
But we knew then, in classified reports, and now in open discussion that signature and ratification of these agreements in public did not mean adherence to all of them in every regard in secret. This asymmetric adherence was already eroding and undermining the feeling of security they brought. National interest from both sides of the Cold War divide has been seen to trump the nobler objectives of most of the treaties. Slowly at first but with acceleration into this millennium, the entire house of cards of these treaties has collapsed through considered withdrawal, blatant violation or simply because agreements lost the basic level of trust upon which they depended.
Today, only the NEW START treaty in the bilateral sense and the NPT, CWC and BWC in the global sense survive. Even these have been seriously undermined by the continuing bear market in trust or by flagrant use, either in individual assassination attempts or in the case of Syria, by a state, although at the time not a CWC signatory, with a programme born in cooperation with the FSU and maintained with strong support of Russia.
Despite all of this, until 2014, NATO collective rhetoric in particular was formed around the optimism which birthed the 2010 Strategic Concept: that Russia was a partner or partner in waiting. The increasing economic ties which grew throughout the first two decades of the millennium, including growing dependence on Russian energy supplies in Europe, seemed to cement this view. MacDonalds was in Moscow… often we heard “no two countries with MacDonalds have ever fought a war”
But MacDonalds was also in Sevastopol and Kyiv.
The failure of CFE enabled the illegal invasions of Ukraine by Russia: the relatively uncontested annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the hotly contested invasion from Russia and Belarus this year, have dealt the hammer blows to this already shaky and wishful theatre view.
The NATO Summit in Madrid earlier this year produced a Strategic Concept more familiar to the Cold War years than the optimism of 2010.
I cannot recall, from experience or historical research, a period of tension and hot war since the mid-1950s when there were no effective crutches of dialogue, agreement or treaty which gave confidence that capability, rhetoric or misunderstanding would not lead to grave conflict. I would contend that today is far more febrile, unbalanced and dangerous than the 50s or any high spot since; the Cuban Missile Crisis seems almost benign to me in comparison with today, where the risk of misinterpretation is turbocharged even to warp speed by modern instant communication where truth is as rare as trust.
The effective WMD-related arms control agreements and treaties rested on the foundations of a level of trust and the broad reaching conventional agreements and protocols. These CBMs restricted the likelihood of conventional conflict, itself the most likely trigger of WMD use. All these have been swept away like the climate crisis floods in Pakistan. The three WMD-related treaties sit on increasingly shaky pillars of individual national compliance alone. The inspection and validation regimes in the NPT and the CWC rely almost wholly on the trust of the states party to allow them access. As Christine will outline, the fact that the NPT REVCON was inconclusive rested on a section about IAEA power station safeguards in a conventional war in Europe. The BWC has no such agreed regimes. The penalties for a state flouting them seem ineffective in the face of the trust-free world into which we have slid.
Trust, but verify. Across the power plays of this decade: Russia vs the West, India vs Pakistan, China vs the US and allies, trust is absent or in miniscule supply. Verification is largely a concept, not a reality. I would like to end this section with a piece on “and this is how we solve it”, but I do not yet see such a magic wand.
While I do not have a magic wand, I do see three interlinked elements of activity necessary to ride out this storm of trust deficit and treaty absence or cryosis, and we will discuss them in the remainder of our remarks, centring them on the CWC:
- The need to maintain capabilities and expertise even when our country or allies has completed their CWD programmes, which can create “on-ramps” for future action and ensure preparedness for rapid responses, even when steady-state activities decrease.
- The need to build and maintain effective deterrence by denial policies, strategies and capabilities in the face of CW and BW threats (partly to be able to move nuclear capabilities to a position of sole purpose and avoid the current inflammatory and destabilising caveats and statements in nuclear policies which assign nuclear responses to an increasing range of non nuclear threats)
- The need to consider the interlocking risks from all WMDs and understand the dangerous entangling with high end conventional capabilities and the novel technologies in the creation and dissemination of information. This includes in the range of gatherings like this and NGOs, many of whom are stove-piped under the Treaty of their pipe (NPT, CWC, BWC).
- And finally, the need for more extensive public education regarding the history of WMD programs, the decades of efforts toward their elimination, and ongoing needs in this field.
We will return to these recommendations at the end of our discussion. But first, we will outline numerous factors that we see as shaping the trajectory of future chemical weapons threats, and the rising risks of their possession and use.
The Trajectory of Chemical Weapons Ownership and Use Risks
As everyone attending a conference on this topic is well aware, chemical weapons risks remain with us, even after all the progress the international community has made. The current strategic landscape John described has shaped a few nations’ calculations regarding whether and how to actually cross the line into chemical weapons use. Our national and collective security imperatives require that we assume that such instances could continue—and could worsen.
We’ll briefly cover some of these issues, first in terms of the status of the central treaties, then in terms of patterns of use to date, and then touch on factors that we are thinking about regarding whether chemical weapons possession and use risks may be rising in the coming years.
Current state of counter-WMD treaties
So much is tied to the history and current status of nations coming together to ban and eliminate weapons of mass destruction—and whether they will gain strength or falter, or somewhere in between. This will strongly shape the trajectory of this century.
Here the Chemical Weapons Convention is central. As the title of our remarks indicated, what happens in this field has outsized impact—and we would argue that this should be actively leveraged.
Implementation and adherence to the Chemical Weapons Convention is a critical piece of a much larger question that will shape our future: Will most nations continue to have confidence in international cooperation broadly—and existing nonproliferation and disarmament treaties specifically—for advancing their security?
This role for the CWC is linked to many things, including the treaty being nearly-universal, as well as the ways in which the OPCW has evolved as chemical weapons elimination has proceeded and as the world has changed significantly, and, sadly, because we’ve seen continual breach of the treaty.
It is also because its nuclear and biological weapons treaty counterparts are in an even more challenged state. This starts with the fact that nearly all past bilateral nuclear arms control treaties are no longer in effect, and extends to many, deep issues surrounding the broader international treaty systems.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has long faced strains, yet a few positive signs came from the Review Conference that just concluded. During my visit there, it was the first time I’ve seen nearly all parties come together to support the treaty being one driver of nuclear risk reduction measures. That included some advocates of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons who had rejected this approach in the past as not fast enough progress.
The fact that all but one party to the treaty agreed to a final consensus document shows that confidence in the NPT remains, even if it is perhaps not the strongest, as does the recent admittance of IAEA inspectors to Ukraine’s embattled reactor site.
However, multiple nations expanding their nuclear weapons capabilities is contributing to new heights of concern that the NPT is not adequately influencing the decisions of nuclear weapons possessing states nor the strategic landscape. And Russia blocking full consensus bodes poorly for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which is already significantly more fraught.
The BWC has always been hindered by its lack of implementation mechanisms and near-total lack of staffing. This year, these constraints go from challenging to pivotal: if there is no agreed outcome for any level of cooperative work out of this year’s Review Conference, there is a risk that there could be no formal BWC activities for another 5 years.
This leaves a high burden on the Chemical Weapons Convention, not just for the objective of reducing chemical weapons threats, but also for ensuring the international community continues to view collaborative threat reduction measures and nonproliferation agreements as foundational to their security.
As important as this is, it is constrained by the fact that any taboo on use associated with the CWC has been regularly flouted and is diminishing, which John will speak more about.
The taboo against chemical weapons use
As we all know, chemical weapons have been the most used and in the last 120 years have caused the most death, damage and terror of all WMDs. From before their mass-scale inception there have been conventions to restrict or ban their use, but these did not act as taboos in the First World War, or in the interwar years in several relatively “minor” conflicts.
There was equally no taboo on use in concept in the 2WW. The UK and Allies considered or even planned for their use in both the resistance to invasion of the UK in 1940 and in the planning of Operation OVERLORD. The Nazis developed and stockpiled CW and new nerve agents in vast quantities and of a lethal effectiveness beyond the comprehension of the Allies at the time.
What stopped their employment in the 2WW was not any concept of taboo – this was a total war – but the fear of debilitating reprisal. This was a very real fear on the part of the Allies who assessed the scale of the Nazi capability relatively accurately (just not its lethality or novelty), but an overreaction by the Nazis as they seriously overestimated allied capabilities.
After the 2WW, where acquisition of the Nazi programme through physical stocks, scientists and documentation effectively kickstarted the modern programmes of the victors on either side of the subsequent Iron Curtain, the assumption was, as it was in the nuclear realm, that large scale CW (and possibly BW) use was expected and even necessary to balance out fluctuating disparities in conventional force strength. Again, taboos were not considered dominant.
What I am trying to portray is that the concept of taboo with CW is a relatively recent one born out of the CWC alone. Such a taboo was and is fragile and asymmetric even at its best as, secretly, it was common knowledge amongst allies that Russia, as well as some other states, was flouting the treaty, maintaining an active development and weaponization programme. Uses in the Iran-Iraq war, by Iraq against the Kurds, in Syria and separate use of WMD capabilities in targeted assassinations by the FSU and later Russia have all contributed to the diminishing strength of the taboo.
Indeed, the very strength and effectiveness in the most part of the non-proliferation and controls regime in the nuclear domain is a contributor to the risk of proliferation in the CW domain, as Christine will later cover. Additionally, the very real focus on the humanitarian effects of a nuclear exchange, which gave birth to the TPNW as well as the sheer cost of a new NW programme may have the perverse effect of increasing the attraction of CW to some state actors.
Neither can effective deterrence of this threat rest on the arguably self-defeating notion of a nuclear response against chemical weapon attack. As with BW, effective deterrence will ultimately only rest on denial – in the chemical arena by careful control of chemical processes and reinforcement of what little taboo remains – in the biological arena by establishing and maintaining detection, response and containment capabilities which restrict the effectiveness of any attack and thus alter the risk-benefit analysis of an attacker.
Finally, it cannot be forgotten that divisive possession of nuclear weapons, particularly those weapons with clear and obvious capacity for battlefield use (and declaratory policies which – particularly in the caveats to the Negative Security Assurances – clearly allow for this) are likely to act as spurs to NNWS who feel threatened and CW and perhaps BW become attractive and relatively cost effective options.
Christine will now look in more detail at factors affecting the likelihood of CW proliferation.
Likelihood that CW ownership will rise
What we hope is no more than a small number of nations likely harbour illegal chemical weapons programs today, and a few have used them in the era since the CWC entered into force. Such attacks are grave in themselves, yet the concern is far from limited to these specific cases. They give rise to serious questions about whether motivations regarding chemical weapons and other WMD may evolve in the coming years.
Here I will provide some insights into my organization’s research on this issue, which is broadly framed by three questions:
- Will convergence of chemical and biological threats and means of creating them continue to change & thereby alter incentives?
- Will more countries seek WMD, chemical and biological weapons in particular? And
- What will the effect be if our means of deterrence against chemical and biological weapons is viewed as not credible, in addition to the potential for norms continuing to weaken?
First, we must wonder if we are on the cusp of scientific and technological shifts that will alter how some nations view weapons capabilities. This echoes developments that gave rise to nations first developing chemical and biological weapons more than a century ago.
There are many technological drivers at work here, but for now I’ll name just one aspect, which is the convergence of chemistry and biology, and its implications for both risks and potentially for working across treaties to strengthen cooperation in global threat reduction. There is increasing work around the world regarding biological production of chemicals, and chemical synthesis and synthetic biology. We see this trend as certain to continue.
For years, these trends have led experts to consider the implications for future chemical and biological weapons threats, and the future of implementation for both treaties working to stop them. There may be ways in which the CWC can be leveraged to help address biological threats in the future. Similarly, should the BWC achieve agreement in the future on verification—or even short of that, if there are future elimination efforts that echo those that dismantled past biological weapons programs—expertise regarding chemical weapons demilitarisation may be highly relevant.
Second, whether chemical weapons threats continue rising in the future is informed by countless geopolitical trends, in addition to those shaped by technological change.
Over much of the past two years, our organisation conducted work to understand whether COVID-19, rising nationalism, and other major trends would incentivize some nations to either hedge toward biological weapons capabilities, outright develop them, or consider using them. We conducted extensive surveys and workshops across WMD and general security experts. The results are informative, and also stark in the level of agreement on many points, so here I will outline a few of the drivers that may exert significant influence and which I believe apply to both chemical and biological weapons risks.
The world being in an era of hybrid warfare was one of the strongest determinants, in terms of how nations might consider different tools of conflict. It was particularly stark that most of the experts involved in our work believe that most nations that would take the decision to possess chemical or biological weapons would see them as holding multiple types of utility. Put simply, there is significant concern that some actors may see chemical and biological weapons as both weapons of deterrence and also usable – in particular, that they would deem it acceptable to conduct targeted attacks with such weapons as part of a hybrid conflict. Though this work preceded the invasion of Ukraine, the character of this conflict is proving to align all too well with what this predicted, including the threat of chemical or biological weapons use which hopefully will remain an unrealized one.
Additionally, most experts involved in our work gave great weight to reinforcing cycles of suspicions and reactions to them—the more a country may worry about a neighbour or rival possessing chemical or biological weapons, the more that may drive actors within their own governments to consider such activities as well. While I would expect most nations not to choose the breaching of international laws and norms as their responses, it is reasonable to expect that a few might.
Our work pointed to several specific drivers that could contribute to such suspicion-raising and reactionary cycles. One would be an increasing disregard for territorial sovereignty—again, something we’ve unfortunately seen in the world recently. Another would be continuing lack of trust in treaties and cooperative structures for addressing the risks that the world is facing, or even further weakening of them. Another would be further expansion of concerning dual-use capabilities for which the world does not yet have strong collaboration or governance systems, such as the growth of BSL-3 and -4 laboratories on the bio side.
Unfortunately, all of these trends seem to be moving in the wrong direction.
For us, a good thing is that our work has all been based on unclassified, open sources, so we hope it is useful for public education purposes. It is not necessarily predictive, and of course experts are not always correct. The arc of history changes. Yet with the invasion of Ukraine and other events we’ve touched upon, my concern is that the odds are only increasing that these kinds of drivers may convince certain actors that chemical or biological weapons are acceptable to possess and possibly use.
Indeed, the world has been here before, for example with the US, UK, and France expanding chemical warfare capabilities in response to Germany’s actions. If one of the biggest differences today is that the CWC and other international agreements are in force, this shows the central importance of showcasing their implementation, strengthening them, and ensuring capabilities for their future enforcement as much as possible.
What has worked?
At this point we’ve provided our perspectives on how addressing chemical weapons threats situate in the current strategic environment, and how these threats might evolve moving forward.
It is equally or even more important to keep at the front of our minds what has worked well—the successful cases of WMD elimination and threat reduction of the past, and what contributed to them.
Many of you have taken part in and driven such missions and know them well, so here we will briefly recap a few key points we keep in the front of our minds from our own experience in the policy areas during such operations.
I shall talk about my Syrian experience between 2011 and 2014
- Cooperation and coalition building remain essential. The breadth of countries involved in both the use-containment conceptual discussions and the later destruction phase reached far beyond those you might have initially considered as “naturals”.
- The willingness in particular of the Nordic nations to lead the extraction operation and to provide the vessels for the removal from Syria for destruction in the UK, neutralisation at sea and ultimate destruction in Finland and Germany was fundamental to the programmes’ success.
- We moved from containment and response to destruction after the effective deus et machina of the Geneva Kerry-Lavrov agreement. Without such an “in” to Syria’s programme, destruction was only conceivable as an interventionist kinetic campaign, with massive casualty risk and significant “boots on the ground”. It needs to be remembered however that there remains a strong advocacy within some military circles to retain and use such an overwhelming interventionist kinetic destruction capability. Before the agreement to allow extraction and destruction, as well as on site programme equipment neutralisation there was an almost daily call for pre-emptive strikes, whatever the likely local collateral risk.
- Innovation and flexibility of thought are both essential. Initial mindset was a replication of Maryland and Indiana in Syria, in the midst of a civil war with limited access to water (for a process centred on caustic hydrolysis needing relatively large quantities of water). A leap of imagination across a number of meetings in the US and Europe eventually resulted in the deployment of capabilities aboard Cape Ray and neutralisation at sea.
- Flexibility was also required to deal with leaking Syrian containers onboard the Norwegian and Danish ships tasked with the hazardous entry into the Syrian embarkation port, during the civil war, with the port coming under attack several times during the operation. Such operations will always be messy and likely to deviate from an ordered plan agreed by politicians on behalf of populations. The ability to adjust on the hoof within a broad overall public safety envelope was instrumental to the success in the face of the real situations encountered on the ground and with the realities of the materiel.
- But also …it’s not all about the materiel (except patently in legacy munitions destruction). It’s also important to ensure that any remaining infrastructure, records, paperwork and expertise from past programmes are handled in ways that prevent future WMD risks from arising. This extends to ensuring that personnel from such programmes have promising futures in such a way that their knowledge is not made available through hardship to others seeking either a state or non-state capability.
There is a current running through all of these points: progress in addressing WMD threats, from the practical to the high political, is grounded in technology and capability developments like those highlighted in this week’s conference.
When I left the Pentagon, the first article I was asked to write focused on the role that technological questions and solutions play in all of the above points. This was a joy, as I’d learned so much from witnessing the work of many of you, and this brought to light in my mind how important this recurrent theme is in history.
Discussing technological issues has often preceded and shaped political discussions. This has been the case in the histories of U.S.-Soviet and later U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperation and arms control negotiations. Additionally, at various times when Libya’s security environment was decaying, the United States, Germany, Canada, the OPCW, and others could continue working on elimination of its chemical weapons remnants when nearly all other cooperation with the country had ground to a halt.
In another example to which many of you contributed, over the next week we will see the anniversary of the Kerry-Lavrov discussions which cemented plans for Syria to join the CWC and destroy its chemical weapons materials. Yet the practicalities of enacting such an agreement are what paved the way for this political breakthrough. This included discussions about equipment lists of what would hypothetically be needed to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons materials as well as more extensive planning and the development of solutions to destroy these materials in a range of scenarios that could have arisen from Syria’s civil war. I know we are singing to the choir here, but what we hope to make clear and help with is that the audience who understand and prioritize work like yours needs to expand.
This leads into a few high-level recommendations we would offer, tied to chemical weapons elimination work as well as the broader issues we’ve discussed.
Maintain “on-ramps” & preparedness
for WMD security and elimination contingencies
First, as I’ve written in the past, we need to maintain WMD elimination “on-ramps” for a range of possible future missions. The world needs mechanisms that will facilitate action—sometimes rapidly—when new requirements emerge that need to be implemented quickly.
It is a wonderful tribute to humanity that most of the world’s declared chemical weapons stockpiles will soon be fully eliminated. However, this reality will also mean that investments in relevant capabilities are unlikely to significantly increase, with the exception perhaps of new large-scale missions emerging. This could result in the decline of precious expertise and capabilities.
Yet these missions may still arise—and the threat of chemical weapons may continue to grow. There are likely still countries that maintain chemical weapons stockpiles, and that number may tick upward in the years ahead. We will also continue turning up remnants of past programs in various parts of the world.
We therefore need to maintain some level of infrastructure, a healthy level of intellectual and institutional knowledge, and an ability to access existing technologies as needed and continued investments in new ones. My understanding is that the U.S. government is realigning authorities and programming in this manner, and other nations might be as well.
This will need to be sustained into the uncertain future the world is facing, and that will require continuing high-level support for resources. It was great to see that on display this morning. We need to ensure that future champions are cultivated as well. A strong theme today is that these tasks are not going away, yet that is not as well recognized in broader national security circles.
One mechanism for this could be a standing body that includes key decision makers that would routinely walk through possible future WMD elimination scenarios and discuss what it would look like to ramp up responses. Take, for example, a case in which North Korea normalises and requests international assistance in dismantling its suspected WMD programs, or one in which conflict ensues which triggers similar needs in even more challenging conditions. Other contingencies could involve terrorist groups who were pursuing WMD capabilities in various regions.
Of course, experts like many of you think of such scenarios regularly, and analyse what capability gaps might exist. This must also extend persistently to high-level leaders who are not routinely concerned with addressing WMD risks in order to help them maintain greater steady-state awareness and prepare them in case they must make quick decisions in the face of emerging requirements.
This is not just about readiness for future missions that may arise, as important as that is. It is also about showing continuing commitment to the CWC and other treaties. The destruction of chemical weapons and related infrastructure is an explicit part of the CWC, similar in the BWC. Naturally, this is a reflection of the status quo when these treaties came about. But there will always remain a risk of some actors weaponizing chemistry and biology, and as such, the world maintaining a healthy level of readiness for elimination work will help avoid these treaties seeming hollow or irrelevant, especially if and when such threats rise.
Smart Approaches to Deterrence
As I mentioned earlier, for chemical as well as biological weapons risks, several countries are increasingly eyeing an increased focus on strategies of deterrence by denial alongside the deterrence by punishment that have been at the forefront to date.
NATO, and its prime nuclear members, has long espoused an amalgam of responses to the threat or reality of a WMD attack on one or more of its members. As Rose Gottemoeller, former Deputy Sec Gen of NATO outlined in an article in June in advance of the Madrid Summit, this is a combination of deterrence by denial and by punishment (overwhelming retaliation) which given that NATO nations have no offensive BW or CW capability means in effect a nuclear response.
While Gottemoeller’s article implies the denial of effect stretches across civilian populations as well as the military forces, the reality is that there is not yet a sufficient and coordinated capability to protect civilian populations against CW or BW attack across NATO and response capacities vary widely between nations, including for defence forces and civilian populations, although the COVID experience has focused governments in this area where perhaps they had not done in the recent years prior. Such denial deterrence is not currently good enough to be credible. This leaves the other element – deterrence by punishment through nuclear response.
While NATO has the capability in spades, whether it has the collective will in the face of an attack of initially potentially unknown origin to break the nuclear taboo is more in question. I judge that NATO, like the US or UK themselves, is extremely unlikely to first use NW even after a CW/BW attack and thus I judge this “deterrent” to be at the risk of being hollow.
So a shift to deterrence by denial is in part for credibility purposes. It is also in part to help cover a glaring gap: that at least a few countries have become convinced that targeted uses of chemical weapons might not provoke much retaliation at all. The danger in this cannot be overstated.
This requires that nations expand efforts to ramp up CBRN defensive and response capabilities and deployment options in ways that, in most scenarios, the destructive or chaos-focused aims of an attacker using CBW would be denied success, hopefully better deterring them from crossing that line in the first place. In the same sense, all capabilities for addressing chemical weapons threats should be explicitly recognized as important for deterrence—not just response capabilities.
Here the dual-use issues in the chem and bio fields may play to an advantage, and align with how treaty implementation is trending, at least for the CWC. The OPCW has focused increasing engagement with the private sector, for example, and the world’s networks of laboratories as well as many first responder forces hold vast capabilities relevant to quick responses and denying mass effects of a chemical or biological attack.
So, whether the threat be BW or CW, there is an urgent need to make good on the assertions of capability to deter by denial of effect.
Reflect the interlinking of all WMD
Under Christine’s leadership, CSR considers all WMDs and entangling technologies and capabilities in the round, and additionally links the risk of these threats to the likely destabilising effects of the other extreme stressors on international stability such as pandemics and the effects of the climate crisis.
We do not hold ourselves as unique in this and I do not say that this is the model for all organisations, but it is instructive that governments mostly consider these as an amalgam of threats, while many NGOs in the WMD sector have focused, for historical reasons, on a single Treaty or Convention. My portfolio in the MoD in my final six years covered all WMD, Missile Defence and Arms Control activities and treaties from a defence perspective, which gave the ability to maintain oversight of the interlinking stresses and dependencies.
Such a collocation of expertise and thought gives, in my view experience, the best chance of understanding the interrelationships between and conjoined security effects of all of these capabilities. Looking forward, we recommend organising—and training future generations of experts—in ways that ensure they understand these linkages across WMD and other issues.
Expand public awareness & continue driving accountability
A final recommendation may be one for which non-governmental organizations are best placed to lead: mindful of the sensitivities involved in ongoing activities, there should be more public and policy-maker education regarding WMD risks and the practicalities of threat reduction, deterrence, and elimination work.
We risk a range of challenges based on insufficient public attention to these matters. On the one hand, we often see a misguided complacency that WMD risks are a thing of the past. On the other, we are seeing a surge of talented early-career people who recognize these risks and want to work in the field of addressing them.
One way to address both is to better capture and share the histories involved in this field. This includes both the histories of nations and non-state actors who conducted WMD activities, so that the rationale and drivers that lead in that direction are as well-understood as possible.
And of course, we need to shine light on the historical achievements in WMD elimination and the incredible levels of technology development, diplomacy, and decision-making that made such work a reality. Further, let’s all do what we can to draw positive attention to the Centre for Chemistry and Technology (the ChemTech Centre) that the OPCW Director General mentioned this morning.
For our part, I plan for CSR to run a series of activities to contribute to this around the 10-year anniversaries of chemical weapons attacks in Syria and the work to dismantle Syria’s program which many of you here made possible.
Along the way, we must also not forget the ways in which the international community has fallen somewhat short or had mixed successes. Strengthening norms against chemical weapons use, and WMD possession broadly, requires that the world continues to push for truth and accountability for past uses of chemical weapons such as attacks in Syria. It may seem futile at times, but even attempts that are blocked by countries in breach of international treaties or others have a strong purpose in affirming that the CWC and other treaties are not just documents.
In conclusion, demilitarisation of currently known stocks will remain important for some years yet. Even when this is complete, there are likely to be new challenges ahead. Additionally, as we have tried to illustrate there are pressures and drivers at play which may lead to new proliferation and militarisation which may require WMD destruction efforts in the future. And big picture: let’s be sure there is not a failure of imagination regarding how problematic these issues may get.
Thanks to everyone doing this work – we are grateful that we could both have contributory parts in addressing chemical weapons threats in our personal pasts, and we hope we and our organization can continue to be as supportive as possible from the non-governmental side now.