NATO - North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Weapons of Mass Destruction

Radiation hazard sign. Computer artwork of an exploding symbol for radiation.

(© Science Photo Library / Van Parys Media )

NATO’s Strategic Concept made clear that “the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and their means of delivery, threatens incalculable consequences for global stability and prosperity. During the next decade, proliferation will be most acute in some of the world’s most volatile regions”.

Heads of state and government further emphasized at their Summit in Chicago in May 2012 that “proliferation threatens our shared vision of creating the conditions necessary for a world without nuclear weapons in accordance with the goals of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)”.

That is why NATO will work actively to prevent the proliferation of WMD by State and non-State actors through an active political agenda of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation as well as by developing and harmonizing defence capabilities and, when necessary, by employing these capabilities consistent with political decisions in support of non-proliferation objectives. Both political and defence elements are essential to a secure NATO.

The Alliance will be prepared for recovery efforts should the Alliance suffer a WMD attack or CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear – term for agents which can cause hazards to populations, territory and forces) event, within its competencies and whenever it can bring added value, through a comprehensive political, military and civilian approach.

But despite significant progress, however, major challenges remain.

  • NATO’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Initiatives

    The Alliance stepped up its activities in this area in 1999 with the launch of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Initiative. This initiative was assigned to integrate political and military aspects of Alliance work in responding to proliferation of WMD. Since then, Allies continue to intensify and expand NATO’s contribution to the global non-proliferation efforts, especially through strong support to various arms control and non-proliferation regimes and through international outreach to partners and relevant international organisations. Allies also intensify NATO’s defence response to the risk posed by WMD, continue to improve civil preparedness and consequence management capabilities in the event of WMD use or CBRN attack or accident .

    The Weapons of Mass Destruction Centre

    The Weapons of Mass Destruction Non-Proliferation Centre was launched in May 2000 as a result of the Initiative on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) that was approved at the April 1999 Washington Summit. It is structurally embedded in the Emerging Security Challenges Division (ESC) and combines in its work the knowledge of National Experts as well as of personnel from the International Secretariat.

    Core parts of the Centre’s work are to strengthen dialogue and common understanding of WMD issues among member countries, to enhance consultations on non-proliferation, arms control and disarmament issues, to assess risks and to support defence efforts that serve to improve the Alliance’s preparedness to respond to the risks of WMD and their means of delivery. In recent years the Centre focuses additionally on the protection of forces and populations against, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons and on missile defence.

    Improving CBRN defence capabilities

    The Alliance effort to improve NATO’ s CBRN defence capabilities stepped up in 1999 led to the introduction of the five CBRN defence initiatives, endorsed at the Prague Summit in 2002. These initiatives represent a crucial advancement in improving NATO’s defences against WMD and emphasise multinational participation and the rapid fielding of enhanced capabilities:

    • a Prototype CBRN Joint Advisory Team that can assess the effects of a CBRN event, “reach back” to national experts and provide expert advice to NATO commanders, helping them to choose appropriate protection actions;
    • deployable analytical CBRN laboratories that can be transported rapidly into theatre to investigate, collect and analyse samples for identification;
    • a CBRN virtual pharmaceutical stockpile shared among Alliance members, which could rapidly support NATO deployed forces with pharmaceutical material to enhance post-exposure medical treatment and recovery;
    • a Virtual Centre of Excellence for CBRN defence to enhanced visibility and transparency of all NATO CBRN training and education;
    • a Near Real Time Disease Surveillance System to rapidly collect, identify, analyse and disseminate information related to any biological outbreak, with the goal of preventing or limiting the loss of personnel or resources.

    Four of the Prague CBRN defence initiatives have been brought to a successful conclusion. The first two initiatives now form the Combined Joint CBRN Defence Task Force (CJ-CBRND-TF) consisting of NATO’s multinational CBRN Defence Battalion and Joint Assessment Team, which were declared “fully operational” at the Istanbul Summit in June 2004.

    NATO achieved an interim Disease Surveillance capability in June 2007, and a full operational capability is expected in the near future.

    As a consequence of all these efforts, NATO and NATO Allies have, until now, significantly improved and are further improving the Alliance’s CBRN defence posture with the establishment of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Centre (WMDC), the Combined Joint CBRN Defence Task Force (CJ-CBRND-TF), the Joint CBRN Defence Centre of Excellence (JCBRN Defence COE), the Defence Against Terrorism COE, and other COEs and agencies that support NATO’s response to the WMD threat. NATO Allies have invested significant resources in warning and reporting, individual protection and CBRN hazard management capabilities.

    Combined Joint CBRN Defence Task Force

    The multinational CBRN Defence Battalion and Joint Assessment Team now form the NATO Combined Joint CBRN Defence Task Force, which is designed to perform a full range of CBRN Defence missions.

    The Task Force is led by an individual Ally on a six-, or 12- month rotational basis. Under normal circumstances, it would operate within the NATO Response Force, which is a joint, multinational force designed to respond rapidly to emerging crises across the full spectrum of Alliance missions. However, the Task Force may operate independently of the NRF on other tasks as required, for example, helping civilian authorities in NATO member countries.

    The Task Force deployed to assist the Greek authorities in providing security for the 2004 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Athens and in support of NATO’s Istanbul and Riga Summits.

    Joint Centre of Excellence on CBRN Defence

    The Joint CBRN Defence Centre of Excellence in Vyskov, Czech Republic, was activated in July 2007. It is an International Military Organization sponsored and manned by the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

    The Centre offers recognized expertise and experience to the benefit of the Alliance, and supports NATO’s transformation process. It provides opportunities to improve interoperability and capabilities by enhancing multinational education, training and exercises; assisting in concept, doctrine, procedures and standards development; and testing and validating concepts through experimentation.

    Standardization, Training, Research & Development

    NATO continues to; create and improve necessary standardisation documents; conduct training and exercises and to develop the necessary capability improvements in the field of CBRN Defence through the work of many groups, bodies and institutions, including:

    • CBRN Operations Working Group;
    • CBRN Medical Working Group;
    • Joint Capabilities Group on CBRN Defence;
    • CBRN Training Working Group;
    • NATO Research and Technology Organisation; and
    • the Political and Partnerships Committee (taking over the task of developing and implementing science activities, which were formerly managed under the auspices of the Science for Peace and Security Committee).

    Disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation

    Disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation are essential tools in preventing the use of weapons of mass destruction and the spread of these weapons and their delivery systems. That is why Allies will continue to support numerous efforts in the fields mentioned above, always based on the principle to ensure undiminished security for all Alliance members. In this process, disarmament of both conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction are actively addressed.

    Regarding conventional weapons, NATO is committed to conventional arms control, which provides predictability, transparency, and a means to keep armaments at the lowest possible level for security. The Alliance will work to strengthen the conventional arms control regime in Europe on the basis of reciprocity, transparency, and host nation consent.

    On the field of WMD disarmament NATO has, with the changes in the security environment since the end of the Cold War, dramatically reduced the number of nuclear weapons stationed in Europe and our reliance on nuclear weapons in the NATO strategy. No NATO member country has a chemical or biological weapons programme. Additionally, Allies are committed to destroy any stockpiles of chemical agents and have supported a number of Partner countries in such activity.

    NATO members are resolved to seek a safer world for all and create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons in accordance with the goal of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That is why the Alliance will seek to create the conditions for further reductions in the future. One important step towards this goal is the implementation of the New START Treaty.


    In the Alliance’s 2010 Strategic concept, deterrence, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities, is identified as a core element of NATO's collective defence and will therefore contribute to the indivisible security of the Alliance.

    NATO must be prepared to utilise all options at its disposal to deter a potential aggressor from employing WMD. Deterrence is conveyed through maintaining a credible overall deterrence posture as well as declaratory statements that, inter alia, demonstrate NATO cohesion and resolve. The Alliance will reaffirm and communicate its resolve to hold accountable all those who support or enable the use of WMD against Allies.

    Missile defence

    In the “Comprehensive Strategic-level Policy for Preventing the Proliferation of WMD and Defending against CBRN Threats” of 2009, member states agreed that Ballistic missile proliferation poses an increasing threat to Allies’ forces, territory and populations.

    Consequently, on the 2010 Lisbon Summit, NATO decided to develop a missile defence capability. Missile defence will become an integral part of the Alliance’s overall defence posture.

    In Lisbon it was further decided, that the scope of NATO’s current Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence (ALTBMD) programme’s command, control and communications capabilities will be expanded beyond the protection of NATO deployed forces to also protect NATO European populations, territory and forces. In this context, the United States European Phased Adaptive Approach is welcomed as a valuable national contribution to the NATO missile defence architecture, as are other possible voluntary contributions by Allies.

    In the process, NATO will actively seek cooperation on missile defence with Russia. The Alliance will continue to explore opportunities for missile defence co-operation with Russia in a spirit of reciprocity, maximum transparency and mutual confidence. NATO reaffirms the Alliance’s readiness to invite Russia to explore jointly the potential for linking current and planned missile defence systems at an appropriate time in mutually beneficial ways. NATO missile defence efforts and the United States European Phased Adaptive Approach provide enhanced possibilities to do this. The NATO – Russia Council was identified as an adequate forum for these efforts.

    NATO is also prepared to engage with other relevant states, on a case by case basis, to enhance transparency and confidence and to increase missile defence mission effectiveness.

    NATO leaders declared that the Alliance now has an interim ballistic missile defence capability at their 2012 Summit in Chicago, marking the first step in the development of a NATO missile defence system.

    Improving civil preparedness

    Major civil emergencies can pose a threat to security and stability, and because CBRN consequence management is challenging and could be a massive, costly and protracted effort, NATO will be prepared to lend its capabilities to national authorities, if requested.

    NATO will continually review and update its Civil Emergency Planning (CEP) Action Plan for the Improvement of Civil Preparedness Against Possible Attacks with CBRN Agents to reflect the most recent political guidance; evaluate changes in threats, risks and vulnerabilities; incorporate the development of new technologies, capabilities and strategies; and enhance outreach to partners, international organisations and civilian entities, in accordance with CEP Ministerial Guidance.

    The Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre, which is based at NATO Headquarters, stands ready to act as a clearing house for mutual assistance, upon request, and can also assist in coordinating civil-military cooperation in the event of such an attack.

    Creating standard agreements among Allies

    NATO continues to create and improve standard NATO agreements that will govern Allied operations in a nuclear, biological or chemical environment. These agreements guide all aspects of preparation, ranging from standards for disease surveillance to rules for restricting troop movements. Such standards combine with national force goals regarding protective and detection equipment, thereby ensuring interoperability of Alliance forces. In addition, the Alliance conducts many training exercises and senior-level seminars that are designed to test interoperability and prepare NATO leaders and forces for operations in a CBRN environment.

    Cooperating with Partners

    The Alliance will engage actively to enhance international security through partnership with relevant countries and other international organizations. NATO’s partnership programmes are therefore designed as a tool to provide effective frameworks for dialogue, consultation and coordination. That way, they contribute actively to NATO’s arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament efforts.

    Examples of institutionalised forums of the aforementioned cooperation include the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, the NATO-Russia Council, the NATO-Ukraine Commission and the Mediterranean Dialogue. NATO also consults with countries in the broader Middle East region which take part in the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative as well as with so-called “contact countries” (these are countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the Republic of Korea, which have less formal relationships with NATO but share NATO’s values and contribute to NATO-led operations).

    The support of Partner countries has enhanced the effectiveness of Operation Active Endeavour, NATO’s maritime counter-terrorism operation in the Mediterranean, which continues to make an important contribution to the fight against terrorism. 

    International outreach activities

    Outreach to partners, international and regional organisations will help develop a common understanding of the WMD threat and encourage participation in and compliance with international arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation efforts to which they are party. It will also enhance global efforts to protect and defend against CBRN threats and improve crisis management and recovery if WMD are employed against the Alliance or its interests.

    Of particular importance is NATO’s outreach to and cooperation with the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), other regional organisations and multilateral initiatives that address WMD proliferation. Continued cooperation with regional organisations such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) can contribute to efforts to encourage Member States to comply with relevant international agreements.

    On the practical side, NATO is organizing an annual non-proliferation conference involving a significant number of non-member countries from five continents. The latest event, hosted by the Hungarian Foreign Ministry in Budapest in June 2012, has already attracted more than 100 participants, including senior officials from NATO and partner countries, as well as a number of international organizations and academic institutions. This event is unique among activities in the non-proliferation field organized by international organizations in that it provides a possibility for an informal discussion on all types of WMD threats as well as the political and diplomatic responses to them. Croatia will host the next conference in 2013

    The Alliance also participates in relevant conferences organized by other international organizations, including the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Interpol and others.

    Many of NATO’s activities under the Science for Peace and Security Programme focus on the civilian side of nuclear, chemical and biological technology. Scientists from NATO and Partner countries are developing areas of research that impact on these areas. These include the decommissioning and disposal of WMD, and components of WMD, the safe handling of materials, techniques for arms control implementation, and the detection of CBRN agents.

    Working with Russia

    NATO-Russia cooperation is of strategic importance as it contributes to creating a common space of peace, stability and security. Already in 2002, during the Rome Summit, the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) was created. Today, it is a well-established forum for political dialogue at all times and on all issues, including where there is disagreement.

    Among those issues, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, and arms control are of particular interest for the WMD Non-Proliferation Center of NATO. A “Joint Review of 21st Century Common Security Challenges”, has identified the fields above as areas for practical cooperation.

    NATO is in addition actively pursuing cooperation with Russia on missile defence, including through the resumption of theatre missile defence exercises.

    Further institutionalisation of the NATO – Russia cooperation is also mirrored through the NRC Ad Hoc Working Group on Proliferation Issues, also established in 2002, currenty named NRC Working Group on Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation – NRC(ADN). This body brings together representatives from Allied and Russian foreign ministries and other relevant agencies to discuss proliferation trends and concerns, and to explore possibilities for cooperation

    In addition to work under the auspices of the NRC, Allies are providing bilateral and multilateral assistance to Russia for weapons destruction, and for the safeguarding of nuclear and radiological materials. Such waste material has been accumulated from past activities in the production of nuclear weapons and the use of nuclear energy for civil and military purposes, and as a result of nuclear arms reduction. Furthermore, a joint NATO-Russia Advisory Group has been established to assess the impact of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear terrorism.

    At Chicago in May 2012, NATO leaders stressed that NATO missile defence is not oriented against Russia nor does it have the capability to undermine Russia’s strategic deterrent.  The Alliance, in a spirit of reciprocity, maximum transparency and mutual confidence, will actively seek cooperation on missile defence with Russia.

  • The decision-making bodies

    The North Atlantic Council, NATO’s principal decision-making body, has overall authority on Alliance policy and activity in countering WMD proliferation. The Council is supported by a number of NATO committees and groups, which provide strategic assessments and policy advice and recommendations.

    The senior advisory board that is dealing with the Alliance’s political and defence efforts against WMD proliferation is the Committee on Proliferation. It brings together senior national officials responsible for political and security issues related to non-proliferation with experts on military capabilities needed to discourage WMD proliferation, to deter threats and the use of such weapons and to protect NATO populations, territory and forces. The Committee on Proliferation is chaired by NATO’s International Staff when discussing politico-military aspects of proliferation, and by national co-chairs when discussing defence-related issues.

    In addition, various other NATO bodies assist the Alliance in achieving its non-proliferation objectives:

    • The Defence Policy and Planning Committee (Reinforced) – DPPC(R) – consists of representatives from Allied capitals (mainly from the defence and foreign ministries). It is chaired by the Assistant Secretary General for Defence Policy and Planning. The DPPC(R) is the prime focus for defence and policy consultations on missile defence within the Alliance.
    • The NATO-Russia Council (NRC) is a forum for consultation, cooperation and consensus building between NATO and Russia. Work in specific areas is developed in the framework of ad hoc working groups such as the NRC Working Group on Arms Control, Disarmament and Non- Proliferation, and NRC Working Group on Missile Defence – NRC(ADN) and NRC(MD), respectively.
  • Evolution

    The use or threatened use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) significantly influenced the security environment of the 20th century and will also impact international security in the foreseeable future. Strides in modern technology and scientific discoveries have opened the door to ever more destructive weapons.

    During the Cold War, use of nuclear weapons was prevented by the prospect of massive retaliation. The nuclear arms race slowed in the early 1970s following the negotiation of the first arms control treaties.

    The improved security environment of the 1990s enabled nuclear weapon states to dramatically reduce their nuclear stockpiles. However, the proliferation of knowledge and technology has enabled other nations to build their own nuclear weapons, extending the overall risks to new parts of the world.

    At the Washington Summit in 1999, Allied leaders launched a Weapons of Mass Destruction Initiative to address the risks posed by the proliferation of these weapons and their means of delivery. The initiative was designed to promote understanding of WMD issues, develop ways of responding to them, improve intelligence and information sharing, enhance existing Allied military readiness to operate in a WMD environment and counter threats posed by these weapons.  Consequently, The WMDC has been established at NATO HQ in Brussels.

    In 2002, at the Prague Summit the Allies launched a modernization process designed to ensure that the Alliance is able to effectively meet the new challenges of the 21st century. This included the creation of the NATO Response Force, the streamlining of the Alliance command structure and a series of measures to protect NATO forces, population and territory from chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents.

    In 2003, NATO has created the Multinational CBRN Defence Battalion and Joint Assessment Team, which since 2007 are part of Combined Joint CBRN Defence Task Force.

    At the RigaSummit in 2006, Allied leaders endorsed a Comprehensive Political Guidance (CPG). The CPG provides an analysis of the future security environment and a fundamental vision for NATO’s ongoing transformation. It explicitly mentions the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery as major security threats, which are particularly dangerous when combined with the threats of terrorism or failed states.

    In July 2007, NATO activated a Joint CBRN Defence Centre of Excellence in Vyskov, the Czech Republic.

    In April 2009, NATO heads of state and government endorsed NATO’s “Comprehensive Strategic-Level Policy for Preventing the Proliferation of WMD and Defending against CBRN Threats”. On 31 August 2009, the North Atlantic Council decided to make this document public.

    In November 2010 at the Summit in Lisbon, NATO heads of state and government adopted a new Strategic Concept for the Defense and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Allied leaders also agreed at Lisbon to establish a dedicated Committee providing advice  on WMD control and disarmament. This Committee started work in March 2011.

    In May 2012 at the Summit in Chicago, NATO heads of state and government approved and made public, the results of the Deterrence and Defence Posture Review.  This document reiterates NATO commitment “to maintaining an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional and missile defence capabilities for deterrence and defence to fulfil its commitments as set out in the Strategic Concept”.  The Summit also reaffirmed that “arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation playan important role in the achievement of the Alliance’s security objectives” and therefore Allies will continue to support these efforts.