Weapons of mass destruction

  • Last updated: 28 Jun. 2016 14:14

The proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and their delivery systems, could have 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.

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

(© Science Photo Library / Van Parys Media )


  • NATO Allies seek to prevent the proliferation of WMD through an active political agenda of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation.
  • The WMD Non-Proliferation Centre at NATO Headquarters is strengthening dialogue among Allies, assessing risks and supporting defence efforts to improve Alliance preparedness to respond to the use of WMD or chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) agents.
  • NATO is strengthening its defence capabilities to defend against CBRN attacks, including terrorism.
  • NATO conducts training and exercises designed to test interoperability and prepare forces to operate in a CBRN environment.


More background information

  • NATO’s weapons of mass destruction initiatives

    NATO Allies engage actively in preventing 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 harmonising 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.

    NATO is prepared for recovery efforts, should the Alliance suffer a WMD attack or chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) event, through a comprehensive political, military and civilian approach.

    Despite significant progress, however, major challenges remain.

    The Alliance stepped up its activities in this area in 1999 with the launch of the WMD Initiative. This initiative was designed to integrate political and military aspects of Alliance work in responding to the proliferation of WMD. Since then, Allies continue to intensify and expand NATO's contribution to global non-proliferation efforts, in particular 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 and continue to improve civil preparedness and consequence-management capabilities in the event of WMD use or a CBRN attack or accident.

    Weapons of Mass Destruction Non-Proliferation Centre

    The WMD Non-Proliferation Centre was launched in May 2000 as a result of the WMD Initiative that was approved at the April 1999 Washington Summit. It is structurally embedded in the Emerging Security Challenges (ESC) Division at NATO Headquarters and comprises national experts as well as personnel from NATO's International Staff.

    The Centre’s core work is to strengthen dialogue on WMD issues, to enhance consultations on non-proliferation efforts, to assess risks and to support defence efforts that improve the Alliance's preparedness to respond to the risks of WMD and their delivery systems as well as to new hybrid and non-state actors threats.

    Improving CBRN defence capabilities

     NATO continues to significantly improve its CBRN defence posture with the establishment of the Combined Joint CBRN Defence Task Force (CJ-CBRND-TF), the NATO CBRN Reachback capability, 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. Allies have invested significant resources in warning and reporting, individual protection and CBRN hazard management capabilities.

    Combined Joint CBRN Defence Task Force

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

    The Task Force is led by an individual Ally on 12-month rotational basis. Under normal circumstances, it operates within the NATO Response Force (NRF), which is a 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.

    Joint Centre of Excellence on CBRN Defence

    The JCBRN Defence COE in Vyskov, the Czech Republic was activated in July 2007. It is an international military organisation sponsored and manned by the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, the United Kingdom and the United States. It is also open for partners who want to become contributing nations.     

    The COE offers recognised expertise and experience in the field of CBRN to the benefit of the Alliance. 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. It has thus supported NATO's transformation process.

    The COE integrates a CBRN Reachback Element (RBE), which has reached Full Operational Capability (FOC) in January 2016. This Reachback capability provides timely and comprehensive scientific (technical) and operational CBRN expertise, assessments and advice to NATO commanders, their staff and deployed forces during planning and execution of operations. The RBE, together with its secondary network which comprises various civilian and military institutions, is able, if needed, to operate 24/7. 

    Standardization, training, research and development

    NATO creates and improves necessary standardization documents, conducts training and exercises, and develops necessary capability improvements in the field of CBRN defence through the work of many groups, bodies and institutions, including:

    • CBRN Medical Working Group;
    • Joint CBRN Defence Capability Development 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).

    The Alliance also continues to create and improve standard NATO agreements that govern Allied operations in a CBRN environment. These agreements guide all aspects of preparation, ranging from standards for disease surveillance to rules for restricting troop movements. In addition, the Organization conducts training exercises and senior-level seminars that are designed to test interoperability and prepare NATO leaders and forces for operations in a CBRN environment.

    Building capacity and scientific collaboration

    The NATO Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme enables collaboration between NATO and partner countries on issues of common interest to enhance their mutual security by facilitating international research efforts to meet emerging security challenges, supporting NATO-led operations and missions, and advancing early warning and forecast for the prevention of disasters and crises.

    The central objective of SPS activities in WMD non-proliferation and CBRN defence is to improve the ability of NATO and its partners to protect their populations and forces from CBRN threats. The Programme supports research towards the development of CBRN defence capabilities, training activities and workshops in the following fields:

    • protection against CBRN agents, as well as diagnosing their effects, detection, decontamination, destruction, disposal and containment;
    • risk management and recovery strategies and technologies; and
    • medical counter-measures for CBRN agents.

    Arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation

    Arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation are essential tools in preventing the use of WMD 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.

    Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has dramatically reduced the number of nuclear weapons stationed in Europe and its 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 stockpiles of chemical agents and have supported a number of partners and other countries in this work.

    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 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

    Improving civil preparedness

    National authorities are primarily responsible for protecting their population and critical infrastructure against the consequences of terrorist attacks, CBRN incidents and natural disasters. Within NATO, Allies have agreed baseline requirements for national resilience and are developing guidelines to help nations achieve them. The Alliance also serves as a forum to exchange best practices and lessons learned to improve preparedness and national resilience.

    A network of 380 civil experts from across the Euro-Atlantic area exists to support these efforts. Their expertise covers all civil aspects relevant to NATO planning and operations, including crisis management, consequence management and critical infrastructure protection. Drawn from government and industry, experts participate in training and exercises, and respond to requests for assistance.

    Under the auspices of the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC), Allies have established an inventory of national civil and military capabilities that could be made available to assist stricken countries following a CBRN terrorist attack. Originally created in 1998 to coordinate responses to natural and man-made disasters, the EADRCC has since 2001 been given an additional coordinating role for responses to potential terrorist acts involving CBRN agents. It organises major international field exercises to practise responses to simulated disaster situations and consequence management.

    Cooperating with partners

    The Alliance engages actively to enhance international security through partnership with relevant countries and other international organisations. 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 fora of the aforementioned cooperation include the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, the NATO-Ukraine Commission, the NATO-Georgia 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 partners across the globe.

    International outreach activities

    Outreach to partners, international and regional organisations helps develop a common understanding of the WMD threat and encourages participation in and compliance with international arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation efforts to which they are party. It also enhances 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), and 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 organises an annual non-proliferation conference involving a significant number of non-member countries from six continents. In 2015, the event was hosted for the second time by a partner country, Qatar, and was held in Doha in March. It attracted more than 150 participants, including senior officials from NATO and partner countries, as well as international organisations. This event is unique among international institutions’ activities in the non-proliferation field, as it provides a venue for informal discussions among senior national officials on all types of WMD threats, as well as potential political and diplomatic responses. The conference held another successful session in Ljubljana, Slovenia in May 2016, and it will be hosted by NATO’s partner Finland in 2017.

    The Alliance also participates in relevant conferences organised by other international institutions, including the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, the EU, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, the OSCE, and others.

    Many of NATO's activities under the SPS 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 or their components, the safe handling of materials, techniques for arms control implementation, and the detection of CBRN agents.

  • The decision-making bodies

    The North Atlantic Council, NATO’s principal political 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 Committee on Proliferation is the senior advisory body for discussion of the Alliance’s political and defence efforts against WMD 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.

  • Evolution

    The use or threatened use of 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 even more destructive weapons.

    During the Cold War, use of nuclear weapons was prevented by the prospect of mutually assured destruction. 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 countries 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 WMD Non-Proliferation Centre was established at NATO Headquarters (Brussels, Belgium) in 2000.

    At the 2002 Prague Summit, the Allies launched a modernisation 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 threats.

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

    At the Riga Summit in 2006, Allied leaders endorsed a Comprehensive Political Guidance (CPG), that provides an analysis of the future security environment and a fundamental vision for NATO's ongoing transformation. It explicitly mentions the proliferation of WMD 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.

    At the November 2010 Lisbon Summit, Allied leaders adopted a new Strategic Concept. They also agreed at Lisbon to establish a dedicated committee providing advice on arms control and disarmament. This committee started work in March 2011.

    In May 2012 at the Chicago Summit, NATO leaders approved and made public the results of the Deterrence and Defence Posture Review. This document reiterates NATO's 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 play an important role in the achievement of the Alliance's security objectives" and therefore Allies will continue to support these efforts.

    Allied Heads of State and Government further emphasised 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)”.

    The Wales Summit Declaration of September 2014 reaffirmed the above.

    At the 2016 Warsaw Summit, Allies stated that they will ensure that NATO continues to be both strategically and operationally prepared with policies, plans and capabilities to counter a wide range of state and non-state CBRN threats.