Weapons of mass destruction

  • Last updated: 27 Feb. 2023 10:29

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their delivery systems could have incalculable consequences for national, regional and global security. The potential effects of these types of weapons – which include nuclear devices, radiological material, biological pathogens and chemical substances – are some of the greatest threats that NATO faces. The Alliance is therefore working to prevent the proliferation of WMD through an active political agenda of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation, while at the same time strengthening its capabilities to defend against attacks.


  • NATO Allies are constantly working to bolster their defensive capabilities against WMD and strengthen their resilience to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats, including from terrorism and warfare. 
  • The Alliance is also cooperating with its broad and diverse network of partners, including other international organisations, to stop the proliferation of WMD. 
  • The Arms Control, Disarmament, and WMD Non-proliferation Centre (ACDC) at NATO Headquarters strengthens dialogue among Allies; assesses risks to Allied populations, forces and territories; and supports CBRN defence efforts.
  • NATO conducts training and exercises designed to test interoperability and prepare forces to operate in a CBRN environment.
  • As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO Allies will continue to maintain nuclear forces as a core component of the Alliance’s overall capabilities for deterrence and defence. That said, since the end of the Cold War, Allies have dramatically reduced the number of nuclear weapons stationed in Europe and their reliance on nuclear weapons in the NATO strategy. No NATO member country has a chemical or biological weapons programme. The Alliance is committed to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation of all weapons of mass destruction.


NATO’s counter-WMD initiatives

NATO Allies work to prevent the proliferation of WMD by state and non-state actors through an active political agenda of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. They also do this 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 NATO’s security.

NATO is prepared for recovery efforts – should it suffer a WMD attack or CBRN event –  through a comprehensive political-military approach.

Despite significant progress, however, major challenges remain. Since the launch of the 1999 WMD Initiative, which was designed to integrate political and military aspects of NATO’s work in responding to WMD proliferation, Allies have continued to intensify and expand NATO's contribution to global non-proliferation efforts. Through cooperation with partners and relevant international organisations, NATO has historically provided strong support to the negotiations and implementation of a number of arms control and non-proliferation agreements. Allies have also intensified NATO's defence response to the risks posed by WMD by improving civil preparedness and consequence-management capabilities in the event of WMD use or a CBRN accident or incident.

The Arms Control, Disarmament, and WMD Non-proliferation Centre (ACDC)

The ACDC was created in 2017, merging NATO’s Arms Control and Coordination Section with the WMD Non-Proliferation Centre. The ACDC resides in the Political Affairs and Security Policy Division at NATO Headquarters and comprises national experts as well as personnel from NATO's International Staff and International Military Staff.

Improving CBRN defence capabilities

NATO continues to significantly improve its CBRN defence posture with the establishment of the Combined Joint CBRN Defence Task Force, the Joint CBRN Defence Centre of Excellence and its affiliated CBRN Reachback Element, the Defence against Terrorism Centre of Excellence and other COEs and agencies that support NATO's response to the WMD threat. Allies continue to invest significant resources in capabilities ranging from CBRN reconnaissance and decontamination to warning and reporting, individual protection, and CBRN hazard management.

Combined Joint CBRN Defence Task Force

The Combined Joint CBRN Defence Task Force is a deployable NATO asset 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 a 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, supporting civilian authorities in NATO member countries, if requested.

Joint CBRN Defence Centre of Excellence

The Joint CBRN Defence Centre of Excellence (COE) in Vyškov, Czechia was activated in July 2007. It is an international military organisation sponsored and staffed by Canada, Czechia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, the United Kingdom and the United States. It is also open to partners that want to become contributing countries. Austria joined the Centre as the first such contributing country in 2016.     

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 reached full operational capability 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 to operate 24/7, if needed.

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:

  • Joint CBRN Defence Capability Development Group;
  • CBRN Medical Working Group;
  • NATO Science and Technology Organization; and
  • Partnerships and Cooperative 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 civilian and military staff 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. This cooperation enhances mutual security by facilitating international research efforts to meet emerging security challenges, supporting NATO-led operations and missions, and advancing early warning and forecasting 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 these fields, based on the principle of ensuring undiminished security for all NATO members.

Since the end of the Cold War, Allies have dramatically reduced the number of nuclear weapons stationed in Europe and their reliance on nuclear weapons in the NATO strategy. No NATO member country has a chemical or biological weapons programme. Additionally, Allies are committed to destroying stockpiles of chemical agents and have supported a number of partners and other countries in this work. NATO has condemned the use of chemical weapons in Russia, Syria, the United Kingdom, Malaysia and Iraq, and Allies continue to seek accountability for the perpetrators of chemical weapons use.

All NATO Allies are States Parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was signed in 1968 and entered into force in 1970. The NPT is the cornerstone of international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, and to achieve the goal of nuclear disarmament. It provides a legal framework for the nuclear weapon states to give security assurances against the use of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear states that are Parties to the Treaty. It also provides a balanced, step-by-step framework for nuclear disarmament and is forged on three mutually reinforcing pillars: non-proliferation (Art. I, II), nuclear disarmament (Art. VI) and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, science and technology (Art. IV).

The NPT represents the only binding commitment in a multilateral treaty, including both nuclear weapons possessor states and non-possessor states, to the goal of nuclear disarmament. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the NPT on 5 March 2020, NATO Allies issued a statement in which they confirmed their strong commitment to full implementation of the NPT in all its aspects and stated that there was no credible alternative to this Treaty.

With respect to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the North Atlantic Council in 2017 declared that the treaty disregards the realities of the increasingly challenging international security environment, and reiterated this position on the occasion of its entry into force on 22 January 2021. At a time when the world needs to remain united in the face of growing threats, the treaty is at odds with the existing non-proliferation and disarmament architecture. Unlike the NPT, the TPNW lacks any rigorous mechanisms for verification, has not been signed by any state that possesses nuclear weapons, and thus will not result in the elimination of a single nuclear weapon. The TPNW risks undermining both the NPT, which has been at the heart of global non-proliferation and disarmament efforts for more than 50 years, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Safeguards regime, which supports it.

On 3 February 2021, the United States and Russia agreed on a five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The North Atlantic Council, through the statement released on this occasion, expressed its full support to such an extension of the Treaty, while also reaffirming its major contribution to international stability. NATO Allies underlined that they see the Treaty’s extension as the beginning, not the end, of an effort to address nuclear threats and new and emerging challenges to strategic stability. However, on 3 February 2023, the North Atlantic Council released a further statement noting with concern that Russia has failed to comply with legally binding obligations under the New START Treaty. NATO Allies call on Russia to fulfil its obligations under the Treaty by facilitating New START inspections on Russian territory and by returning to participation in the Treaty’s implementation body, the Bilateral Consultative Committee.

Improving civil preparedness

National authorities are primarily responsible for protecting their populations and critical infrastructure against the consequences of terrorist attacks, CBRN incidents and natural disasters. Within NATO, Allies have agreed baseline requirements for national resilience. Together with a package of resilience guidelines, evaluation criteria, assessments and a tailored toolbox, the objective of the baseline requirements is to support Allies in enhancing their resilience and to provide benchmarks against which to assess their state of civil preparedness.

An extensive network of 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. Experts drawn from government and industry participate in training and exercises, and respond to requests for assistance.

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. 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 that take part in the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, as well as with partners across the globe.

International outreach activities

Outreach to partners and international and regional organisations helps to 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.

Since 2004, NATO has organised the annual NATO Conference on WMD Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. This unique event provides a venue for informal discussions among senior national officials about all types of WMD threats, as well as potential political and diplomatic responses. It regularly includes more than 150 attendees from around 50 countries. The Conference has been hosted by both Allies and partners since it first took place at the NATO Defense College in Rome in 2004. 

The Alliance also participates in relevant conferences organised by other international institutions, including the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, the EU, the OSCE, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, 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 cooperating in research that have tangible impacts in these areas. Some examples 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 national officials who are responsible for political and security issues related to non-proliferation with experts on military capabilities needed to counter WMD proliferation, to deter threats and the use of such weapons and to protect NATO populations, forces and territories. The Committee on Proliferation is chaired by NATO International Staff.


The use or threatened use of WMD significantly influenced the security environment of the 20th and early 21st centuries, and will continue to 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, the 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 1999 NATO Summit in Washington, 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 in 2000.

At the 2002 NATO Summit in Prague, Allies launched a modernisation process that aimed 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 populations, forces and territories from chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) 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 2006 NATO Summit in Riga, 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 Vyškov, Czechia.

In April 2009, Allied 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 2010 NATO Summit in Lisbon, Allied leaders adopted a new Strategic Concept. They also agreed at Lisbon to establish a dedicated committee providing advice on arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. This committee started work in March 2011.

At the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago, 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 Allies will therefore 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)”.

At the 2016 NATO Summit in Warsaw, 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. 

At the 2018 and 2021 NATO Summits in Brussels, Allies reaffirmed their commitment to protecting the Alliance and its populations, territory and forces against CBRN threats. They also committed to continue being actively engaged on arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation as a critical element of NATO’s security policy.

In June 2022, the North Atlantic Council agreed NATO’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Defence Policy. Under the policy, the Alliance commits to having the military capabilities necessary to counter WMD proliferation as well as to operate effectively and fight and prevail in any environment. Allies further committed to enhancing their national and collective defence and resilience against CBRN threats of all types.

In the 2022 Strategic Concept, agreed by Allied leaders at the Madrid Summit, NATO committed to continue investing in CBRN defence; to enhance its relevant policies, plans, training and exercises; and to ensure that CBRN defence capabilities are integrated into the Alliance’s deterrence and defence posture.