Weapons of mass destruction

  • Last updated: 03 Jun. 2021 16:40

The proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their delivery systems could have incalculable consequences for national, regional and global security. During the next decade, proliferation will remain most acute in some of the world’s most volatile regions. The potential effects of WMD proliferation on NATO Allies are some of the greatest threats that NATO faces.


  • NATO Allies seek to prevent the proliferation of WMD through an active political agenda of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation.
  • 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 chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) defence efforts.
  • NATO is strengthening its capabilities to defend against CBRN attacks, including terrorism and warfare.
  • NATO conducts training and exercises designed to test interoperability and prepare forces to operate in a CBRN environment.



More background information

  • NATO’s counter-WMD initiatives

    NATO Allies engage in preventing 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 regimes. 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 (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 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 NATO 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, like helping civilian authorities in NATO member countries for example.

    Joint Centre of Excellence on CBRN Defence

    The JCBRN Defence COE in Vyškov, 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 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 (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:

    • Joint CBRN Defence Capability Development Group;
    • CBRN Medical Working Group;
    • NATO Science and Technology Organization; and
    • Partnerships and Cooperative Security 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. 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 the fields mentioned above, 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.

    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 and are developing guidelines to help countries 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. Experts drawn from government and industry participate in training and exercises, and respond to requests for assistance.

    Under the auspices of NATO’s 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 been given an additional coordinating role for responses to potential terrorist acts involving CBRN agents since 2001. 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. 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 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 Cooperation 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 from around 50 countries on all types of WMD threats, as well as potential political and diplomatic responses. 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 national officials who are responsible for political and security issues related to non-proliferation, together 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.

  • 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, 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 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 in 2000.

    At the 2002 Prague Summit, Allies launched a modernisation process which 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 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 Vyškov, 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, disarmament and non-proliferation. 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 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 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. 

    At the 2018 Brussels Summit, 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.