No. 4 - Jul 1995
Vol. 43 - pp. 15-19

Responding to Proliferation
NATO's Role

Gregory L. Schulte
NATO's Director for Nuclear Planning

Allied leaders decided at the Brussels Summit in January 1994, to step up NATO's drive against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. As a result, two groups have been established, one dealing with the political and preventative aspects, and the other with ensuring that NATO's defence posture can support non-proliferation efforts and, should these fail, provide protection for Allied territory, populations and forces.

One of NATO's fundamental tasks, based on Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, is to deter and defend against any threat of aggression against the territory of a NATO member state. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union posed the quintessential Article 5 threat around which all Alliance military planning revolved. With the end of the Cold War, it is difficult to foresee a comparable threat to NATO security without significant strategic warning.

There is, however, another way in which the Alliance could find itself faced with an Article 5 situation, possibly with little warning. That is through a hostile country on NATO's periphery threatening or actually making use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against Allied territory, population or forces (see Box 1).

Box 1:


Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) consist of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and they may be delivered by many traditional military means (such as artillery, aircraft, and ballistic or aerodynamic missiles), as well as covertly. These weapons have very different effects but all are capable of causing sinificant damage or disrupting military operations. Chemical weapons are generally the easiest and least expensive to produce, while still having a controllable military effect. However, recent advances in bio-technology may make biological weapons increasingly attractive to potential proliferants.

Such a scenario is not out of the realm of possibility. Approximately two dozen countries, including a number in the Middle East and Mediterranean region, have ongoing programmes to develop or acquire nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, while in some cases, the capability already exists. Many countries, particularly in the Middle East, are also gaining the capability to build surface-to-surface missiles as a delivery system. By early next century, these capabilities are likely to have advanced significantly, particularly if abetted by the purchase or illicit transfer of weapons, delivery systems, and related technologies.

Proliferation of WMD could also impact on the Alliance in carrying out its new roles since the Cold War's end. NATO has declared its readiness to support peacekeeping activities under the responsibility of the United Nations or Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and it is involved in such operations related to former Yugoslavia. During these operations, NATO aircraft and ships have been targeted and even attacked. In future operations of this sort, the possession of WMD by the parties involved could make the environment for NATO forces all the more dangerous. At last year's Summit, NATO Heads of State and Government formally acknowledged the security threat posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and recognized this as a matter of direct concern to the Alliance. (1) They therefore decided to intensify and expand NATO's political and defence efforts against proliferation.

The North Atlantic Council subsequently established two groups to carry out this work. The first is the Senior Politico-Military Group on Proliferation, chaired by the NATO Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs. The group's focus is on the political and preventative aspects of NATO's approach to dealing with proliferation. The second is the Senior Defence Group on Proliferation. This group is co-chaired by a European and North American nation, currently France and the United States, with the United Kingdom soon to assume the European chair. The group is responsible for considering how NATO's defence posture can support NATO's non-proliferation efforts but also provide protection should those efforts fail. The work of the two groups is brought together and reported to the North Atlantic Council by the Joint Committee on Proliferation, chaired by the Deputy Secretary General.

The first major product of these groups was the Alliance Policy Framework on Proliferation. This document was issued at the Ministerial meeting of the North Atlantic Council held in Istanbul in June last year. (2) It describes developments in the evolving security environment that give rise to the possibility of increased proliferation (see Box 2) and sets out NATO's role in responding to that challenge.

Box 2:


  • Some states (e.g. Iraq, North Korea) have not complied with, an even wilfully disregarded, their international non-proliferation commitments, in particular those stemming from membership of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

  • Major political changes on the European continent following the break-up of the former Soviet Union have potential proliferation implications.

  • A number of states on the periphery of the Alliance continue in their attempts to develop or acquire the capability to produce WMD and their delivery means or to acquire illegally such systems.

  • Non-state actors, such as terrorists, may also try to acquire WMD capabilities.

  • Ever-increasing trade in today's world economy, including transfers of dual-use commodities, is leading to greater diffusion of technology, which complicates efforts to detect and prevent transfers of material and technology for the purpose of developing WMD and their delivery means.

  • The growth of indigenously developed WMD-related technology has also made proliferation more difficult to control.

  • There is the risk that a proliferator might seek to profit by selling WMD and their delivery means, relevant technology and expertise; such a trade could result in Allies being threatened by an adversary that obtained WMD capabilities developed in areas beyond NATO's periphery.

Source: Alliance Policy Framework on Proliferation of weapons of Mass destruction.

It stresses that NATO's approach must have both a political and a defence dimension.

The political dimension

The political dimension of NATO's role revolves around a major goal of the Alliance, which is to prevent proliferation from occurring in the first place or, should it occur, to reverse it through diplomatic means. While the main focus of non-proliferation activities is often in other international fora or regimes, the Alliance serves as an important transatlantic forum for consultation in this area. Through these consultations, Allies can exchange views on the situation concerning the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including developments in areas beyond NATO's periphery, and examine whether there are ways for NATO to contribute, through diplomatic or technical measures, to the implementation and strengthening of international arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation norms and agreements.

The challenge for the Alliance and its member states is to demonstrate to potential proliferants that the advantages of proliferation are small or non-existent, while those of adhering to international non-proliferation norms are great. To help meet this challenge, the Senior Politico-Military Group on Proliferation has considered, as a first step, the political, security, economic, and other factors that may drive states to seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction. It is now considering the instruments available to NATO and its member states to discourage proliferation by affecting a would-be proliferator's motivations.

Countries are generally motivated to acquire WMD by their assessment of their own regional security situation. Security assurances can help to alter this perception, and thus reduce incentives to acquire WMD (see Box 3).

Box 3:


The NATO nuclear powers (France, United Kingdom and United States) recently joined with the other nuclear-weapon states that are Permanent Members of the UN Security Council in updating and reaffirming the security assurance offered to non-nuclear weapon states in the context of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

The so-called "Positive security assurance" is recorded in UN Security Council resolution 984, adopted on 11 April 1995. This resolution contains the commitment of the nuclear-weapon state Permanent Members of the Security Council to bring immediately to the Council's attention any nuclear attack or nuclear threat against a non-nuclear-weapons state that is party to the NPT. In doing so, they will seek Council action to provide, in accordance with the UN Charter, the necessary assistance to the victim.

The so-called "negative security assurance" is embodied in statements by the nuclear-weapon state Permanent Members that were by the same Security Council resolution. In these statements, the countries commit themselves not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states that are party to the NPT. The one exception is in response to attacks carried out by such a state in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon state.

For non-nuclear-weapon state to benefit from these two security assurances, it is understood that the state must not only adhere to the NPT, but also be in full compliance with its terms.

From this perspective, NATO, by providing equal security to all members, has arguably been the most successful non-proliferation regime in the nuclear era. And by providing one of the indispensable foundations for a stable security environment in Europe, the Alliance helps to remove incentives to proliferate WMD that might otherwise arise elsewhere.

Reaching out to NATO Partners and neighbours

Proliferation also poses risks to NATO's Partners. As part of its non-proliferation efforts, the Alliance consults regularly with its Cooperation Partners in the framework of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC). The aim of these consultations is to foster a mutual understanding of the WMD proliferation problem and to develop a common approach in response. NATO's Political Committee has met on several occasions with Partners to discuss the problems of disarmament, including prospects for the early entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention and the possible strengthening of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in the field of verification. NACC Foreign Ministers have repeatedly called for the indefinite and unconditional extension of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), an outcome that was successfully reached in May at the NPT Review and Extension Conference in New York.

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is also a topic for consultation in the far-reaching, cooperative relationship that NATO and Russia agreed to develop both inside and outside PfP. (3) NATO has discussed this topic in a number of "16+1" meetings with Russian officials, including meetings of the Ad Hoc Group on Nuclear Weapons (see Box 4) with representatives from the Russian General Staff and Ministry of Atomic Energy to discuss ways to improve national programmes to assist in the safe and secure dismantlement of former Soviet nuclear weapons.

Box 4:


Several NATO countries contribute, technically and financially, to the safe and secure dismantlement of nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union. These efforts serve not only to assist in the implementation of existing arms control commitments, such as the July 1991 START I Agreement, but also to minimize the risk that large nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union could become a source of proliferation.

Assistance programmes include projects specifically related to the transport and dismantlement of weapons (e.g. railcar conversion, special trucks, equipment for missiles and silo destruction, liquid fuel disposal, emergency response equipment) as well as others related to material control and accounting, and storage and conversion of fissile material. The exchange of information on these bilateral assistance programmes takes place in an Ad Hoc Group to Consult on Nuclear Weapons in the former Soviet Union (GNW), established by the North Atlantic Council in February 1992.

Finally, as part of NATO's new dialogue with non-member Mediterranean countries, (4) NATO will make information available about its approach to WMD proliferation risks, as part of a process of improving mutual understanding.

The defence dimension

While NATO's principal goal is to prevent proliferation, recent events in Iraq and North Korea demonstrate that proliferation may nonetheless occur. The Alliance Policy Framework states that, as a defensive Alliance, NATO must address the military capabilities needed to discourage WMD proliferation and use, and if necessary, to protect NATO territory, populations and forces.

The Senior Defence Group on Proliferation (DGP) has embarked upon a phased programme to address the military capabilities required by NATO. During the first phase, the DGP produced the Alliance's first comprehensive assessment of proliferation risks. This classified assessment drew upon existing NATO intelligence assessments plus considerable new intelligence shared by nations. It validated the concern expressed at the Summit, and spelled out in detail the growing proliferation risks on NATO's periphery due to indigenous production, the supply of WMD and related technologies from more distant states or their illicit transfer. The DGP's risk assessment will provide a detailed basis for further DGP work and inform related activities throughout the Alliance. It will also be incorporated into NATO's regular military intelligence estimate of risks to the Alliance.

Using this assessment, the DGP is now examining the implications for NATO's defence posture, including the Alliance's ability to protect NATO populations and territory, deploy and sustain forces, and conduct joint operations in various contingencies that might involve NATO or its member states in the future. This, in turn, is assisting the DGP in considering the range of military capabilities required by the Alliance and its member states to respond to proliferation risks.

One of several areas being considered by the Senior Defence Group on Proliferation is extended air defence, for which recognized military requirements already exist to respond to the proliferation of ballistic and cruise missiles. Extended air defence has received significant attention from the NATO Air Defence Committee and the Conference of National Armaments Directors. The DGP will take full advantage of the work of these groups through their active participation in DGP activities.

The DGP will also be considering passive defences, including capabilities for early warning and classification of nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) threats, as well as decontamination and countermeasures. Effective operations in an NBC environment will require the Alliance to have reasonably uniform defensive capabilities and training. This applies also to the forces of countries in NATO's Partnership for Peace, should they be operating with NATO forces in peacekeeping or other missions under a threat of WMD.

The final phase of the DGP's current work programme, to be completed next year, will be to assess NATO's current capabilities, identify shortfalls, and examine areas for improvement and cooperation. An important result of the DGP's work will be to institutionalize these efforts in NATO's regular defence planning process and to provide a policy context for related work in other Alliance bodies.

The changing calculus of deterrence

As mentioned earlier, countries are generally motivated to acquire WMD by their assessment of their own regional security situation. Yet once in possession of such weapons, even in small numbers, a hostile country may see them as a means to restrict the freedom of action of the Alliance or its member states. A rogue government may perceive WMD as political weapons that can be used for coercion. It may also perceive them as military weapons whose use, even on a limited scale, might help to compensate for NATO's superiority in conventional forces and technology.

In such a situation, the calculus of deterrence will inevitably differ from that which became so familiar during the Cold War. It may be difficult to assess the personality and intentions of the leaders of proliferating countries. We might even consider these leaders to be "irrational", at least by our standards. Nevertheless, such leaders must be made to understand that the possession of weapons of mass destruction would not provide any political or military advantage but, rather, would cause them to incur enormous risks.

Mounting such a deterrent requires the Alliance to have a balanced mix of active defence, passive defence and response capabilities, supported by good intelligence and effective command and control. Exercises and declaratory policy also have an important part to play in demonstrating Alliance will and solidarity in the face of any such threats. Finally, in accordance with the Alliance Strategic Concept, NATO's nuclear posture plays an essential role in making the risks of any aggression incalculable and unacceptable.

Should deterrence fail and WMD be used, NATO forces must be prepared to overcome the adverse impact of their use and continue effective operations, whether in conducting traditional Article 5 missions or the newer missions adopted by the Alliance.

In conclusion, NATO Heads of State and Government have recognized the risks associated with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the Alliance is responding to them.

One of NATO's principal goals is to prevent proliferation from occurring in the first instance. Prevention, however, might not always succeed. Thus, NATO must, as a defensive Alliance, take account of proliferation risks in its defence policy, planning and acquisition in order to maintain effective military capabilities to protect against the threat or use of WMD. The maintenance of such capabilities should help to protect against coercion, and preserve NATO's freedom of action in the face of any future WMD threats. It should also help to reduce the perceived advantages of acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and thus contribute to NATO's overall goal of prevention.


(1) For text of Summit Declaration see NATO Review, No. 1, February 1994, pp. 30-33

(2) For text of the Policy Framework see NATO Review, No. 3, June 1994, pp. 28-29.

(3) See the summary of discussions on page 35.

(4) See North Atlantic Council Committee, paragraph 11, on p.33.

© Copyright by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation 1995.