Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Adversary Use of NBC Weapons: A Neglected Challenge

Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Adversary Use of NBC Weapons: A Neglected Challenge

Article excerpt

Key Points

Understanding has evolved in the last decade about how an adversary might use nuclear, radiological, biological, or chemical weapons against the United States.

Increasingly, America is concluding that potential adversaries view these not as "weapons of last resort" but rather as tactically and strategically useful. The United States can expect their use early in a conflict as well as throughout the extended battlefield, including on U.S. territory itself.

States and state-supported terrorists are of primary concern, for these actors can most readily harness the full range of technical and operational capabilities needed to use nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons in sophisticated, effective ways.

The U.S. military is becoming more aware of the requirements for operating in an NBC environment, but more needs to be done to ensure success.

Deterring NBC use may be more difficult than it was during the Cold War. New concepts and capabilities, including more sophisticated active and passive defenses, will be required. Missile defense will play an essential role.

A fully capable national response will require not only a better prepared military but also a better prepared public health infrastructure.


Despite years of research, the community's knowledge of how an adversary might use nuclear (and radiological), biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons remains restricted in important ways. The historical data that inform this area are rather limited and largely dated. We do not have much in the way of adversary planning documents or doctrine to study, and nations acquiring NBC weapons do not usually address employment concepts. Despite these gaps, we do know that NBC weapons afford potential adversaries cost-effective force multipliers and that a number of states of concern are actively pursuing their development.

We know that in the 20th century NBC weapons were used in warfare. We also know that the successful use of chemical weapons by Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, and the absence of an international outcry, led to a renewed emphasis on such programs--the Chemical Weapons Convention notwithstanding. Similarly, would-be proliferators likely have observed the relative absence of substantial punitive measures relating to flagrant Iraqi violation of international nuclear and biological weapons conventions. Moreover, it is worth remembering that we have been repeatedly surprised over the last decade by the scope of the Soviet biological weapons program, the scope and depth of Iraqi NBC efforts, North Korean missile development activities, and other high-profile cases. The unclassified judgment of the Director of Central Intelligence on this subject is clear and alarming: we face the real and growing prospect of proliferation surprise as we move into the 21st century.

Most informed observers agree that some nations are acquiring NBC capabilities with the intent of using them--whether to threaten or coerce neighbors, to deter nations from interfering in their regions, to seek advantage in time of conflict or war, or even to punish the United States or its allies. Terrorist groups, some with state sponsorship, also have sought to achieve such capabilities. The emerging consensus of the analytic community is that we must increasingly contend with a wide range of potential adversary NBC uses. There is no guarantee, and only a low probability, that the future will resemble the past in this strategic arena.

As a consequence, it is important to think more carefully about how states and nonstate actors may actually use NBC weapons. The approach here is to examine how our thinking about adversary use has evolved in the last decade and the implications this evolution has had.

Concepts of the Cold War

It is instructive to look back a decade and consider what U.S. experts thought about how adversaries viewed the biological and chemical weapons that they were developing and how they might employ them. …

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