"I want to tell you that your fact sheet on the [Missile Technology Control Regime] is very well done and useful for me when I have to speak on MTCR issues."

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Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
U.S. Nonproliferation Programs: Sustaining the Momentum

May 2017
By Simon Limage

In August 2016, the United States, responding to a request from the Libyan government, worked with a coalition of international partners to remove and destroy what remained of former dictator Moammar Gaddafi’s chemical weapons program. The operation prevented toxic chemicals from being acquired for use as weapons by extremists against the United States and its allies.

In Iraq, the United States last summer provided gas masks and chemical weapons detection training to governmental forces as they prepared to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State group. The training and equipment helped ensure that the offensive would not be thwarted by chemical attack. In Georgia, security forces in April arrested smugglers attempting to sell nuclear material. Effective law enforcement work reduced the threat that smugglers might sell nuclear material to terrorist groups.

The author (center) on a panel at a Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction Global Synchronization Conference last year. The conference, hosted by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency/U.S. Strategic Command Center for Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction, brings together hundreds of experts and senior officials from the military services, the Pentagon, the State Department, other U.S. government agencies, and allied nations to coordinate U.S.-led efforts to combat weapons of mass destruction around the world. Credit:  Defense Threat Reduction AgencyWhat these seemingly disparate national security successes have in common is their connection to quietly persistent U.S. programs at the departments of State and Defense and at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy, that work to prevent terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMD). These programs rarely draw public notice, but the value of their achievements over time far exceeds their relatively modest cost, a factor that should be taken into account as the Trump administration seeks to make deep cuts in State Department funding.

With roots in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, these distinct and mutually reinforcing programs have gone through significant transformation. Initially devised to dismantle the Soviet WMD arsenal, today’s nonproliferation programs are designed to meet global threats; involve a range of actors across the spectrum of government, industry, and civil society; and meet new challenges posed by elusive nonstate actors and state-based proliferators. The combined budgets of all three agencies’ nonproliferation programs—less than $2 billion a year—is a fraction of the cost of most weapons platforms. The smallest of the three budgets is that of the State Department’s threat reduction programs, which averages about $150 million a year.

Although nonproliferation programs produce significant achievements, they require constant political support, steady appropriations, and a willingness to think creatively about new threats. Careful diplomacy is required. Some of the countries with which the United States works on vital issues, such as nuclear security or the safe storage of deadly pathogens, do not publicly acknowledge receiving international support. Other countries with weak governance and weaker finances must be persuaded to invest time and energy toward improving security practices at their laboratories and sustaining border inspection technology.

The recipe for preventing backsliding and for capitalizing on new opportunities to reduce global WMD threats has been a mix of careful management of the nonproliferation programs, bipartisan support from Congress, and the reinforcement and implementation of international norms. The latter include the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological Weapons Convention, the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, and UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires states to implement measures to prevent nonstate actors from acquiring nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and related materials. Recent operations to eliminate Libyan and Syrian chemical weapons are examples of these investments in our security paying off.

With the new administration reviewing priorities, it is vital that these programs, their supporters in Congress, and their international partners build on recent momentum. There is much unfinished work. As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress on February 25, 2016, “Nation-state efforts to develop or acquire [weapons of mass destruction], their delivery systems, or their underlying technologies constitute a major threat to the security of the United States, its deployed troops, and allies.”1

State Department Programs

Diverse, complementary nonproliferation programs provide technical assistance to partner nations in regions where security threats are the greatest, from North Africa through the Caucasus to Central and Southeast Asia. These programs help develop a global ability to prevent, detect, and respond to WMD threats. They help countries secure laboratories that house stocks of deadly pathogens, eliminate stores of chemical weapons, develop and implement laws to control the transfer of dual-use items, and train border guards and customs officials to look for and seize smuggled nuclear material.

At the State Department, four vital programs reduce chemical, nuclear, and biological threats to the United States. Working with sister programs at the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), the NNSA, and the Department of Homeland Security, they push the threat of weapons of mass destruction away from the U.S. shore by empowering allies to prevent, detect, and respond to the threat of weapons of mass destruction on their territory. The State Department’s Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program mitigates the risk that terrorists and proliferators will exploit WMD expertise, equipment, or materials. It strengthens biological, chemical, and nuclear security in partner countries facing imminent proliferation threats, such as Indonesia, Iraq, and Yemen.

During the Ebola crisis in West Africa from 2014 to 2015, the Defense and State departments sent experts to the region. The Defense Department’s Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, administered by the DTRA, funded operational diagnostic laboratories in all three countries, as well as related capacity-building efforts. The State Department’s CTR program sent civilian biosecurity experts to focus on assisting law enforcement. While the international community assisted first responders and clinicians, the CTR program provided personal protective equipment and training for police officers in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone to help them manage the response.

As a result of training efforts over a three-month period, law enforcement in the three countries were trained and equipped to deal with Ebola. The CTR program fostered the first formal connections between law enforcement and medical first responders in West Africa. Subsequently, in 2016 the CTR program facilitated the attendance by West African law enforcement officials at an Interpol conference on better policing techniques in contaminated areas. A valuable outcome of the training was the creation of a regional capacity to respond to future outbreaks.

Since 2012, the State and Defense departments have partnered on initiatives that address biological and chemical threats in Iraq. These efforts have gained increased relevance given the Islamic State group’s use of low-grade chemical weapons. State Department CTR officials cooperate closely with the Iraqi government on nonproliferation programs. While the DTRA has focused on providing chemical security training and equipment to the Iraqi military, the State Department has developed the Interior Ministry’s chemical weapons detection and response capability. The CTR program provided flame retardant foam to the Iraqis to put out toxic fires that Islamic State fighters started at a Mosul sulfur plant, as well as training to gather samples to document chemical attacks. The Iraqi government has used the detection equipment during the Mosul campaign and credits the assistance with saving lives.

Border security is another focus area for the State Department. The Export Control and Related Border Security (EXBS) program enhances U.S. national security by helping foreign partners establish and implement strategic trade control and related border security systems to prevent WMD and conventional weapons proliferation. It sets the standard for capacity-building programs by working with partners to rigorously assess their security gaps and provide tailored equipment and training, and it eventually graduates the partner from U.S. assistance once it is able to conduct its own regional training.

Following the crisis in Ukraine in 2014, the United States responded to the urgent need for reinforced border security and new control checkpoints. Collaborating with other U.S. agencies, EXBS shifted its focus and reprogrammed funding from previously planned activities to provide essential protective gear, passport readers, inspection and border control kits, and expert document search systems.

In Central Asia, a region that suffers from a lack of infrastructure, EXBS worked with the Kyrgyz and Tajik customs services to design and build advanced border security training facilities to provide inspection, detection, and interdiction best practice training for customs officials. In the Middle East, EXBS experts are working to strengthen the capacity of Syria’s neighbors to prevent illicit transfers of items of proliferation concern. This work includes targeted WMD training in Lebanon, WMD interdiction training in Iraq, and the donation of WMD inspection and detection equipment in Jordan.

The State Department’s Weapons of Mass Destruction and Terrorism (WMDT) program is focused on another growing threat: nuclear smuggling. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) International Trafficking Database, as of December 31, 2015, contained a total of 2,889 confirmed incidents reported by participating states.2 Of these, 454 incidents involved unauthorized possession and related criminal activities, 762 involved reported theft or loss, and 1,622 involved other unauthorized activities and events. These numbers suggest that more must be done to ­counter nuclear smuggling.

The WMDT and terrorism program partners with other governmental agencies to build counter-nuclear-smuggling capabilities that focus on collection and analysis of information—all capabilities that have proven successful in detecting nuclear smuggling networks and arresting criminals involved in most known cases. The United States has negotiated and signed joint action plans with Algeria, Armenia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Georgia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Moldova, Slovakia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Countering nuclear smuggling is a challenging effort that involves multiple agencies and branches of government. As the chief of police in the capital of one of the partner countries stated, “I can arrest these smugglers all day long, but our courts are corrupt, and they will be released immediately.” To ensure that countries are equipped to deal with smuggling, the State Department has encouraged them to adopt a whole-of-government perspective and to give equal weight to developing laws that criminalize the possession and transfer of nuclear material, as well as equipping border guards and police with the capability and technology to identify smuggled material.

The Nonproliferation and Disarmament Fund is a unique contingency fund with two important attributes: so-called notwithstanding authority and no-year funds, providing flexibility in hiring and spending that enables it to respond rapidly to imminent proliferation threats. In 2014 the fund used its flexible authority and ability to hire foreign contractors at a time when there was a strict policy barring U.S. forces in Libya, to install security upgrades at a weapons storage area where Libya’s Category 1 chemical weapons were being prepped for elimination, allowing the DTRA to come and destroy them.

The fund also provided expertise, logistical support, and funding for the Syrian chemical weapons elimination operation, which resulted in the destruction of more than 1,200 metric tons of chemical weapons and agents. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which was tasked with assessing the Syrian stockpile in the midst of a civil war, did not have sufficient funds or equipment to take advantage of the sudden opportunity provided by the agreement between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The fund, in addition to providing money to the OPCW, helped procure armored vehicles for the weapons inspectors to do their jobs safely.

In 2016 the fund again supported an international operation to eliminate additional chemical weapons-related materials in Libya. The remains of Libya’s chemical arsenal were destroyed thanks to the close coordination among the fund’s subject matter experts, the Libyan government, and international partners.

These examples highlight several features of modern threat reduction programs. They no longer work solely in the former Soviet Union. Their activities span the globe, wherever security weaknesses are at risk of being exploited by terrorist groups and nefarious state actors. A range of U.S. agencies work in cooperation with international organizations such as the World Health Organization, the World Customs Organization, and the IAEA.

Nonproliferation programs are nimble and react quickly to changing geopolitical circumstances. The export control program had not planned to be active in Ukraine, but after the Russian invasion of Crimea, the State Department was able to reprogram funds to meet pressing border security needs. The same was true for use of the nonproliferation fund in Libya and Syria.

In December, 19 government officials from Morocco participated in a maritime-security training program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. The State Department’s Export Control and Related Border Security program annually sponsors this training. During their orientation tour on San Francisco Bay, the officials see a demonstration of Coast Guard maritime maneuvers. Credit: U.S. Department of StateThreat reduction programs by design are cooperative tools that build on trust. They do not simply intervene in countries when a security threat materializes. In West Africa, the CTR program seeks to eliminate remaining stocks of Ebola. This is a sensitive effort as countries with dangerous samples are often torn between their interest in preserving the samples to conduct research and ensuring they do not put their population at risk. The CTR program’s ability to persuade West African governments to destroy pathogens is the result of prior successful engagement and confidence building that came from its work with Liberian law enforcement and successful projects such as joint DTRA-State efforts to improve security at the Liberia Institute for Biomedical Research.

The NNSA, DTRA, and State Department program officials coordinate closely in Washington and in the field to offer distinct and complimentary expertise in many of the same countries. In 2014, when the U.S. ambassador in Lebanon determined that the export control program could no longer work with the Lebanese Customs Agency, which had been taken over by the militant group Hezbollah, State Department leadership transformed the program to partner with the DTRA to provide training instead to the Lebanese armed forces. In 13 countries from the Caucasus to Central Asia, the WMDT program partners with the NNSA, Department of Defense, and Department of Homeland Security to provide training and equipment to upgrade partner-country abilities to detect and prevent the proliferation of nuclear material.

In general, nonproliferation programs enjoy bipartisan support in Congress from members who recognize their low cost and high impact on national security.

Looking Ahead

The WMD threat has become more complex with actions by violent nonstate actors such as the Islamic State group and Boko Haram, as well as by provocative state actors such as Iran and North Korea. At the same time, nonproliferation programs have created momentum as vehicles for bilateral assistance and through their partnership with multilateral organizations. Policymakers would be wise to sustain the significant progress in a number of the following ways.

Invest more in biosecurity. Advancing biosecurity and reducing the risk that terrorist groups or state actors will weaponize deadly pathogens should continue to be a priority. The Ebola outbreak caused a massive human toll in Africa, but the simple prospect of disease spreading to the United States resulted in significant economic cost and near hysteria, as federal, state, and local authorities sought to contain and reassure the American public that critical safety measures were in place.

The emphasis of nonproliferation programs focused on biosecurity such as the Biological Engagement Program, a subset of the State Department’s CTR program, and the DTRA Cooperative Biological Engagement Program will continue to be on traditional measures. They include improving security practices at laboratories housing deadly pathogens and strengthening the ability of partner countries to detect, diagnose, report, and respond to deliberate and accidental disease outbreaks. Beyond West Africa, the two programs are active in the Middle East and in South and Southeast Asia, where more must be done.

Both programs need to continue to prevent terrorist groups from developing a biowarfare capability. They also need to work with the intelligence community to closely monitor potential state-level programs seeking to do the same. History cautions that the former Soviet biological weapons program was built in part by seeking out deadly samples from abroad.

In addition, U.S. nonproliferation programs should maintain their close association and support for the Global Health Security Agenda, a highly successful partnership of more than 50 nations, international organizations, and nongovernmental stakeholders that seeks to build countries’ capacity to address infectious disease threats.

That cooperative effort is broader than the singular focus on biosecurity, but its various components, including the promotion of national biosafety and biosecurity systems, reduction of the number of infectious disease outbreaks, deployment of novel diagnostics, and stronger laboratory systems,3 have a clear security value that make it more difficult for deadly pathogens to fall into the hands of malicious actors. U.S. investments leverage significant international funding for the same biosecurity objectives.

Additionally, U.S. biosecurity programs need to grapple with big shifts in technology that make biothreats potentially more lethal. Bill Gates was the most recent authority to raise concern about a genetically modified virus, warning that “the next epidemic has a good chance of originating on a computer screen.”4

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to recognize this important link at his confirmation hearing by referencing the importance of U.S support for global health. He commended the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for its response to the 2014–2015 Ebola crisis.

Increase focus on chemical security. This is an area where the nonproliferation tool kit is limited and vastly underfunded. The last several years have seen the emergence of nonstate actors using low-grade chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria, as well as the Syrian state using chemical weapons against its people. The alleged use of VX nerve agent to assassinate Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, on February 13 in Malaysia further harms global norms against the possession and use of chemical weapons and is a reminder that chemical threats can come in many forms.

The removal of Syria’s declared chemical weapons, as well as the Libyan arsenal, demonstrate how far nonproliferation programs have come since the 1990s. Current programs are operational, flexible, and expeditionary. When it proved politically infeasible to bring the declared Syrian arsenal to European soil for incineration, experts from a variety of U.S. agencies—the DTRA, Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center, Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense, and Department of Transportation Maritime Administration—developed a technical solution to hydrolyze the chemicals on a ship. In Libya, when the U.S. Defense Department was unable to support elimination of Category 2 chemicals, the State Department’s nonproliferation fund program provided financial and technical support to remove and destroy the agents.

Separate from these highly visible operations, much of the focus of the chemical programs of the DTRA and State Department CTR program is on strengthening the capacity of Syria’s neighbors to address WMD proliferation. Virtually all of the CTR program’s chemical security budget is spent on training and equipping Iraqi security forces battling the Islamic State group. Much of the responsibility and resources for improving global chemical security lie outside of government, and it will be important to maintain a strong focus on building relationships with industry and academia to ensure, for example, that industrial facilities with stocks of dangerous chemicals do not inadvertently make them available to nefarious groups.

In a 2015 photo, then-Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman poses at the entry checkpoint to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where the U.S. government assisted in funding a vehicle and cargo x-ray scanner. Credit: U.S. Department of StatePrevent backsliding on nuclear security. It is critical that the United States and the rest of the international community sustain investments in nuclear security. Beyond maintaining critical funding for the NNSA Nuclear Smuggling Detection and Deterrence program and the State Department’s Partnership for Nuclear Security, which together improve detection capability worldwide and nuclear security culture in sensitive regions, the new administration should embrace ­critical multilateral work.

International Organizations

It is vital that the United States expand its engagement at the five main international organizations tasked with meeting this challenge: the IAEA, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), Interpol, the United Nations, and the Global Partnership to Combat the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction. A common challenge for each organization or initiative is that its mission is broader than just nuclear security. Their resources and priorities are often pulled in different directions.

The GICNT, created in 2006 and co-chaired by the United States and Russia, has grown to 86 countries and five international organizations. It has three working groups focused on detection, response, and forensics and has conducted 70 multilateral activities. It is a valuable technical body that allows a range of diverse experts from Canada to Israel to Pakistan to collaborate on best practices in nuclear security. It also has recently implemented a regional strategy to benefit members with various levels of nuclear infrastructure.

Interpol has a strong law enforcement mandate and, with the support of the United States, developed a niche counter-WMD capability, making valuable contributions in the areas of information sharing and intelligence analysis, capacity building, and training, as well as investigative support. It has played a valuable role in countering weapons of mass destruction proliferation, including helping to train law enforcement from West African states with the support of the State Department’s CTR program. The WMD capability at Interpol is mostly staffed by experts detailed from the U.S. government and is constantly at risk of budget cuts or shifting priorities in Washington.

The IAEA, central to any discussion of nuclear security, is a valuable force multiplier for U.S. nuclear security priorities. The IAEA held two large nuclear security conferences, in 2013 and 2016, which highlighted important accomplishments and vulnerabilities in the global nuclear security architecture.

The Global Partnership to Eliminate Weapons of Mass Destruction was created in 2002 as a joint endeavor of the Group of Eight industrialized powers to eliminate the former Soviet Union’s WMD programs. It has evolved into a valuable forum for countries to coordinate, discuss, and identify new initiatives to reduce the threat of proliferation. The partnership, initially a donor-driven organization, has broadened its membership to include a range of countries that seek assistance in improving their nonproliferation capacity. Although the focus and leadership has varied over time, it is a ready collection of like-minded countries that can bring additional expertise to bear to sustain nuclear security investments. The United Nations has an unparalleled convening power and specialized agencies that are critical to strengthening global nuclear security. UN Security Council Resolution 1540 provides the legal and political road map for targeted investments that the international community must make to improve nuclear security. Various U.S. agencies and bodies, such as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, are vital resources that assist countries in meeting their obligations under the resolution. Another critical nuclear security initiative that is rapidly bearing fruit is counter-nuclear-smuggling assistance. The United States coined the concept in 2010. Led by diplomacy from the State Department’s WMDT program, the United States has negotiated joint action plans with countries in sensitive regions at risk of nuclear proliferation. These plans have provided the framework for critical cooperative activities that have resulted in better interagency cooperation in partner countries to identify smuggling networks and material outside of regulatory control, enhanced nuclear forensics capabilities, and better ability to prosecute smugglers.

The agreements are important ways to organize and track assistance, and countries such as Georgia, Lithuania, and Kazakhstan are strong partners that have demonstrated a commitment to keeping a focus on defeating nuclear smugglers. There are some more recent exploratory engagements that began over the last few years with China, Russia, Pakistan, and India that will not bear fruit unless supported. These countries have nuclear programs, and it is critical that they be brought into cooperative counter-nuclear-smuggling relationships where they can share best practices in nuclear security.

Make greater use of tools to address dual-use expertise. The United States must increase its investment in tools to combat the human threat—the spread of WMD expertise. The United States has a clear interest in ensuring that the knowledge of former weapons scientists from Central Asia to the Caucasus, to Syria and Libya and beyond is used only for peaceful purposes. Often referenced as “redirection,” this important work relies on positive inducements and projects that channel dual-use expertise toward critical pursuits such as public health, environmental remediation, agriculture, and economic growth.

Curtailing Dangerous Expertise

The State Department’s scientist-engagement program, managed by the CTR program, became the only remaining U.S. tool to address the proliferation of dangerous expertise after funding for the NNSA Global Initiatives for Proliferation Programs ended after fiscal year 2012. Although the CTR program has a few bilateral initiatives to address specific individuals of concern, the main focus of its scientist-engagement program is to provide resources and diplomatic leadership in support of the International Science and Technology Center (ISTC) in Kazakhstan and the Science and Technology Center in Ukraine. These two underappreciated and underfunded organizations, devoted to preventing former weapons scientists from selling their skills to terrorist groups, are critical national security tools that are of direct benefit to the international community. Over the last decade, the science centers initiative overcame several challenges to become a stronger organization. In 2010, many believed this had outlasted its mission. When then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree on August 11, 2010, affirming Russia’s intention to withdraw from the ISTC, then based in Moscow, it unsettled the organization and was a factor in convincing the Canadian government—one of the few donors on the ISTC governing board, along with the European Union and the United States—that the ISTC was no ­longer relevant to its objectives.

A Panamanian border police officer uses an isotope identifier to detect radiation during a mock vehicle inspection. Credit: U.S. Department of StateAnticipating that the problem of WMD expertise would become worse, the United States took several steps. It engaged in sustained diplomatic outreach to the EU and Canada and persuaded the ISTC board to support initiatives to reduce the annual budget by 6 percent for three years in a row and to cut staffing by 12 percent. The United States also persuaded the ISTC member states to adopt a document laying out a vision of the future for a flexible ISTC with a broader mandate.

A persuasive argument was that the ISTC was a lean organization and responsive to modern threats. Thanks to patient advocacy and engagement, the EU and Canada once again began funding projects. The State Department also courted other U.S. agencies and persuaded them to take a more active role in supporting the science centers’ mission. The DTRA announced in early 2016 that it had ­created a $20 million fund for such projects. Further, the United States was instrumental in negotiating a new legal agreement to allow the ISTC to move from Moscow to Astana, Kazakhstan. Following multiple meetings with interagency stakeholders in Washington and with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, the EU, and Canada and drawing on a coalition of scientists and businesses who weighed in with their governments in favor of ratification, a major milestone was achieved: on June 22, 2015, in Astana, the United States initialed the new ISTC agreement. On January 20, 2017, the European Parliament gave approval to the new ISTC legal framework, giving the science centers a fresh start and sound legal basis.

With the next meeting of the governing boards for the two centers in June, the United States has an opportunity to build on what is now a modern national security instrument with a unique impact. The most recent available figures show that, between 1994 and 2015, the ISTC supported 2,832 projects with a value of $890 million.5 New rules and funding mechanisms will enable it to engage scientists from more countries and from more diverse regions of the world.

The science centers are a unique tool to engage former weapons scientists and the only one-stop venue the United States has to collaborate with most of the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia to improve international security and reap the benefits of advances in science and technology. The United States should continue to invest in project funding and encourage finding new applications for the work of the centers in new regions from the Middle East to Africa.

Sustain interagency coordination. With the arrival of a new administration, turnover in senior staff at all agencies should not undermine the close working relationships that exist between key agencies. At senior levels, officials responsible for these programs communicate frequently across various departments and agencies, and more formal interagency meetings are convened periodically to deconflict projects at the regional and country level. Thanks to such meetings, the DTRA and NNSA discovered that both agencies had trained the same group of foreign partners on the same topic within the course of a single week. Such incidents have become rare.

Into this community enters the U.S. Special Operations Command, which has recently taken over a leadership role for the Pentagon’s counter-WMD mission from U.S. Strategic Command. There is enthusiasm among other agencies to see General Raymond “Tony” Thomas and his team take on this responsibility. In this transition, one key area that should be preserved and enhanced are the regular, high-level interagency tabletop exercises hosted by the DTRA. At these exercises, the different U.S. agencies with a role in countering threats related to weapons of mass destruction have a rare forum to work through a realistic, complex crisis, such as a bioterrorism attack on an ally or a chemical weapons attack on Washington. At a recent exercise, participants were able to work through scenarios that revealed the greater success the United States will enjoy when working anywhere around the globe with partners who have been strengthened through interaction with U.S. nonproliferation programs. Conversely, if the next nuclear security incident occurs in a country that has limited nonproliferation safeguards or capability, a crisis could mature at ­devastating speed.

Challenges and Needs

Looking ahead, U.S. nonproliferation programs with their current level of funding are straining to keep up with rapidly evolving threats. They have made significant inroads, but will require energetic support from the new administration and Congress. The programs themselves and their parent agencies need to devise better communications strategies to guarantee continuing support. Unlike big-ticket military hardware with aggressive and visible champions among the military services and industry, nonproliferation programs struggle and compete with other accounts in various appropriations bills.

Much of what is being achieved goes unheralded. Most nonproliferation work is not exciting, headline-grabbing, kinetic, tip-of-the-spear-type activity. Most of the experts’ time is spent on long-term capacity building, encouraging foreign governments to adopt and enforce more stringent strategic trade control laws and training customs agents to work with the international community to curb nuclear smuggling.

A good day is when a rogue regime has not enhanced its nuclear capability, a country has voted alongside the United States on a UN Security Council resolution, a stockpile of lethal weaponry has been destroyed, a biologist has completed a class on best lab safety practices, or a scientist in an unstable region has not sold their expertise to a terrorist group. The administration and Congress must be regularly reminded that these programs, although not visible, are some of the most valuable in the arsenal and deserve strong funding and support.



1. James R. Clapper, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community,” February 9, 2016, http://www.dni.gov/files/documents/SASC_Unclassified_2016_ATA_SFR_FINAL.pdf (statement for the record given before the Senate Armed Services Committee).

2. IAEA Incident and Trafficking Database, “2016 Fact Sheet,” n.d., https://www-ns.iaea.org/downloads/security/itdb-fact-sheet.pdf.

3. See GHSA website https://www.ghsagenda.org.

4. Avi Selk, “Bill Gates: Bioterrorism Could Kill More Than Nuclear War—But No One Is Ready Deal With It,” The Washington Post, February 18, 2017.

5. International Science and Technology Center (ISTC), “ISTC Facts Sheet,” February 2017, http://www.istc.int/en/fact-sheet.

Simon Limage was deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation programs in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation from 2011 to 2017.