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Counterproliferation (CP) is the set of activities that detect and monitor the threat of weapons of special concern against one's own nation and one's allies. It assumes states are often driven to proliferation in the interest of extending their power.[1] There are several categories of such weapons, beginning with weapons of mass destruction and their means of production, long-range delivery systems for WMD (especially long-range missiles), certain especially hazardous weapons including antipersonnel land mines and blinding weapons, and, in some cases, routine military arms that might be used to increase the chance of conventional warfare. Weapons of mass destruction usually include nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, biological weapons, and radiological weapons.

Weapons of mass destruction

Numerous treaties, bilateral agreements, and compliance verification methods define counterproliferation of WMD. Various export control programs are in effect, strictly limiting the production and supply of materials with few applications other than WMD, as well as more flexible "dual use" materials that have legitimate civilian as well as WMD applications.


Most relevant here is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which identifies a small number of "declaratory" nation-states that have demonstrated nuclear weapons, and a much larger list of countries that agree not to acquire nuclear arms. The declaratory states agree not to transfer nuclear weapons to nondeclaratory states. They also agree to work towards reduction and eventual destruction of nuclear weapons.

A number of bilateral agreements on nuclear arms limitation have been agreed to, or are being negotiated, between the largest nuclear powers, the United States and the Soviet Union and its successor Russian Federation.

Four states, three of which (India, Israel and Pakistan) have never signed the NPT, and North Korea, which is withdrawing, have either demonstrated nuclear weapons, or, in the case of Israel, are assumed to have them by most worldwide intelligence agencies.


The Chemical Weapons Convention establishes rules for handling three Scheduled lists of chemicals and equipment. Schedule 1 items have few applications other than chemical warfare. Schedule 2 covers material highly correlated with chemical weapons, but also with some civilian applications. Schedule 3 lists dual use materials with both military and recognized civilian uses.

One of the approaches to counterproliferation here is export control, because the sheer volume of manufacturing equipment and precursor chemicals, for a militarily significant program, is very hard to conceal. Nevertheless, complex clandestine procurement programs have circumvented some controls.

Another approach is the increased use of measurement and signature intelligence methods to detect manufacturing and testing.


The Biological Weapons Convention restricts the production and weaponizing of biological agents, other than limited quantities for defensive research. There are several national programs analogous to the U.S. Select Agent Program, which requires special controls on laboratories doing medical, veterinary, or basic research with organisms or toxins of high risk for biological warfare.


Radiological weapons are the least restricted by treaty.


The Missile Technology Control Regime is an agreement controlling the export of missiles and missile technology that can be militarized to deliver payloads at greater than a minimum range.


See National technical means of verification for monitoring nuclear and missile capability.


Counterproliferation begins with voluntary international agreements, cooperative verification programs, and then moves to more aggressive export controls. Eventually, however, the situation will arise when a nation or pseudostate does create a WMD or long-range missile program.

At that point, a grand strategic approach is needed. Economic sanctions and other pressures may have an effect, as do diplomatic and multinational negotiations. In selected cases, the threat or actuality of military action may be appropriate when all else fails. There are cases where a nation, such as South Africa or Libya, voluntarily disarmed an active WMD program, and the reasons are complex in both cases but worthy of analysis.

Things become much more complex when the technology involved is dual use, so that a country such as Iran can argue that it has a right to develop nuclear technology that is not specific to weapons. There is no easy solution.

Selective military strikes may have a role, but large-scale war may be an overreaction, especially when the evidence of a WMD program is not convincing. Nevertheless, the Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, and the still not-fully-understood attack on a possible weapons facility in Syria, can be examined as selective. United States Army Special Forces doctrine does include a CP mission.

Nowhere has there been more of a grand strategic approach, involving multiple nations and means of exerting power, than against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea missile and nuclear programs. While diplomacy and economics played a major role, and the deployment of ballistic missile defense systems also may have inhibited North Korea, the threat of direct military attack was always a factor in the decisionmaking.


  1. Samuel P. Huntington (1996). The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Simon & Schuster. ,p. 186