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Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation in the 21ST Century

Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation in the 21ST Century

Speech by Senator The Hon. Robert Hill, Australian minister for Defence, leader of the Government in the Senate. Annual Charteris Lecture, Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW Branch, (Min 630/2002 ) 7:30pm, 7, November 7, 2002. Source: DoD, Canberra.


I would like to thank the Australian Institute of International Affairs and its President, Geoff Miller, for the honour of presenting this year's Charteris Lecture.

It is a sign of the times that the Australia-US Ministerial consultations I recently attended in Washington DC were dominated by two related security topics: international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

There has been much discussion over the past year about the threat of international terrorism. Unfortunately, the 12 October bombings in Bali saw this threat shockingly realised within our region. Australia finds itself joining the United States and its other international allies and friends in bracing against the possibility of further attacks.

Defeating this threat is at the top of the Government's agenda.

Tonight, however, I will focus my remarks on the potentially even more devastating threat posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction - or WMD - and their associated delivery systems.

Like international terrorism, proliferation has flourished in a post cold war international environment that was supposed to represent a new world order but has instead been characterised by state failure, ethnic, religious and separatist conflicts, and other challenges to the international system.

Like terrorism, it poses the international community with new challenges and requires a very different policy response from the more traditional threats to global security of the 20th century.

  • WMD proliferation in the 21st century

Of course WMD proliferation is not new. WMD have been an element of military and political power since poison gas was employed on the Western Front and nuclear weapons were first used during the Second World War. The perceived strategic benefits of WMD prompted a number of other countries to pursue them during the last few decades of the 20th century. Those years saw the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons but also the development of an international framework designed to prevent further proliferation.

Today, however, this framework is at a crossroads, and the international community faces an unprecedented and unthinkable threat.

The perverse logic of mutually assured destruction - which for over 50 years provided the world with a precarious stability - no longer applies.

The potential for conventional military conflict between states remains real in some parts of the world, not least North Asia, but seems to be declining overall.

But instead we are faced by states and, in the case of al Qaeda and its ilk, non-state actors that refuse to accept the obligations that come with being part of the international community. Indeed, in many cases they are working to destroy the international system so painfully rebuilt from the ashes of the Second World War.

These states know that they cannot hope to match the United States or even other major powers using conventional means. They see WMD as the great equaliser, a spurious source of international and domestic credibility and leverage, and a way to inflict disproportionate damage.

  • The high-profile cases are obvious.

Saddam Hussein's Iraq is a serial acquirer of WMD. In recent months there has been close scrutiny of Iraq's WMD programs, so I won't go into all the details. Suffice it to say that Iraq retains chemical and biological weapons and the capacity to further develop these weapons. Furthermore, Iraq has ballistic missiles capable of delivering such warheads, is keen to develop nuclear weapons and is exploring a number of other delivery mechanisms for WMD.

This cannot be allowed to stand. Saddam has used WMD against Iraq's neighbours and against his own people. Iraq is a notorious state sponsor of terrorism. The risks have simply become too great to run.

The terrible attacks of 11 September 2001 reminded us that we cannot avert our eyes from a threat and allow it to coalesce. Unfortunately we have to face up to the reality that the unthinkable has become distinctly possible.

North Korea has never used WMD against its own people, but like Iraq the DPRK also has a history of involvement in terrorism and has consistently broken its international obligations. But even so the world was shocked last month when it admitted that it was continuing to develop nuclear weapons. This is despite almost a decade of international effort and stringent measures to prevent it from pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

A nuclear armed North Korea is a threat to stability on the Peninsula but also much further afield. It too is a challenge the international community cannot ignore.

But the risk of proliferation extends much more broadly and is growing.

India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998, drastically escalating the potential consequences of any conflict in South Asia. When tensions rose sharply earlier this year, the international community went into diplomatic overdrive to prevent war. Tensions have subsided, but the possibility of conflict remains, and the consequences would extend well beyond South Asia.

Australia and its international partners continue to urge nuclear and missile restraint on Pakistan and India, but there seems little prospect that either will stop producing nuclear weapons or developing longer-range missiles.

Linkages between proliferating countries are an increasing concern. Pakistan has had a history of missile deals with North Korea and made efforts to sell missiles to the Middle East.

There are concerns about Iran's efforts to acquire sensitive nuclear and missile technologies from Russia. Indeed the potential for leakage of WMD-related expertise and materials from the countries of the former Soviet Union has profound proliferation implications - which is why the United States is making a massive investment in cooperative threat reduction programs with Russia.

The attractiveness of WMD to regimes such as those in Iraq and North Korea is clear. They convey disproportionate power on otherwise weak states - allowing them to augment their conventional military capabilities, intimidate their neighbours and their own oppressed populations, and blackmail the international community.

  • The strategic consequences are profound.

If the international community acquiesces in proliferation and states are allowed to get away with it, others will seek to emulate them. There is little doubt, for example, that Iran's efforts to acquire WMD are motivated in part by the threat posed by Iraq.

Moreover, states with WMD are ambitious. There is a clear trend towards seeking longer and longer range delivery mechanisms. North Korea, for example, can already strike much of North Asia but is actively pursuing longer-range ballistic missiles.

These trends are cause for serious concern to Australia and the rest of the international community. Even more worrying, however, in light of events over the past year or so is the possibility that terrorists could acquire WMD.

  • We have already had more than one foretaste of this.

In 1995 the Aum Shinrikyo group in Japan used a sophisticated nerve agent, sarin, to kill 12 people in the Tokyo subway system and others in the vicinity.

While they killed a relatively small number and received much less coverage in Australia than 11 September, the anthrax attacks through the US postal system caused disproportionate disruption and dislocation, and had a profound effect on US thinking.

Neither crime was necessarily linked to international terrorism. But we know that international terrorist organisations are trying hard to get their hands on WMD.

As coalition forces overran facilities in Afghanistan they found clear evidence that al Qaeda was actively pursuing biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. We are not aware that they have succeeded to date in developing a chemical, biological or nuclear weapon.

But we should be in no doubt about their intentions. One of the features that distinguishes these 'hyper-terrorist' organisations from their predecessors is their determination to cause maximum loss of civilian life. They are striving for strategic rather than tactical or symbolic effect, and a successful WMD attack would be almost the only conceivable way of trumping their so-called 11 September 'triumph'.

Unfortunately there are good reasons to think that it will only be a matter of time before they succeed in their WMD ambitions.

The end of the cold war reduced the threat of a major war involving WMD, but it also created fertile conditions for proliferation. On the demand side it helped to create the phenomenon of 'rogue states' by removing the discipline that came with the bipolar order.

The end of the cold war has also ensured that the supply side of the WMD equation is able to keep up with demand, creating a pool of surplus WMD-related materials and expertise available on the market. Globalisation makes it easier for both the expertise and the materials needed to produce WMD to circulate freely - to match demand with supply.

There are obstacles to developing and using WMD. Weaponisation in particular is challenging. But if we have learned anything since 11 September it is that we cannot afford to underestimate the terrorists. They are increasingly sophisticated in their methods and we should not rely on this remaining an impediment.

Some biological agents, in particular, can be made relatively easily with dual-use equipment. We believe, for example, that Saddam Hussein has developed mobile BW laboratories that are hard to identify, track and target. Even crude materials - for example 'toxic weapons' based on chemicals or industrial waste - used inexpertly could have a significant effect on military and civilian targets.

Dual use technologies and materials create an additional layer of complication and a challenge to export control regimes. Many of the techniques needed to produce biological and chemical weapons in particular cannot be distinguished easily from more innocent applications.

Moreover, one of the lessons of 11 September is that we need to avoid being mesmerised by any particular delivery mechanism. A lot of attention has focused - rightly - on the acquisition of long-range ballistic missiles. But we need to be alert to the inventiveness of terrorists and desperate states.

We know, for example, that Saddam has been experimenting with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and other methods of WMD delivery.

The US Deputy Secretary for Defence, Paul Wolfowitz, recently raised the possibility of countries launching shorter-range ballistic missiles at the United States from cargo ships near its shores, possibly using deniable non-state surrogates. A crude weapon in a suitcase - such as a radiological device - could be positioned relatively easily in a major city and could do significant damage, particularly psychological.

The point here is not to be alarmist but to recognise that, in the 21st century security environment, nothing is out of the question. And the tragic Bali attacks should remind us that the threat is not abstract or remote. The threat is global and real. With the stakes as high as they are, it demands a robust international response.

  • The response (non-military)

The first line of defence has been, and will remain, the international non-proliferation and export control framework.

Australia has a long history of involvement in, and support for, multilateral arms control. These play an important part in establishing norms of behaviour - in determining what is appropriate and what is not - and in limiting proliferation. When proliferation occurs, they can provide a valuable rallying point for international coalitions to respond.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention all provide the legal foundations of the international non-proliferation regime.

But the framework is only credible and effective if it is enforced and is seen to be enforced.

Sceptics concede that non-proliferation treaties may be able to delay the acquisition of WMD capability, but they doubt that the multilateral treaty regime can prevent a determined proliferator such as Iraq or North Korea.

Indeed there are those who argue that non-proliferation treaties can even be dangerous, creating a false sense of security and providing cover for countries to acquire WMD technology.

Australia wants to see the international framework succeed, and is working hard with its partners to strengthen the non-proliferation framework. But non-compliance is posing a growing challenge to the integrity and credibility of the system.

Multilateral export controls form another line of defence, and Australia is active on this front.

We are the permanent chair of the Australia Group, which seeks to control the trade in biological and chemical weapon agents and precursors. We are also active in the Missile Technology Control Regime (covering missiles and other delivery vehicles), the Nuclear Suppliers Group and Zangger Committee (covering nuclear and radiological weapons), and the Wassenaar Arrangement (for conventional weapons and dual-use technology).

We also have a strict system of national export controls to ensure that Australia is not inadvertently part of the WMD supply chain.

We have always recognised, however, that we cannot put all of our faith in the international non-proliferation framework to protect us from WMD.

  • The response (military)

This is particularly so in the 21st century strategic environment, where we can no longer be sure that deterrence will be effective in all circumstances.

This points to the need for a comprehensive response - a layered series of defences lying behind the international non-proliferation framework.

Elements of this defence are not necessarily military in nature. There may be circumstances when aggressive diplomacy, law enforcement cooperation, financial and export controls, intelligence sharing and border management can serve to prevent an attack.

Better intelligence on WMD threats is clearly critical to underpin effective national and international responses. WMD proliferation is a high priority for Australia's intelligence agencies and a specific focus of their cooperation with our intelligence partners.

In the United States, 11 September has reinforced the determination of the Administration to push ahead with putting in place an effective Missile Defence system.

Given the prospect of the Australian Defence Force operating more often with our allies and friends in regions under threat of WMD and ballistic missiles, we strongly support development of more effective threatre missile defences to protect deployed military units.

In relation to strategic Missile Defence we have understood the United States' rationale for withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Missile Defence will be an increasingly important priority in the 21st century.

The WMD threat has also caused us to reassess our domestic arrangements for responding to a chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological attack, and in the last Budget the Government announced the establishment of an Incident Response Regiment to strengthen our capabilities in this area. Steps are also being taken to ensure the Australian health system is able to cope with an attack. A further review of national security arrangements is under way following the Bali attack.

We also understand, however, that the WMD threat is so high and the stakes so great that a purely defensive policy is not sufficient.

  • The right to self-defence where an attack is imminent is beyond dispute.

I have previously endorsed in principle the proposition that there are circumstances in the contemporary security environment where it may be appropriate to take action to deal with threats before they materialise as attacks. International law allows for the possibility of anticipatory action taken in self-defence. The combination of terrorism and WMD may well be leading to a broader definition of self-defence.

How then do we address the immediate challenges of Iraq and North Korea?

  • Iraq

In the case of Iraq, the United States and its international allies and friends, including Australia have been pursuing a solution within a UN framework. The Security Council is charged with preserving world peace, and it is only appropriate that it should take the lead in enforcing its own resolutions and ending Saddam's WMD programs for good. Iraq's flagrant and systematic violation of a string of UN resolutions has become not just an affront to the international community but a test of the credibility of the United Nations.

Australia has been working hard with the United States and our other international partners to ensure that the United Nations does not shirk its responsibility to put an end to Saddam's WMD programs. An agreed text appears very close. Then it will be up to Saddam to comply. In the event of non-compliance then the resolution must be enforced.

We hope that force won't be necessary and that Saddam will comply with all relevant UN resolutions. Military force should only be a last resort. But we also need to be realistic. It took the fear of force to get Saddam back to the table. Such is his nature that only the continuing prospect of overwhelming military power being used against Iraq if he does not end his WMD programs is likely to see Saddam comply.

At least the international community still has a chance - albeit remaining only for a short time - to prevent Iraq from having nuclear weapons.

  • North Korea

Unfortunately the same probably cannot be said of North Korea, which may already possess a small number of devices.

A different, predominantly bilateral approach has in the past been taken to North Korean proliferation.

Australia has been a strong supporter of the 1994 US-DPRK Agreed Framework, which sought to cap North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Under the Agreed Framework the DPRK agreed to give up its WMD aspirations in return for assistance in meeting its legitimate energy needs. To this end we have contributed $22 million to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation (KEDO), giving us a significant stake in the outcome.

Nor is this our only equity. Our participation in KEDO reflects our broader strategic interest in preventing North Korea from having WMD, with all the attendant destabilising consequences. North Asia is the destination for a significant slice of Australia's exports, and the US forward military presence in Korea and Japan plays a vital part in maintaining regional stability and Australia's security.

It is not in the interests of any of the major powers - including the United States, Japan, China or Russia - for there to be nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, and it is encouraging that these countries are now working closely together to find a solution. Australia will continue to support their efforts. Only concerted international pressure is likely to convince Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Finding the solution won't be easy. But the international community cannot allow itself to remain in a position where it is seen not just to be condoning or ignoring but actively rewarding non-compliance.

  • Conclusion

The 21st century strategic environment is very different from that which preceded it. Rogue states and terrorist groups pose a profound threat to international security and therefore to the security of Australia.

The prospect of rogue states or international terrorists gaining access to weapons of mass destruction is a real one. We should be in no doubt of their desire to acquire these weapons - and, in the case of terrorists, to use them.

We can't let this intimidate us, however. There is a range of things we can do, in concert with our international partners, to counter the threat. Strengthening the international non-proliferation system is part of the answer. But it's only one element. Intelligence, law enforcement, border and export controls all have their part to play. And, ultimately, we need to ensure that we have the military capabilities to protect ourselves and our allies.

Thank you.


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).