Home inFocus The Issues Issue (Winter 2020) WMD and Delivery Systems: A Growing Threat

WMD and Delivery Systems: A Growing Threat

Peter Brookes Winter 2020

While the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their delivery systems do not get a lot of attention these days in the news in comparison with other international challenges to peace and security, the threat is actually growing.

Indeed, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) noted in the US intelligence community’s annual worldwide threat assessment to the American Congress earlier this year that:

We expect the overall threat from weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to continue to grow during 2019, and we note in particular the threat posed by chemical warfare (CW) following the most significant and sustained use of chemical weapons in decades.

The DNI ominously continued:

This trend erodes international norms against CW programs and shifts the cost-benefit analysis such that more actors might consider developing or using chemical weapons. We assess that North Korea, Russia, Syria, and ISIS have used chemical weapons on the battlefield or in assassination operations during the past two years. These attacks have included traditional CW agents, toxic industrial chemicals, and the first known use of a Novichok nerve agent.


And speaking of the Russian military-grade nerve agent novichok, the country seemingly of greatest concern to US interests on the issue of WMD and delivery systems is, arguably, none other than Russia.

Again, according to the DNI: “We assess that Russia will remain the most capable WMD adversary through 2019 and beyond, developing new strategic and nonstrategic weapons systems.”

For instance, according to the US intelligence community, Russia is in various stages of developing new – and in some cases unique – weapons programs that could carry WMD, including:

A new intercontinental ballistic missile system (ICBM), the Sarmat, reportedly designed to penetrate US missile defense systems;

An intercontinental-range, hypersonic glide vehicle, the Avangard;

A long-range, nuclear-powered cruise missile, the Burvestnik; and,

A nuclear-powered, transoceanic underwater vehicle, the Poseidon.

These new weapons systems, whether armed with conventional or unconventional weapons, are an increasing threat to the national security interests of the United States, other American allies and partners.

And that is not the full extent of it.

Russia recently fielded a new ground-launched cruise missile that violates the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which prohibits possessing, producing, or flight-testing any ground-launched missile with a range of 310 miles to 3,400 miles.

Though the United States had given Russia plenty of time to come back into compliance with the INF Treaty, going back at least to 2014, Moscow has reportedly fielded several battalions of the nuclear-capable SSC-8 SCREWDRIVER (Russian designation: 9M729) cruise missile.

On another missile matter, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (or New START) between Russia and the United States expires in February 2021. Negotiations on extending or renewing the arms control treaty have been inconclusive so far. There are questions among some analysts as to how Moscow might develop its nuclear or missile arsenal if treaty talks fail.

Then, there are always concerns about the Russian tactical nuclear weapons arsenal, currently unconstrained by any arms control agreement, and which, according to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, may be increasing in size.

It also seems clear that Russia is in non-compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) because of the use of the nerve agent, novichok, by its security services in an assassination attempt against a former Russian intelligence officer in the United Kingdom in 2018.

As a result of this – though Moscow denies involvement in the infamous Salisbury chemical attack – the US government understandably does not believe that Russia has declared all of its chemical warfare agent (CWA) stockpile, all chemical weapons production facilities, and all CWA development facilities as required under the CWC.

There are also concerns about Russia’s assistance to its ally, Syria, over the regime’s use of CWAs in the long Syrian civil war. This includes Moscow’s efforts to hinder international investigations into CWA use by Damascus during the conflict.

Based on Russia’s involvement with CWAs, there are worries at the State Department that Moscow has not ended its offensive biological weapon (BW) program as called for in the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).


Damascus is a well-known, serial violator of WMD regimes. In terms of the CWC, Syria, which became a CWC member in 2013, is responsible for a large number of chemical attacks during its ongoing civil war, including the use of the nerve agent sarin and the choking agent chlorine.

Various governmental and non-governmental estimates assert that the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is responsible for as few as 50 CW attacks to as many as several hundred, going back to 2012. The total number of deaths and casualties as a result is seemingly unknown.

While the use of CWAs in Syria apparently has diminished of late, with the notable exception of an attack in May involving chlorine, Syria still maintains the capacity and willingness to use CWAs if necessary.

Indeed, the Assad regime could very well use CWAs again as it has in the past, serving as a tool for punishment, coercion, and when militarily useful, as it attempts to regain control of lost territory from opposition forces.

A less proximate, but still worrisome, threat is that Syria is still in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, according to the State Department. This dates to its nuclear reactor program, which North Korea supported and Israel physically destroyed in 2007.

While Syria is seemingly not in the position to restart its nuclear program anytime soon, the possibility of future nuclear proliferation bears watching considering Syria’s recent history – and its continuing ties to the North Koreans.

While possibly not related to the Syrian regime per se, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the CWC’s implementing body, attributed sulphur mustard gas attacks in Syria to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It is possible that the sulphur mustard was obtained from Syrian government stocks, rather than produced by ISIS itself.


There are also reasons to be troubled about Iran and WMD as well. Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East will certainly continue to be a source of instability that could affect American interests; WMD and missiles could certainly be a part of that.

Of course, there are serious concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. Tehran recently broke with its requirements under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal.

Some of the known JCPOA violations include increasing uranium enrichment levels, exceeding agreed stockpiles of processed uranium, and resuming uranium enrichment at the underground Fordow nuclear plant, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

There are also lingering issues about Iran’s failure to fully disclose its past nuclear history, often referred to as the program’s possible military dimensions or PMDs. Adding to the anxiety is the Israeli discovery of a repository of documents related to Iran’s nuclear program that Tehran had retained after the JCPOA for possible future use.

Until Iran’s recent violations of the nuclear deal, it was assessed that Iran would need at least one year for a nuclear breakout. That time lag is likely shortened as a result of Tehran’s recent JCPOA violations.

Iran has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency. Tehran’s arsenal poses a threat to countries across the Middle East – and beyond.

At even greater distances, Iran’s ongoing work on a “peaceful” space launch vehicle (SLV) program curtails the time needed to field a long-range ballistic missile of intercontinental range because SLVs and ICBMs use similar technologies.

One also cannot overlook Iran’s ongoing development of cruise missiles, including land-attack and anti-ship versions, and unmanned combat aerial vehicles that can carry a variety of ordnances.

Equally troubling, Iran has shared some of these delivery systems with allies and proxies in the Middle East, including with the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas and Houthi rebels in Yemen.

There is also anxiety that Iran is in non-compliance with the CWC, according to the State Department, especially on the issue of the development of pharmaceutical-based agents (e.g., carfentanil) for offensive purposes.

In addition, there are worries about Iran’s compliance with the BWC. The US government assesses that Iran has not abandoned the research and development of biological agents and toxins for offensive purposes as called for under the treaty.

North Korea

North Korea is another country of concern. In terms of nuclear weapons, various analyses suggest that it has as few as 20 nuclear weapons and as many as 60 nuclear weapons at its disposal. Though it is negotiating over its nuclear program, some reports indicate that it continues to produce nuclear weapons to bolster its arsenal.

North Korea also has a prodigious ballistic missile force for delivering conventional weapons or WMD against perceived enemies in Asia and beyond. It should be assumed that Pyongyang can strike US forces in Asia and the Pacific and the majority – if not all – of the United States with ballistic missiles of various ranges.

Based on its Soviet military doctrinal training, it has long been believed that North Korea has an active CW program. The assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother in Malaysia in 2017 with the nerve agent VX demonstrates the existence of such a program.

North Korea is also believed to have an offensive BW program, according to the State Department, likely in violation of its BWC commitments. The US government assesses that North Korea can produce sufficient quantities of biological weapons for offensive military purposes on demand.


China ranks with Russia as a major WMD threat to American interests. According to the DNI:

We assess that China will continue to expand and diversify its WMD capabilities. China continues its multiyear effort to modernize its nuclear missile forces, including deploying sea-based weapons, improving its road-mobile and silo-based weapons, and testing hypersonic glide vehicles.

The DNI continued:

These new capabilities are intended to ensure the viability of China’s strategic deterrent by providing a second-strike capability and a way to overcome missile defenses. The Chinese have also publicized their intent to form a nuclear triad by developing a nuclear capable, next-generation bomber.

According to the State Department, there are also questions about China’s adherence to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), especially Beijing’s adherence to a “zero-yield” nuclear weapons testing moratorium. It is assessed that China may have carried out multiple non-CTBT compliant nuclear tests or experiments in 2018.

China has also proved to be a proliferation problem by not adhering to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), according to a State Department assessment. The regime aims to not assist “in any way, any country in the development of ballistic missiles that can be used to deliver nuclear weapons.”

In particular, according to the State Department, Chinese entities have been involved in providing MTCR-controlled goods to ballistic missile programs in Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Pakistan.

The US government is also concerned China is engaged in biological activities with potential dual-use (i.e., civilian-military) applications, raising questions over compliance with its duties under the BWC.

In conclusion, while WMD and their delivery systems may not be the top priority among the many challenges that face the United States and international community, these weapons are gaining currency again among some state actors – and non-state actors – of concern.

We also have seen the proliferation of delivery vehicles such as armed drones and cruise missiles from state to non-state actors. These systems could be used to deliver not only conventional weapons, but WMD or radiological weapons, at significant distances, providing unwelcome power projection to non-state actors.

Moreover, long-standing international norms against WMD use, including arms control treaties, have been compromised as a result of the use of these weapons in recent years. Unfortunately, this could encourage – rather than discourage – others to use WMD.

Although WMD events have long been considered low-probability, it can be suggested that from recent WMD activity, it is really not as low-probability as once expected. Moreover, even if low-probability, WMD events are often high-consequence events.

As such, the evolving challenge of WMD and their delivery systems are issues that US policymakers must be thinking about and acting upon to protect and advance America’s broad interest in global peace and stability.

Peter Brookes, Ph.D., is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense.