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Global Trend #2: Proliferation, Great and Small

“Proliferation,” Via Meadia wrote in January 2010, “is not just a question of a few rogue states and terror organizations.” From nuclear bombs to Kalashnikovs, weapons are easier to find, simpler to design, build and operate, and deadlier than ever. Technological progress in a globalized world inevitably shifts powerful killing machines from wealthy armies to rogue terrorists. “Ratty bands of pirates and child soldiers in the hardscrabble boondocks can now get their hands on what, not very long ago, were the most advanced infantry weapons in the world.” Since Via Meadia wrote those words, grand acts of biological warfare and explosions of nuclear material have thankfully not come to pass. Yet the proliferation of weapons globally has escalated even as the scope of asymmetrical warfare has changed.

Candidate Obama made the global elimination of nuclear weapons a big campaign issue: in 2008, he promised to “lead a global effort to secure all nuclear weapons materials at vulnerable sites within four years.” He has done well on a number of fronts: The new START treaty with Russia mandates that both Washington and Moscow cooperate on reducing nuclear stockpiles and combating the spread of nuclear material and know-how. As a result of the Nuclear Security Summit, convened by Obama early in his presidency, various former Soviet states have made progress on removing nuclear weapons material from their soil.

Yet the big nuclear question—Iran—is more pressing than ever. Obama has made it clear that a military option is still on the table. Israel has similarly not backed down. To what effect? Iran, despite sanctions and increasing political isolation, is barreling ahead with its nuclear weapons ambitions, according to the IAEA. The mullahs’ getting a bomb would cast a shroud over all Obama’s proliferation accomplishments to date, and the US is closer to having to make a fateful choice between war with Iran or accepting an Iranian bomb than it was in 2008.

Would that Iran were the only nuclear-fueled headache for Washington. Pakistan keeps U.S. officials up at nights too. Its military leadership is constantly afraid that the United States will confiscate its nuclear weapons. The US, in turn, is afraid that militants or rogue elements within Pakistan’s armed forces will somehow get their hands on them. As Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder describe in a recent Atlantic article, this state of affairs prompts Pakistan’s nuclear watchmen to do extremely risky things to protect their stockpiles:

Nuclear-weapons components are sometimes moved by helicopter and sometimes moved over roads. And instead of moving nuclear material in armored, well-defended convoys, the SPD prefers to move material by subterfuge, in civilian-style vehicles without noticeable defenses, in the regular flow of traffic. According to both Pakistani and American sources, vans with a modest security profile are sometimes the preferred conveyance. And according to a senior U.S. intelligence official, the Pakistanis have begun using this low-security method to transfer not merely the “de-mated” component nuclear parts but “mated” nuclear weapons. Western nuclear experts have feared that Pakistan is building small, “tactical” nuclear weapons for quick deployment on the battlefield. In fact, not only is Pakistan building these devices, it is also now moving them over roads.

A non-democratic, anti-American country whose leaders have close ties with terrorists and a habit of defying international authorities on the sale of nuclear materials: this is our worst proliferation nightmare and it is angry and it is real. The Obama administration has been no more successful than its predecessor in dealing with a problem that gets worse over time.

Proliferation is about more than just weapons of mass destruction. Small arms and small conflicts can be almost as devastating over the long haul. For one, small arms and explosives are more available and more prevalent in conflict areas than ever before. Worse, they’re durable, able to last through the ages. Functioning WWI-era Lee-Enfield rifles have been uncovered in Taliban weapons caches in Afghanistan. Properly maintained, these weapons are just as deadly as they were in 1915.

The NATO intervention in Libya sparked fears about the security of Qaddafi’s weapons stockpiles. The Great Loon certainly did have a serious arsenal, including chemical weapons. Much of that has been secured, but, worryingly, weapons like portable surface-to-air missile launchers and rocket launchers have gone missing. While in many cases these pose no serious threat to a modern fighter jet, they could easily bring down a passenger airliner. Not surprisingly, al-Qaeda and their comrades in arms swarmed to the mayhem of post-Qaddafi Libya, on the lookout for all sorts of bargains and freebees. Keeping Qaddafi’s stockpiles under lock and key in the now-chaotic Libya will be costly. Since toppling the Great Loon, Libya’s tribes and factions are starting to turn on each other. If the violence spirals out of control, no one will have to go far to find guns and ammo.

Proliferation is just as frightening an issue today as it was in January 2010. Via Meadia doesn’t think that will change anytime soon. The dream of nuclear disarmament is just that: a dream. On the proliferation issue, expect to whimper as we keep hearing more bangs.

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  • Stephen

    “Proliferation is about more than just weapons of mass destruction. Small arms and small conflicts can be almost as devastating over the long haul.”

    Quite right. And for that you can thank the Soviets and their satellites above all others. Lee-Enfields are superb rifles, sportsterized they make fine hunting rifles, but far and away the most numerous are AK’s, SKS’s and their variants – just as durable and more effective for their purpose. Find an armed militant group and more than 90% of the time they’ll be carrying AK’s – the world is awash in this one example of Soviet industrial and marketing success.

  • Anthony

    WRM, your piece on South Sudan illustrates environment where money, weapon availability, rogue actors, and inclination coalesce to further proliferation of weapons globally; such factors globally inure towards proliferation remaining important issue in 21st century (asymmetrical warfare and weapon availability adds to its allure).

  • a nissen

    I knew there is a reason I keep reading this blog! So sad though to find you closing on a whimper. The case you make deserves far more application of thought than a whimper.

  • Jim.

    So, I’m confused. Is Iran still six months away from getting the bomb, like they were in what, 2008?

  • Kris

    Jim@4, there is absolutely no need to worry, cf NIE 2007.

    Regarding Pakistan’s nukes, they’re obviously more worried about the US confiscating them than about losing them to unsavory organizations (well, less savory). It is up to the US to get Pakistan to re-assess the cost of the second eventuality.

  • Walter Sobchak

    “Obama made the global elimination of nuclear weapons a big campaign issue”

    Nuclear weapons cannot be eliminated, not as long as physics and mathematics are known. If all the world’s nuclear powers got together and buried all of their nuclear weapons in the bottom of the Marianas Trench, the next day some lunatic tyrant like Kim Jong the 42nd could announce that he has built a nuclear weapon, and we are right back at square one.

    Forget it. We have eaten of the tree of knowledge, and there is no return to gan eden.

  • f1b0nacc1

    Regarding the comment you made on the SAMs that went missing in Libya:

    “While in many cases these pose no serious threat to a modern fighter jet, they could easily bring down a passenger airliner”

    Actually, these shoulder-fired weapons are (for the most part) reasonably ineffective against most modern airliners. The SAMs are heat-seekers, and thus (in the overwhelming majority of cases) target the rear of the engines, which are hottest. Since the engines on most modern airliners are quite large (often larger and more robust than many modern fighters), it is unlikely that a shoulder-fired SAM would do much more than damage one of these engines. This is not a trivial matter (it would certainly force an emergency landing, and could conceivably create conditions for a much worse accident), it is unlikely that these weapons would do much more than damage the airliner without a loss of life.

    Most shoulder-fired SAMs are designed for use against helicopters, not against aircraft. They can be (and certainly are) used against aircraft, but they have been largely ineffective in this role. Smaller, older air transports have been shot down (this has happened most frequently in Africa, which has acted as a dumping ground for obsolete transports), but large modern airliners are not likely to be destroyed by these weapons.

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