Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Weapons, or CBRN Weapons, have returned to the forefront in international political agenda. In particular, nuclear weapons and the discussion surrounding nuclear arms agreements have been at the centre of attention in 2019. Where the discussion around nuclear weapons has relatively cooled down since the end of the Cold War, the debate has heated up once again in recent months. With the termination of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, officially since the 2nd of August 2019, and doubts about the future of New START, the debate surrounding nuclear weapons has regained its prominence in daily life. Hence, it is for this reason that the fourth Global Security Pulse (GSP) of 2019, published in August 2019, focused on CBRN weapons.

This accompanying research paper explains and justifies the underlying conceptual choices that were made, and reflects upon the results of the Horizon scan. The paper consists of four parts. First, the paper will conceptualize the topic of CBRN Weapons as it was done in the Global Security Pulse and its accompanying Methodology Paper. This will be followed by substantiating on the results of the Horizon scan. This will be done through outlining the most relevant trends that were found. After that, an assessment of the developments in the international order, affecting for example rules and norms with reference to CBRN weapons. The paper concludes with discussing the most important implications of these trends and developments for Dutch and European foreign and security policy.

Conceptualizing CBRN weapons

Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Weapons, or CBRN Weapons, are often labelled as Weapons of Mass Destruction. However, radiological weapons, can better be classified as Weapons of Mass Disruption, as they will generally not be able to cause massive destruction, but merely chaos and panic.

An important characteristic of CBRN weapons is that the specific materials to produce them are dual-use. This means that, with a few exceptions, materials required to build CBRN weapons can also be used for peaceful purposes. To prevent that any CBRN dual use material would be considered as weapon material, the Horizon Scan used a broadened version of the so-called General Purpose Criterion of the Chemical Weapons Convention: A CBRN weapon is CBRN material used to cause intentional death or harm through its CBRN properties. Munitions, devices and other equipment specifically designed to weaponize CBRN materials also fall within the scope of the definition of CBRN weapons.[1]

Building upon previous Strategic Foresight Publications concerning CBRN Weapons[2], the researchers have looked for new and/or important signals regarding these weapons in relation to five key topics (a visual overview of these topics can be found in figure 1):


Modernisation of weapons;

Escalation potential;

International CBRN regimes;

Non-state actor access.

Next to scanning on signals that demonstrate current trends surrounding CBRN weapons, this paper discusses new and/or important signals that can tell us something about the status and developments with reference to the international order regarding CBRN weapons, especially concerning international norms and rules.

Figure 1
CBRN weapons conceptualised
CBRN weapons conceptualised

Development of the threat

In general, it can be said that the results of the Horizon scan are not very reassuring when it comes to the current developments regarding CBRN Weapons.

The first trend to be identified relates to the massive investments in nuclear weapons and related missiles. All nuclear-armed states are investing heavily on the one hand in the modernisation of their nuclear arsenals and on the other hand in developing new missile technologies. Some of them are producing, and maybe even testing, low-yield nuclear weapons. The production of these weapons is controversial as several experts argue that low-yield nuclear weapons raise the escalation potential, since the (political) threshold for using nuclear weapons decreases. Moreover, experts speak of a growing arms race between the great powers when it comes to hypersonic missiles. These missiles raise the escalation potential due to the limited response time available to political and military actors when these type of missiles are deployed, and the difficulty of distinguishing between nuclear armed hypersonic missiles and conventionally armed hypersonic missiles.[3]

In addition, various new weapons systems are developed that make the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons more diffuse. These more advanced systems make it increasingly difficult for states to determine whether an incoming weapon has a nuclear or conventional charge. This results into an increasingly blurring line between nuclear and conventional weapons, which can potentially lead to a nuclear war as misperceptions may occur more easily. This risk is even more worrisome considering the entanglement of nuclear and conventional Command and Control systems.[4]

Thirdly, several developments in the biotechnology give room to the emergence of the risk that (new) biological weapons are created. Advances in knowledge and technology in biomedical sciences may raise the risk of (terrorist) attacks with biological agents. Techniques such as Clustered Regulatory Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR)-Cas9 allow for unprecedented precision in gene-editing. While such techniques can be used to cure diseases, they can also be used to create new diseases or to modify existing ones. The ramifications of an attack with such an agent can quickly reach a global scale. Moreover, non-state actors have gained increasing access to the relevant knowledge and technologies is increasing. Controlling the spread of emerging technologies such as additive manufacturing (AM), 3D printing, and artificial intelligence (AI), which can be used to manufacture a biological weapon, is difficult due to their dual-use nature. The lack of knowledge on part of policy makers and the limited coverage of current regulatory regimes make it difficult to address the risks.[5]

Finally, a development that was brought up during the expert meeting organized to discuss the preliminary results of the Horizon Scan, was the rapid development in chemical science. These developments increase the risk of the creation of new chemical weapons. Especially the increasing convergence between pharmaceutical and military applications make verification of arms control agreements and export control regulations more difficult. The threat that potentially emerges from these developments is reinforced by the fact that chemical dual-use technology becomes more easily available for non-state actors as well.[6]

Table 1 provides an overview of the identified trends concerning threats stemming from CBRN weapons– the policy trend of decreasing trust in the multilateral system will be explained in the next section.

Table 1
Multi-factor Threat Assessment
Multi-factor Threat Assessment

Developments in the international order

The international order is under pressure from many different directions. This includes pressure on existing CBRN arms control treaties. Hence, the first important development that was identified in the scan refers to the demise of existing CBRN arms control treaties. For several years, the United States (US) and Russia have been accusing each other of violating the INF treaty. The accusations eventually accumulated in the withdrawal of both parties from the treaty, leaving Europe exposed to potential renewed deployment of intermediate- and short-range (nuclear) missiles on their soil. The demise of the INF treaty seems to be a symptom of a wider trend, in which political actors are questioning and criticizing current arms control agreements. For example, in anticipation of the expiration of New START in 2021, important actors in the US government and military have expressed doubts about the chances that New START will be renewed and are questioning whether the treaty even should be renewed. They cite Russian violations of the INF treaty and the fact that various arms control treaties do not include states like China. In addition, the withdrawal of the US from the ‘Iran Deal’ (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) has put the entire deal under extreme pressure. The US’ approach to Iran seems more focused on regime change than on restricting Iran’s nuclear programme, leading to increased tensions in the region and increased risk of the deal falling apart completely. Finally, other cornerstones of the CBRN arms control architecture are under pressure as well. Many states are disappointed in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) because they consider the disarmament efforts of the treaty not being met. Furthermore, the use of chemical weapons in the United Kingdom, Malaysia, and Syria in the past few years are serious violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Experiments with lethal viruses seem to violate the Biological Convention (BWC), and last but not least there are accusations (without convincing evidence so far) that Russia has been testing low-yield nuclear weapons in violation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).[7] These examples demonstrate that the international arms control regime is under severe pressure, which leads to the potential questioning of its effectiveness. Hence, trust issues regarding the multilateral system on CBRN weapons emerge.

A second worrisome development is the fact that the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons is lowering. This can be envisioned in the changing political rhetoric on nuclear weapons, including implicit threats of using nuclear weapons and the perception that the use of nuclear weapons is an actual option available for states. Russia’s warning for a crisis like the Cuba crisis of 1962 in response to possible NATO actions after the demise of the INF treaty implies that they foresee a nuclear standoff with, potentially, dire consequences. Likewise, the fact that the US Nuclear Posture Review 2018 allows for the use of nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear threats signals a perception that nuclear weapons can legitimately be used, even if a state is not being attacked with nuclear weapons first.[8] This severely violates the established and widely accepted international norms and rules that CBRN weapons should never be used. In addition, when states regard the use of nuclear weapons as legitimate, they directly violate the NPT, as they are not working towards a world without CBRN weapons.

Another important trend that was identified in the Horizon scan, is the increasing proliferation of CBRN technology. Several experts are worried about the nuclear programmes of Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the case of Saudi Arabia, experts are concerned that the civilian nuclear programme might be a steppingstone towards the actual development of nuclear weapons. Experts assume that Saudi Arabia would want to develop these weapons in order to match the capacities of Iran. Concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme pertain to the falling apart of the JCPOA. Iran has so far restrained from taking serious steps towards the direct development of nuclear weapons, but the country is, since the withdrawal of the US, already diverging form the limits set under the JCPOA. If the problems around the JCPOA are not resolved, it is not excluded that Iran might take more serious action. The proliferation of CBRN technology however, is not limited to states. Besides these national programmes, developments in science and technology and the diffusion of knowledge make the access, use, and proliferation of CBRN technologies easier for non-state actors. This is especially valid for advances in the biological and chemical fields.[9] Hence, efforts to prevent access of non-state actors to CBRN materials should intensify.

Lastly, a problem that continuously persists, is that there is no effective sanction regime that condemns the use of CBRN weapons. In particular, the perceived impunity of the use of chemical weapons bears the risk of undermining the global norm against chemical weapons set by the Chemical Weapons Convention. In recent years, chemical weapons were used in Syria, Malaysia and the United Kingdom, which shows that actors, state and non-state, are not withholding themselves from using this type of weapon. This is closely related to the fact that, so far, few serious consequences were faced by the perpetrators. Hence, this perceived impunity may encourage other actors to use chemical weapons as well.[10]

Table 2 provides an overview of the expectation with reference to the trends regarding the international order considering CBRN weapons.

Table 2
Multi-year Regime Analysis
Multi-year Regime Analysis


As the above discussion demonstrates, the trends and developments considering CBRN weapons are not reassuring. On the contrary, they lead to concerns about the future of arms control, and hence the future of our national security situation. Therefore, the trends identified in the Horizon scan and described in this research paper leave a number of important questions to be answered, as well as a number of important implications that need to be addressed by Dutch and European policymakers.

Firstly, a nuclear arms race is lurking, especially considering the pressure with which the nuclear arms controls regime has to cope recently. It is important that the Netherlands and their fellow EU members should collectively consider which options they have at their disposal to prevent such an arms race. In this regard, it is also important to strengthen trust in (existing) arms control agreements, as they ensure the security guarantee for Europe. In addition, as the political rhetoric on nuclear weapons has shifted recently, efforts of Dutch and European policymakers should be aimed at keeping the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons as high as possible. This includes addressing the issue of preventing nuclear warfare due to misunderstandings.

However, the nuclear arms race and the dubiety surrounding arms control agreements are not the only problems that should be addressed. Policymakers in the Netherlands and the EU should also think about what policies can be developed to prevent the weaponisation of new biological technologies and the proliferation of CBRN technologies. In this regard, a role might be reserved for the Organisation on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). This organization can, in addition, also play a role in preventing the abuse of dual-use chemical technology. Lastly, EU member states, including the Netherlands, should work together to find ways to end the perception that the use of chemical weapons goes unpunished, as the current perceived impunity works counter-wise.