By Michael Shank and Des Browne
Editor’s note: Des Browne is the former U.K. Secretary of State for Defense. Michael Shank is the associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. The views expressed are their own.
Iran has begun implementing the Joint Plan of Action over its nuclear program. The United States and Russia are cooperating in the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. And the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded late last year to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for its “extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons.” The past few months have clearly underscored what can be achieved when the international community works together on weapons of mass destruction.
But while the response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons and Iran is laudable and should now be leveraged to strengthen international law, treaties and monitoring mechanisms more broadly, the reality is that newer challenges are evolving even as the international community works to get a handle on longstanding threats. And although these threats come in a variety of forms, there are two in particular that will require the same kind of concerted effort.
The magnitude of the threat posed by the weapons of choice from the 20th century and 21st century are striking. Whether it is an armed, unmanned drone that could even carry tactical nuclear arms or be turned into a dirty bomb, or offensive cyber capabilities, consider how increasingly easy these potential weapons are to utilize, how a growing number of countries want their own capabilities in these fields, and how difficult they can be to monitor and regulate.
If the international community wants to stay ahead of the danger, it could do worse than to look at how the last century’s great scourge – nuclear weapons – has been handled. As we prepare for the 2015 quinquennial review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – the international community’s primary framework for nuclear nonproliferation, multilateral disarmament and security in the 1960s – we hope that the coming year will be used to engage in discussion on how even stronger commitments can be implemented. Next month, the Netherlands will host the third nuclear security summit, while in 2016, the United States will host the fourth (and hopefully not the last) such summit. In particular, these two events create a transatlantic opportunity to lead by example.
Such leadership is the minimum necessary if we want non-nuclear weapon states – especially in the Middle East and Asia, where there is the greatest fear of proliferation – to keep to their NPT obligations and to maintain their non-nuclear weapon status. These initiatives, coupled with a host of manageable steps like decommissioning any unnecessary, forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons such as the B61 nuclear bomb, should be pursued as soon as possible. Almost 25 years after the end of the Cold War, tactical nuclear weapons, designed to prevent conventional war in Europe, no longer have a relevant nuclear deterrent purpose. They are a legacy issue and should no longer play a role in military planning.
Beyond nuclear weapons, the terrain is trickier – drones and cyber weapons will simply be much more difficult to regulate. Compared with nuclear weapons, they are obtainable at very low cost, they require less expertise to operate and, unlike nuclear weapons, can be acquired with relative ease by individual and insurgent groups without state sponsorship. And while drone technology and malware are easier to design, manufacture and weaponize than, say, a nuclear program, international monitoring is even more challenging.
The case of cyber weapons, where the difficulties of attribution pose a unique challenge, underscore the importance of the concept of shared security for the international community, and how countries will need to set aside their strategic differences to build consensus and create a framework for disarmament and nonproliferation of new weapons.
But before all this, our respective countries – the U.S. and U.K. – should avoid setting a dangerous precedent by failing to make a start on building consensus. It is not too soon to set up the international framework necessary to at least start monitoring the use drones and cyber weapons. But to do this will require transparency, oversight and accountability now, not just later after abuse and misuse becomes ingrained.
Ultimately, as we acknowledge progress in the fight against chemical and nuclear weapons, it is time to draw the necessary inspiration to write the rules of engagement on these new, emerging security threats – with every possible stakeholder in the room. And we must start soon, before drone technology becomes a free for all, or cyber threats consume the cloud.