Testimony: The Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction

Testimony of Gary Milhollin

Professor, University of Wisconsin Law School and
Director, Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control

Before the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs
Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations

March 20, 1996

I am pleased to appear before this distinguished Subcommittee to discuss the threat posed by the spread of weapons of mass destruction. I am a member of the University of Wisconsin law faculty, and I direct a research project here in Washington that is devoted to tracking and inhibiting the proliferation of these weapons to additional countries.

The Subcommittee has asked me to describe the proliferation threat today, to describe how the proliferant countries are getting what they need, and to suggest what the United States should do to reduce or contain the threat.

“Rogue nations”

I would like to begin with the idea of “rogue nations”–now thought to include Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea. This is a new term that the Clinton administration has coined to define the proliferation problem, and to restrict it to these four countries. Unfortunately, it ignores a lot of proliferation.


China is a very serious proliferation threat. As far as we know, China is the only country that still targets American cities with nuclear warheads. It is also testing thermonuclear warheads to miniaturize them, so they will fit on new missiles capable of reaching the United States. And Chinese exports continue to fuel proliferation in both Iran and Pakistan. China is not a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime or the Australia Group–the agreements that seek to control the sale of the means to make nuclear weapons, chemical weapons and the missiles to deliver them. Unless China stops testing nuclear weapons and stops selling nuclear and missile technology to other countries, the proliferation problem will be impossible to solve.

China’s recent sale of ring magnets to Pakistan has been discussed extensively in the press. But it is only the latest in a long line of dangerous Chinese exports. I have attached to my testimony information from the Risk Report, a database published by my project that tracks the spread of weapons of mass destruction. The information lists China’s nuclear and missile exports to the Islamic countries from 1980 to 1994, and also lists China’s promises to stop these exports. The data show that China supplied nuclear technology to Algeria, Iran, Iraq and Syria, and missile technology to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Since 1994, China has supplied missile components and poison gas ingredients to Iran, and sold Pakistan missile components and magnets for producing nuclear weapon material. The data also show that China’s behavior has been essentially the same since 1980, despite its repeated promises to stop proliferating. The United States still has not found an effective strategy for getting China to keep its word. I am also attaching to my testimony a table showing the ranges and payloads of China’s main ballistic missiles.

South Asia

The magnets have refocused public attention on South Asia, where the nuclear threat is growing. Pakistan has already made around a dozen warheads and the magnets will boost its ability to make more; India possesses at least a score of warheads and recently made preparations to test one; and unnamed Pakistani officials have been quoted as saying that Pakistan will test if India does. Combined with all that is the fact that India and Pakistan are both on the verge of deploying nuclear-capable ballistic missiles–an event that could push both countries toward an open arms race and put the subcontinent on a nuclear hair trigger. South Asia is still the most likely place in the world for a nuclear war, and the risk is growing.

Both countries built their programs with outside help. India’s plutonium-producing reactors are copied from Canadian designs and operated with material from China, Norway and Russia. Pakistan’s plants for producing weapon-grade uranium are built from European designs and outfitted with equipment from Germany and Switzerland. India’s short-range missile uses rocket motors taken from a Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missile and India’s medium-range missile uses a first stage copied from a U.S. satellite launcher, a second stage based on the Soviet surface-to-air missile, and a guidance system developed with help from the German space agency. Pakistan’s missiles, of course, come from China. If you look behind the nuclear and missile programs of either India or Pakistan, you will see that practically nothing is home-grown.

And both India and Pakistan are still shopping. To my testimony I have attached data from the Risk Report showing what these countries need and are trying to buy today. Their nuclear and missile shopping lists are based on a Pentagon study and on U.S. and commercial trade data.

The idea that we only need to worry about four “rogue nations” is wrong. China, India and Pakistan are active proliferants–and their behavior is getting worse. The new strategy of confining the problem to the four “rogues” seems to be a move by the administration to boost U.S. exports. Because the United States does not trade with the rogues anyway, confining the problem to them allows American companies to sell to everybody else. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, for example, gave a trade promotion speech in 1995 at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, one of India’s main rocket research sites. It is developing rockets big enough to carry nuclear warheads throughout Asia and eventually the world. One can only wonder what Secretary Brown hoped to sell to this customer.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is not enough

Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea are all members of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Yet, they are proliferation threats. Getting countries to join the Treaty, and getting the Treaty extended, doesn’t mean much unless the Treaty has some teeth. Does it? China joined in 1992, but broke Article III and probably Article I by exporting the ring magnets to Pakistan. Article III prohibits such exports except under international inspection–which China did not require–and Article I prohibits assistance that helps a country like Pakistan make nuclear weapons. It seems clear that Pakistan bought the magnets to make nuclear weapons. But has anyone complained? We have yet to hear a peep out of the Clinton administration.

This silence has a precedent. It is the same American silence that greeted the Iraqis when they were caught trying to smuggle nuclear weapon triggers out of the United States before the Gulf War. Rather than apply sanctions, or even complain publicly about Iraq’s violation of the Treaty, the State Department chose “constructive engagement.” It would be better to maintain our influence with Saddam Hussein through trade. By selling him what he wanted, we would bring Saddam into the mainstream of nations. Sanctions would only hurt American exporters and allow the Europeans and the Japanese to get all the business. We now know what that strategy produced. We were lucky. If Saddam had not been foolish enough to invade Kuwait, we would be facing a nuclear-armed Iraq with its shadow over most of the world’s oil supply. And Iraq would have made it to the bomb while staying in the Nonproliferation Treaty.

Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea

The Iraqi threat has not gone away. Before the Gulf War, Iraq filled 166 bombs and 25 missile warheads with anthrax, botulinum and alfatoxin–all deadly germ warfare agents–and tested missile warheads filled with VX, the most lethal form of nerve gas. All of this was completely unknown to our troops, and was still unknown to the U. N. inspectors until last summer, more than four years after the War. This shows that mass destruction weapons can be built in secret, maintained in secret, and be ready to inflict deadly surprises on both troops and civilians. We don’t know what other surprises Saddam Hussein may be hiding, but the chances are that he is still hiding something.

Iraq is still much closer to the bomb than Iran. Iraq has the know-how it gained before the Gulf War and it has not disbanded its nuclear weapon teams. Because of its experience, Iraq would be able to convert smuggled material to a usable weapon much faster than Iran would. We also know that Iraq is still shopping. Late last year, missile guidance components on their way to Iraq from Russia were seized in Jordan, and similar components were pulled out of the Tigris River by U.N. inspectors. I have provided the Subcommittee with a graphic from the New York Times based on data that our project put together. The data show the astonishing amount of help Iraq got from foreign suppliers before the Gulf War, mostly from Germany and Switzerland.

I would like to emphasize that almost all of this equipment was shipped legally–in accordance with the export control laws of the time. Today, export laws are even weaker than they were before the Gulf War. The Subcommittee should realize that there is something worse than smuggling: It is deliberate, over-the-table supply, which includes training, spare parts and technical back-up. According to U.S. officials, Iran is now benefitting from the same supply network that Iraq set up in Europe before the Gulf War. I suspect that if you went into Iran today and did the same inventory that the U.N. is doing in Iraq, you would find machines supplied by many of the same companies you see on this graphic.

How far is Iran from the bomb? Iran is relying on imports, so the answer depends entirely on how much help it gets from outside. Iran has no known plants for making nuclear weapon material, but it is shopping for them. A U.S. official who has tracked Iran for more than a decade says, “there are Iranians who have been given the task to get or make fissile material for a weapon.” Last year, Iran tried to buy a centrifuge plant from Russia, which could produce bomb-grade uranium. To feed that plant, Iran has been shopping for a plant to convert uranium to hexafluoride gas and shopping for a fluorine plant in France. China has already helped with uranium mining and purification, and Iran is trying to buy 2,000 tons of uranium from Russia as part of the Bushehr reactor deal. There doesn’t seem to be any peaceful use in Iran for any of these imports.

But the greatest near-term risk is that Iran will be able to smuggle enough material to make a few warheads. The warheads would probably be delivered to their targets by the same method–smuggling. A bomb could be brought into a city in parts and assembled in a building; it could be driven into a city in a van; it could arrive in a boat entering a harbor, or in a box arriving at National Airport by airfreight. Smuggling is probably the safest way of getting a bomb to its target because, unlike a missile, it would be unclear where it came from.

If Iran does manage to smuggle enough material for one or more nuclear weapons out of Russia, what should the United States do? I think that we and the Russians should go after it. It is an old principle of the law that a thief takes no title. If Russia and the United States determine that illegally acquired nuclear weapon material is in Iran, we should follow the same policy that we are now following for Iraq: we should demand that the material be turned over, and back up the demand by the threat of force. There is a risk that Iran might defy an ultimatum, but that risk is lower than the risk to our cities of Iranian nuclear weapons.

Libya tried without success to buy an atomic bomb from China in 1970, and later tried without success to buy its way into Pakistan’s nuclear weapon program. But it has succeeded in producing poison gas. Its first chemical weapon plant, at Rabta, was supplied by German firms. A Japanese firm supplied the steel needed for munitions. Libya’s second chemical plant, which is much larger, has been built underground at a place called Tarhuna. Once this second plant begins to operate, which U.S. intelligence says may be soon, its production will greatly exceed any potential military need for chemical weapons in Libya. This raises the frightening prospect that Libya will become a poison gas exporter to countries or terrorist groups in the Middle East.

North Korea’s plutonium production is frozen for the moment by its agreement with the United States. But North Korea too is an active shopper. It has tried to recruit missile experts in Russia, and despite its agreement with the United States, all of North Korea’s missile program and parts of its nuclear program remain closed to the rest of the world. So we really don’t know what is going on. At a minimum, we can expect North Korea to continue to develop missiles for sale to Iran, Libya and Syria, and to continue research into nuclear weapon design. North Korea appears to have made enough plutonium for one or two bombs, so work on weaponization would be a high priority. And if North Korea is trying to import missile scientists from Russia, it is probably trying to import nuclear scientists and nuclear weapon material as well.

Only a global policy will work

The Clinton administration is following the same policy toward China today that the Bush administration followed toward Iraq before the Gulf War: “Hold your nose and export.” This is also the same policy that our European allies are following toward Iran–a policy that we officially deplore. But if we hold our noses and trade with China, why can’t the Europeans and the Russians hold their noses and trade with Iran?

Only a global policy will work–a policy that opposes proliferation everywhere. And it must be a policy that puts security above profits. If the United States puts profits first, so will everyone else. We have always been the world’s leader in nonproliferation. But we can’t sell everything to everybody except four “rogue” countries and expect the world to think we are serious about proliferation. One person’s rogue is another person’s valued customer.

And rogues can get things through re-exports. Iran now imports more goods through Dubai than it does through its own ports. There are scores of Iranian companies actively trading in Dubai. The Risk Report database has just listed 22 Iranian companies that operate in Dubai’s Jebel Ali free trade zone–the main purpose of which is to handle re-exports. I have attached the list to my testimony. These companies are legally off-limits to American exporters because of the U.S. embargo against Iran. But they are probably getting U.S. goods anyway because U.S. exporters don’t know the companies are Iranian. The U.S. Commerce Department has never published a list of Iranian companies operating in Dubai. It has never published any list of dangerous buyers anywhere. In fact, after the Commerce Department’s recent decontrol of high-speed computers, U.S. companies can now ship powerful supercomputers (operating at up to 7 billion operations per second) to buyers in Dubai without an export license. And because Dubai has no effective export control system, there is nothing to prevent these American computers from going on to Iran or anywhere else.

The Russians love to cite the U.S. reactor deal with North Korea. If America can give two big reactors to North Korea, they say, why can’t Russia sell the same kind of reactors to Iran? Is Iran less reliable than North Korea? Iran has not broken the Nonproliferation Treaty, but North Korea has. In fact, North Korea is the first country in violation of the Nonproliferation Treaty ever to get a reactor with America’s blessing. The U.S. deal with North Korea has made it impossible to stop the Russian reactor deal with Iran.

And there is the problem of “sweeteners.” These are the sensitive items that are thrown in to “sweeten” big reactor deals. They are the equivalent of nuclear candy bars. The magnets that China is giving Pakistan are probably sweeteners– greasing the skids for the reactor China is building there. And Iran has been trying very hard to get sweeteners from Russia as part of its reactor deal–that is clear. Iran failed to get a centrifuge plant, but it is still trying to get a large research reactor. The reactor would operate at about 30 to 40 megawatts, exactly the size that India and Israel used to make the plutonium for their first fission bombs. If we let China give Pakistan a sweetener, can we complain if Russia gives Iran a sweetener? And China too wants to sell Iran a reactor. What sort of sweetener will China give Iran if we ignore China’s sweetener to Pakistan?

My last point concerns a pending American export to Russia. The Convex Computer Corporation, a subsidiary of Hewlett-Packard, wants to send two supercomputers to Arzamas-16, where Moscow’s first atomic and hydrogen bombs were built, and another one to Chelyabinsk-70, the center that helped developed most of Russia’s nuclear warheads, including the world’s most powerful hydrogen bomb. The three machines operate faster than anything now available in Russia, and many of the U.S. officials familiar with the deal are convinced that the computers will be used to improve Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

Convex claims that machines would be used for “ground water and atmospheric pollution monitoring,” but to believe that is to believe in fairy tales. The Russian nuclear program is legendary in its disregard of the environment, and both of these laboratories are still developing new warheads through simulations. These simulations will become critical after the five official nuclear weapon states ban all testing, as they are scheduled to do this year. To maintain the U.S. nuclear deterrent without testing, the United States is spending $46 million to develop a new supercomputer to do our simulations.

These hearings have already proved that Russia does not have a reliable export control system, and we know from Russia’s reactor deal with Iran that Russia’s nuclear ministry does not have a responsible attitude toward proliferation. And we know from reading the newspapers that reform in Russia, and continued strategic cooperation with the United States, is far from assured. Under these conditions, the United States should not be helping Russia strengthen its nuclear arsenal.

I would like to summarize my testimony by restating four basic points:

  • We need to worry about more than four “rogue nations;”
  • We need to recognize that it will take more than the Nonproliferation Treaty to stop proliferation;
  • We must be willing to incur costs to achieve progress, even if it means losing a few export dollars and increasing tensions with some countries;
  • We need a consistent global policy, because all the countries we are worried about are interconnected, and if we are not willing to stand up to one, we won’t be able to stand up to the others.


The Subcommittee has asked me to make recommendations concerning Russia. They are as follows:

1. The Subcommittee should ask the representatives of the Defense, Energy and State Departments, when they testify on Friday March 22, to explain why our government is considering the export of American supercomputers to the Russian nuclear weapon laboratories at this time.

2. In view of the evidence developed at this hearing, which reveals poor control over sensitive material and equipment in Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union, Congress should exercise greater oversight on sensitive U.S. exports to such destinations. This Subcommittee should require the State and Commerce Departments to provide records of all licensed U.S. exports under their jurisdiction to such destinations during the past five years. The Subcommittee should then ask the General Accounting Office or some other expert body to determine whether these exports are consistent with U.S. national security and with U.S. nonproliferation policy. The Subcommittee should also require thirty days’ notice before any U.S.-licensed export is approved to a site or an end-user in the former Soviet Union that is associated with the production of a weapon of mass destruction.

3. Congress should require the President to begin to negotiate with Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union agreements to jointly pursue and attempt to recover any special nuclear material, nuclear weapon component, or other strategically-significant item illegally diverted to any unauthorized person or country.