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International Security 29.2 (2004) 5-49

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Proliferation Rings New Challenges to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime

The nuclear programs of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), Iran, and Pakistan provide the most visible manifestations of three broad and interrelated challenges to the nuclear nonproliferation regime. The first is so-called latent proliferation, in which a country adheres to, or at least for some time maintains a façade of adhering to, its formal obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) while nevertheless developing the capabilities needed for a nuclear weapons program.1 That country can then either withdraw from the NPT and build actual weapons on short notice, or simply stay within the NPT while maintaining the latent capability for the rapid realization of nuclear weapons as a hedge against future threats. This was the path followed by the DPRK with its plutonium program and one that is likely being followed by Iran and more subtly by others. The second broad challenge is first-tier nuclear proliferation, in which technology or material sold or stolen from private companies or state nuclear programs assists nonnuclear weapons states in developing illegal nuclear weapons programs and delivery systems.2 The third challenge— the focus of this article—is second-tier nuclear proliferation, in which states in [End Page 5] the developing world with varying technical capabilities trade among themselves to bolster one another's nuclear and strategic weapons efforts.

In the DPRK, Iranian, and Libyan uranium programs, and possibly other national programs, second-tier proliferation centered on Pakistan has exacerbated the threat of latent proliferation. In the Iranian, Libyan, and Pakistani missile programs, and possibly other national programs, missile proliferation activities emanating from the DPRK have further raised the stakes. All three proliferation challenges are interrelated, and the missile and nuclear weapons clandestine supply rings have been intertwined. These issues must be addressed if the nonproliferation regime is to survive. Here we analyze, in light of recent revelations out of Iran, Libya, Malaysia, Pakistan, South Africa, Turkey, and other nations, the dynamics of second-tier proliferation of nuclear technologies, weapons designs, and delivery systems, and their interactions with latent and first-tier proliferation. Second-tier proliferation, in particular, poses a strong challenge to the supply-side approaches that have traditionally been central to the existing nonproliferation regime.

Evidence for the exchange of nuclear weapons-related and missile technologies among several developing countries suggests that we are entering a world in which a growing number of such countries will be able to cut themselves free from the existing nonproliferation regime. We dub these networks of second-tier proliferators "proliferation rings." The full development of such proliferation rings, unless checked, will ultimately render the current export control regimes moot, as developing countries create nuclear-weapons and delivery systems technologies and manufacturing bases of their own, increasingly disconnect from first-tier state or corporate suppliers, and trade among themselves for the capabilities that their individual programs lack. Along the way, technology transfer among proliferating states will also cut the cost of and the period to acquisition of nuclear weapons and missile capabilities, as well as reduce the reaction time of the overall nonproliferation regime.

Concern over second-tier proliferation is hardly new.3 What is new is that the modalities of the proliferation routes are much more extensive than previously [End Page 6] recognized; the spread of technological know-how and manufacturing capabilities is wider than hitherto believed; and such proliferation has undeniably had a major impact on the nuclear weapons and missile programs of several developing countries. In 1990 it was still possible to argue that second-tier suppliers' capabilities were at the lower end of the nuclear export spectrum, and that the export actions these suppliers did undertake were for the most part cautious.4 Both claims manifestly no longer apply. We now find that proliferation ring members support one another either directly at the state-to-state level or indirectly through once-removed private sector supplier networks. In addition, "rings" of clandestine...


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