The risk that chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons will be deployed seems low at first glance, in view of the small number of incidents with these weapons in the past. However, if such an incident does occur, it could have major consequences. This contribution attempts, on the basis of a number of selected indicators, to create a threat assessment for the coming five years (2016-2021). The concusion is that a small but worrying increasing in threats stemming from CBRN weapons may be expected. In particular, the tensions between major powers, the threatened breakdown of the multilateral non-proliferation and disarmament system and the growing threat of non-state actors play a role in this. In addition, this analysis considers the extent to which positive or negative developments in international cooperation can be expected in the coming five years.

Threat assessment


Due the large-scale death and destruction that Chemical, Biological and Nuclear (CBN) weapons may produce, these types of weapons have traditionally formed a seperate category. Radiological weapons (often referred to as ‘dirty bombs’) are not weapons of mass destruction, but due to their psychological impact, they are often equated with these; this is why they have been added in the term ‘CBRN’ weapons. The spread of weapons of mass destruction remains a serious threat, the European Union (EU) concluded in its recently-published Global Strategy.‍[1] In addition to the Global Strategy, the relevance of the strategy against the spread of weapons of mass destruction, dating from 2003, remains unchanged within the EU.‍[2] In Dutch policy, the threat of CBRN weapons is also given high priority.‍[3]

Table 1
CBRN threat assessment
Trends in CBRN weapons

The base rate

What is to be expected for 2021? At the state level, developments regarding weapons of mass destruction are fairly stable over the long term (see Table 1). Only a handful of countries possesses such weapons and the countries suspected of developing these in recent years can be counted on the fingers of one hand. In statistical terms, the picture even looks quite good: in the past 10 years, the number of countries with chemical weapons has fallen slightly (see Figure 1 below and Figure A in the pop-out window). The destruction of Schedule 1-chemicals (the type used exclusively for chemical weapons) has risen from 10 to 60 metric tons since 2004. Two countries in particular have dismantled their arsenal in the past decade: Libya and Syria. In addition, a number of countries (the US and Russia) have been working on the destruction of their chemical weapons for almost 20 years.‍[4]

Figure A
Cumulative number of reported and destroyed chemical weapons, Schedule 2[28]
Figure 1
Cumulative number of reported and destroyed chemical weapons, Schedule 1[5]

However, the decrease in the number of countries with chemical weapons is accompanied by an increase in the number of countries with nuclear weapons: since 2006 (first nuclear test explosion), North Korea has been included in the number of states with nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, in absolute terms, the number of nuclear weapons in the worlds is gradually falling (in particular with regard to the holders of the largest numbers, the US and Russia: see Figures 2 and 3).‍[6]

Figure 2
Absolute numbers of nuclear weapons per country[7]
Figure 3
Absolute numbers of nuclear weapons per country (without the US and Russia)[8]

Determining factors

However, these figures do not tell the whole story. There are four factors suggesting that the threat will have grown by 2021 (see Table 1 again): 1) expansion of the nuclear arsenal by a number of states; 2) modernisation of weapons by virtually all nuclear powers; 3) growing tensions between major powers; and 4) the greater role of non-state actors.

Firstly, Figure 3 shows an increase in the nuclear weapons of China, India, Pakistan and, of course, North Korea. Although there is no complete certainty, it seems that these four countries are expanding their nuclear arsenals.‍[9] There is also the Iran question, which may have been smoothed over for the time being, but which, in view of the large group of opponents to the agreement in both Iran and the US, could flare up again at any time. An investigation of Syria by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for illegal development of nuclear arms has been in progress ever since a mysterious Israeli bombardment of a suspected illegal nuclear installation in 2007.

Secondly, almost all states with nuclear weapons are working on modernisation of their arsenals.‍[10] The US, Russia and the UK are relatively open about their costly modernisation plans, while for countries such as India and Israel, this currently involves (supported) rumours.‍[11] Modernisation could mean both improvement of nuclear weapons themselves and improvement of means of transmission, such as rockets and submarines.

Thirdly, it is highly probable that the slight downward trend for nuclear arms has come to an end as a result of growing international tensions. Status quo could be the new trend in that regard. The main reason for this is the growing Russian-Western tensions, which do not favour new disarmament steps.‍[12] Diminishing trust and increasing tensions also give cause for concern for other reasons. History teaches us that growing tensions between countries with weapons of mass destruction increase the risk of their use. Although these weapons have a high deployment barrier, unintended escalation can occur in situations of high tension. For example, tensions can result in misunderstanding or miscommunication. In these situations, decisions may be taken in the heat of the moment that would previously have been regarded as unthinkable. Examples of this include the Cuban crisis in 1962 and the Able Archer exercise of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 1983, which led to great alarm in the Soviet Union.‍[13] The risk of accidents with these weapons also increases in tense situations; for instance, incidents with failing warning systems have almost led to the deployment of nuclear weapons in the past.‍[14] Some nuclear arms states appear to have a relatively low deployment barrier - in particular, Pakistan - as a result of which escalation of existing tensions could lead sooner to a nuclear conflict, possibly with global consequences for the environment and climate.‍[15] At the same time, in statistical terms, countries with weapons of mass destruction are not involved in conflicts more frequently than other countries and verbal tensions do not automatically translate into concrete tensions and escalation potential.

Fourthly, non-state actors also appear to constitute a larger threat in the field of CBRN weapons. Although it is difficult for them to develop CBRN weapons and deploy these effectively, the signs that terrorist organisations, in particular, have an interest in such weapons are cause for concern.‍[16] The combination of the will, available time and advancing technologies that simplify production of such weapons could lead to their use by terrorists in the coming 10 years.‍[17] The availability (online) of increasingly accessible chemical, biological and nuclear knowledge and materials makes such scenarios more likely than in the past – reference is made to a democratisation of the ‘life sciences’ and ‘do-it-yourself’ chemistry and biology, but that democratisation also entails less positive security aspects. At present, there are indications that particularly in Syria, (improvised) chemical weapons have been deployed by both state and non-state actors.‍[18] The Syrian regime is alleged to have used chlorine gas and Islamic State (IS) mustard gas.‍[19] Since 2013, the United Nations (UN) and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have been conducting an investigation in Syria into irregularities in the declaration of chemical weapons in 2013 and potential illegal use of such weapons. Biological weapons are more difficult to make than chemical weapons, but incidents in the recent past (for example, the anthrax letters in the US in 2001) show that possibilities for terrorists exist here too, certainly now that the technology and knowledge in the field of bio-sciences are also developing fast. More or less the same applies for radiological weapons.‍[20]

In view of the developments described above, a slight increase in the threat of the deployment of CBRN weapons by 2021 is expected. For nuclear weapons, the tensions between major powers appear to represent a greater threat for the time being. In the field of chemical weapons, major strides have been made in relation to disarmament, but the interest of non-state actors in chemical weapons gives rise to a slightly rising trend in the threat. The latter also applies for biological and radiological weapons. To place matters in perspective, however, it is good to remember that the last time that CBRN weapons were used on any significant scale in Europe was already a century ago (during the First World War).

Impact and shocks

The deployment barrier for CBRN weapons remains high, so that the risk of their actual use can, in itself, be regarded as ‘not probable’. However, the impact of such an incident could be enormous - a typical case of ‘low probability, high impact’. Roughly speaking, a CBRN incident can vary from the use of an improvised chemical weapon by terrorists to an outright nuclear war between major powers. In all cases, there will bemajor consequences. In the former primarily causing panic (possibly with social disruption) in the latter possibly destruction. Intermediate variants and their consequences are also not inconceivable. For this reason, even the smallest risk that CBRN weapons will be used is cause for concern, while this risk is currently slowly increasing. The main threat comes from both state (nuclear) and non-state actors (chemical, biological and radiological).

The above analysis is based on qualitative and quantitative trends and factors. At the same time all kinds of uncertainties and sudden events are imaginable which would require a different assessment. To take this into account, a number of possible events have been identified and scored by the Clingendael Expert Survey (see Figure B). The three most relevant shocks with regard to CBRN weapons are terrorists (affiliated to IS or otherwise) in the EU who obtain CBRN weapons, the US opting for an isolationist course and a Russian attack on one of the Baltic states. All three scenarios would increase the risk of the deployment of CBRN weapons.

Figure B
Potential shocks in CBRN weapons threat assessment (N=10)
Potential shocks in CBRN weapons threat assessment (N=10)


Civil war or large-scale social unrest in France
The US pursues a more isolationist foreign policy and no longer prioritises Europe
European Union disintegrates
IS uses CBRN weapons or attacks a nuclear power station
Non-state actors gain possession of nuclear arms
Nuclear intimidation causes a nuclear arms race in Europe
Russia attacks one or more Baltic states

If terrorists in the EU obtain CBRN weapons and reveal this and/or even deploy those weapons, this will primarily have a social impact. Apart from the direct impact if a CBRN weapon is used, the threat may cause growing fear and uncertainty, and possibly growing tensions between population groups in European countries. These fears, uncertainties and tensions could, in turn, have a negative impact on economic developments and confidence in politics and administration in European countries.

If the US takes a strongly isolationist course under the new president Donald Trump, this could also have substantial consequences. During his election campaign, Trump already said that countries such as Japan and South Korea should probably develop nuclear weapons of their own, rather than hide beneath the ‘nuclear umbrella’ of the US. Whether the US will maintain that line is very much open to question, but Trump’s statements alone create distrust of American nuclear guarantees and could lead countries to develop (infrastructure for) nuclear weapons themselves.‍[21] Isolationism, coupled with rejection of multilateral organisations, could itself erode the base of support for the multilateral non-proliferation and disarmament regime, which for some countries could be regarded as a carte blanche to develop chemical weapons (again), for example, and/or to deploy these (for example, the regime in Syria).

A third relevant shock would be a Russian attack on one of the Baltic states, in a ‘hybrid’ form, as in Ukraine, or otherwise. This would mean a direct confrontation with NATO, with a risk of rapid escalation of the conflict. A scenario in which the escalation rises to the nuclear level (in various grades) cannot be ruled out and would have major consequences for the current international system on the level of CBRN weapons.‍[22]

The international CBRN weapons regime


The threat assessment gives some cause for concern, but which direction will international cooperation relating to CBRN weapons take? Is this cooperation also under pressure? And if so, in which fields? In order to assess this, a number of indicators were developed and a brief analysis was then made of the main actors and institutions, the key norms and rules (including development) and the degree of compliance with these. The expectation for 2021 is that the present international system of cooperation in the field of CBRN will slowly shift towards a less cooperative system, in which other states and possibly even non-state actors will come to play an increasingly important role, in addition to the major powers.

Actors and institutions

With regard to CBRN weapons, the international system has so far been strongly state-focused. In recent decades, a relatively close-knit system of multilateral treaties and organisations has developed in order to reduce the risks of the deployment of CBRN weapons. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention form the basis for this. Surrounding these are various other agreements and organisations, such as the Disarmament Conference, the Nuclear Disarmament Treaty (prohibition of nuclear tests) and UN Security Council resolution 1540 (strengthening national export controls). In addition to multilateral initiatives there are also various bilateral agreements, such as that between the US and Russia on the reduction of nuclear weapons (e.g. the New-START-treaty).

An important problem is that non-state actors are virtually excluded from the system (although the nuclear and chemical industries, for example, are involved to a degree in some parts of the system). The multilateral system prescribes how states should conduct themselves in this field, but has little control over non-state actors. Some parts of the system do focus on how states should deal with non-state actors. An example is UN Security Council resolution 1540, which calls on states to conduct adequate checks of exports by non-state actors of materials related to weapons of mass destruction. However, there are no agreements with non-state actors.

Norms and rules

To date, the international system has certainly had successes concerning non-proliferation and disarmament: the norms set by the system can be classed as highly successful (see Table 2). The use of CBRN weapons has become a taboo that is widely supported all over the world. The wave of disgust that swept the world when chemical weapons were used in Syria in 2013 says a great deal in that respect. In addition to the norms, the hard requirements that the multilateral system already imposes on the Member States in relation to CBRN weapons are successful to a degree, although genuinely independently verified rules are still somewhat scarce. There are only effective verification mechanisms by independent organisations (the IAEA and the OPCW respectively) in force in the field of nuclear and chemical non-proliferation and chemical disarmament. A great deal of other regulation is enforced via more or less voluntary transparency measures, in which states themselves provide information on their compliance with the rules (as with the 1540 Committee and the Nuclear Suppliers Group).

Table 2
Key norms and rules



States should not use any CBRN weapons.

Verified regulation concerning chemical weapons only (OPCW).

States should not develop any CBRN weapons.

Verified regulation concerning nuclear and chemical weapons only (IAEA and OPCW).

States must prevent other actors from obtaining possession of CBRN weapons.

Voluntary ‘self-verification’ only, through reports on own activities (e.g. 1540 Committee, Nuclear Suppliers Group).

However, the international regime in the field of CBRN also faces a number of fundamental problems. A cause for concern is that a growing number of cracks appears to be arising in the multilateral nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime. As noted in an earlier Clingendael Strategic Monitor, the support for the agreed norms within this regime is slowly but unmistakeably diminishing.‍[23] The cornerstone of the system, the NPT, is under particular pressure. The swelling criticism of the lack of pledged disarmament steps from the five ‘recognised’ nuclear arms states led in 2015 to the absence of consensus at the five-yearly NPT Review Conference. A relatively large group of states is now working towards a potential Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, as recommended by a UN Open-Ended Working Group. However, this normative development threatens to widen the gap between the nuclear arms states (plus their allies) and the non-nuclear arms states.‍[24] The world’s nine nuclear arms states and many of their allies do not support such a prohibition, which is leading to extra tensions within the multilateral system.‍[25] This discussion on the possession of nuclear weapons will not disappear from the international agenda in the coming years and could create (further) damage to the consensus in existing fora. The completely stalled initiative to realise a Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone in the Middle East also plays an important role in the dissatisfaction between NPT Member States.‍[26]


Member States rarely violate the treaties in this field. The OPCW has never observed a violation (and this is not due to poor verification techniques), although the organisation does currently have Syria in its sights as a potential violator of the rules. If the rules are breached in rare cases, there is immediate trouble: see North Korea, which has not been stopped since the discovery of an illegal nuclear arms programme and now, more than ever, forms a regional threat. Assuming that in the past 15 years, three countries violated the NPT or deliberately skated close to the permitted edges (North Korea, Syria and Iran), it cannot be ruled out that this will happen again in the near future. Certainly now that the fierce debate concerning nuclear disarmament has openly exposed the perceived value of nuclear arms in the owner states, more states may be persuaded to cross the line.

The failure regarding the entry into force of new international rules has also caused dissatisfaction, particularly in states that are not major powers or close allies of a major power. For example, the failure of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to enter into force remains problematic. For 20 years now, crucial countries with nuclear programmes have refused to ratify the treaty, to the frustration of various other states. Negotiations as part of the Disarmament Conference in Geneva have also been stalled for as long as 20 years, partly with regard to a prohibition of production of fissile material that many countries want (the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty). Many regard the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention, in which there is no verification mechanism, as a paper tiger and the OPCW in The Hague is under growing pressure from Member States to turn itself into a form of (cheap) night-light organisation, now that further steps in (so far successful) chemical disarmament seem unlikely. Although such initiatives have stagnated for 20 years, and there appears to be no breakthrough in the pipeline as yet, it is primarily the growing dissatisfaction over this among a large group of states that could change the status quo in this respect. Apart from the stagnation of various existing initiatives, it is notable that no new bilateral and multilateral initiatives appear to be able to get off the ground either. Where initiatives such as the New-Start treaty between the US and Russia and the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) process have tried to breathe new life into international control of CBRN risks in the past decade, since recently that has no longer been the case. On the contrary, existing initiatives threaten to be abandoned (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty) or have already been terminated with no clear follow-up (NSS process). In other words, something really is the matter.

The quadrant chart and shocks

With regard to international cooperation concerning CBRN threats, a slow shift is visible in the sense that this cooperation is not proceeding as smoothly as before (see Figure 4). This is because more friction can be seen between states, with the gap between the major powers and the less powerful states seemingly increasing. At the same time, non-state actors seem to be emerging in relation to the CBRN threat, but they barely form part of existing structures in this field. The existing institutions are starting to creak somewhat, the norms and (to a degree), the rules are still standing, but one or a few sharp shocks could wobble the existing multilateral system.

Figure 4
The international regime: CBRN weapons (2016 – 2021)
The international regime: CBRN weapons (2016 – 2021)

A gradual shift can also be seen with regard to actors. Traditionally, the major powers have more or less had control in the multilateral system concerning CBRN. However, this position is coming under increasing pressure, as shown by the large group of smaller and medium-sized UN Member States which, despite opposition from the major powers, have decided to work on a prohibition of use (and, indirectly, therefore, of the possession) of nuclear weapons. The growing role of non-state actors at the expense of state actors also cannot be ignored. This concerns both organisations that would wish to use CBRN weapons and organisations that, through advancing technological developments, could form sources of proliferation (e.g. the growing number of companies active in bio-technological applications that can be used for both good and bad ends).

In the case of the CBRN regime too, expected trends may change as a result of sudden events. To take this into account, a number of possible events were identified and scored by means of the Clingendael Expert Survey for the system of international cooperation (see Figure 7). The wisdom-of-the-crowd suggests various shocks that could have an impact on international cooperation, such as the disintegration of the EU and a global financial crisis. Specifically in the CBRN field, the experts mention three potential shocks: a conflict between China and the US over Taiwan or the South China Sea; North Korea using CBRN weapons against other countries; and a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan.

Figure C
Possible systemic shocks related to CBRN weapons (N=10)
Possible systemic shocks related to CBRN weapons (N=10)


European Union disintegrates
Armed conflict between China and the US about Taiwan and/or the East/South China Sea
North Korea uses CBRN weapons against its neighbours
Nuclear conflict between Pakistan and India
Global financial crisis

A conflict between China and the US would entail the risk of (unintended) escalation, even to the nuclear level. It is very doubtful whether the two states would allow escalation to go that far, but as already mentioned, in tense situations the risk of misunderstanding and miscommunication that can lead to unforeseen escalation is always present. Even without a nuclear component, a conflict between two major powers could change international relations and cooperation in the field of CBRN could also become a victim of this.

If North Korea were to decide to use CBRN weapons against other countries, this would put international relations to the test. Because this would almost certainly be suicidal for the North Korean regime (the norm against such deployment is, for now, still very powerful), this will probably happen only if the regime is already collapsing and trying to survive a little longer through violence. In any event, the end of the regime in Pyongyang will create tensions between major powers: China and the US (and to a lesser extent, Russia) have completely different visions for the future of the Korean peninsula, one of the reasons why North Korea has been able to work on CBRN weapons for years, in a relatively unobstructed fashion. The risk that other states will become sucked into a conflict on the Korean peninsula (with all the consequences of this) is not inconceivable.

A nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan is not impossible. The relatively low barrier to deployment of nuclear weapons in that regard has already been referred to above. The tensions between the two nuclear arms states can regularly be cut with a knife. If the simmering conflict situation leads to a nuclear war, this will have major consequences, not only for the countries themselves, but possibly world-wide in terms of the environment and climate.‍[27] Because neither country is a member of the NPT, the impact on international cooperation will be less than if other nuclear arms states come into conflict. One could even speculate that a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan could actually promote further international cooperation, because its horrors would demonstrate all the more that this can never be allowed to happen again.


The threat of CBRN weapons appears likely to increase slightly in the coming years. Rising tensions between nuclear arms states (with the risk of unplanned escalation), the cracks in the multilateral system and the growing threat of non-state actors all contribute towards this. Although the number of instances in which CBRN weapons have been used in the past is small, such an incident could have a major impact. However, no simple options to reverse the trend in the threat seem to be available at present. Although a relatively close-knit system of multilateral treaties and organisations has been developed in recent decades in order to reduce the risks of CBRN weapons, this system appears to have been functioning less smoothly in the past few years.

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