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21 March 2005

Experts Meet in Omaha to Consider Ways to Disrupt WMD Transfers

U.N. secretary-general lauds Proliferation Security Initiative effort

By Jacquelyn S. Porth
Washington File Security Affairs Writer

Washington – The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff says a “committed international partnership” is the key to success in combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Air Force General Richard Myers told members of the Senate earlier this year that nations in just such a partnership are conducting exercises around the world as part of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) “to enhance international interdiction capabilities and to serve as a deterrent to curtail the proliferation of WMD and the means to deliver those weapons.”

As part of that overall multilateral effort, representatives from some 20 nations are meeting at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska March 21-22 to discuss ways to staunch the flow of WMD and associated technologies.

Political and military officials, law enforcement and intelligence officers, and lawyers are meeting, as they do several times a year, to consider ways to prevent WMD trafficking as part of the two-year-old PSI effort.  President Bush launched the international initiative in Krakow, Poland, in May 2003.

Its challenge has been to bring together nations with a similar purpose: to implement practical steps to interdict dangerous weapons and technologies in transit.  So far over 60 nations have expressed support.  There is no formal structure behind PSI -- no secretariat and no elected officials.

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has pointed out, PSI “doesn’t have an address or a building.”  Its purpose, she has said, is to use “interdiction based on current national and international laws to interdict suspicious cargos around the world that may be weapons of mass destruction cargos.”

PSI activities consist mostly of training exercises and tabletop simulations, which evolve from discussions of an operational group of experts (OEG) who have been meeting quarterly since July 2003.  The core group is formed by volunteers: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Russia, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Japan, Spain, Thailand, France, Greece, Singapore, Norway, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.  But another 40-plus nations have expressed support for PSI in one way or another, including Bulgaria, which announced in March that it wants to participate once its Council of Ministers approves.

The U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) is hosting this OEG. Its commander, General James Cartwright, told the visitors at the outset that it is appropriate for STRATCOM to host given the command’s new mission spearheading Defense Department effort to combat weapons of mass destruction.

The previous OEG was held in Australia.  There, Australian Defense Minister Robert Hill said it was critical for nations in the Asia-Pacific region to expand support for PSI and to participate to whatever degree possible.  OEG meetings have also been held in Asia and Europe, while PSI operational exercises have occurred in Asia, Europe and the Western Hemisphere.  There have been 13 such operational exercises so far.

The United States led a maritime interdiction exercise in November 2004 called “Chokepoint 2004.”  Japan’s maritime exercise, code named “Samurai 04,” was held in October 2004.  Australia, France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom have all led various types of exercises.  Portugal will lead a maritime/ground exercise in April and Spain will take its second turn as host in June.  A total of 15 sea, air and land exercises are planned in 2005-2006.

But the exercises are not all simulation.  There have been actual interdictions, like the one in October 2003.  “They had a big success in interdicting a cargo (of uranium centrifuge equipment) on its way from North Korea to Libya, that we suspected of being contraband,” Rice said, “and, by the way, it helped the Libyans decide that it was time to give up their weapons of mass destruction.”

In 2004, Navy Secretary Gordon England pointed to the numerous PSI boardings that have already transpired at sea and said the initiative, which will soon mark its second anniversary, has proven “its worth in combating WMD components and related arms trafficking.”  (For more information about PSI on the Internet, see http://www.state.gov/t/np/c10390.htm.)

Every time the OEG assembles or an exercise occurs, it reflects a collective commitment to keep dangerous weapons and knowledge out of the hands of unscrupulous actors.  Participants understand that more needs to be done.

“We need to broaden PSI to include everyone with the capacity and the willingness to help in the fight to halt proliferation," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has said.  "We need to continue to improve operational information-sharing capabilities.  We need to remedy gaps in legal authority.  We need to act against proliferation-related trafficking.”

During a speech in Malta in 2004, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation Susan Burk explained the U.S. position in more depth.  “The United States believes that, properly planned and executed, the interdiction of critical technologies and material while in transit can prevent hostile states and non-state actors from acquiring these dangerous capabilities.  At a minimum,” she said, “interdiction when combined with effective export controls can lengthen the time that proliferators will need to acquire new weapons capabilities, can increase the cost of proliferation, and it is also an important demonstration of the resolve of like-minded nations to combat proliferation.”

Assertive actions in the air, on land or at sea can discourage and even dissuade potential proliferators from “dealing in the trade of these dangerous goods,” Burk said.  PSI has created a global web of counterproliferation partnerships and by using nations’ domestic laws in a coordinated way, she said, adding, “we can make the whole stronger than the sum of its parts.”

For the moment, the OEG is considering the road ahead: how to involve new participants in upcoming training exercises, make future scenarios more realistic, enhance expertise and improve interoperability, and share the knowledge learned from each new experience.

Under Secretary of State John Bolton, who helped build the ad-hoc coalition that comprises PSI, has said that for the initiative to be effective it must be “as operational as it can be, involving exchanges of information among intelligence agencies, law-enforcement agencies, cooperation among military assets of the countries involved, and, aimed principally at interdicting the shipment of weapons of mass destruction and WMD relation material in international commerce.”

During a March speech in Madrid, Spain, in which he offered a global strategy for fighting terrorism, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan applauded the efforts of PSI to fill in gaps in current defenses.  The 2004 “Report of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel Report on Threats, Challenges and Change” urges all nations to join the voluntary initiative.

Meanwhile, as all the meetings, meticulous planning and elaborate training unfold, the clock is still ticking.  The end game for these participants could not be more compelling: they are all part of a race to deter a deadly trade, lest the weapons fallen into the hands of those who would have no compunction about using them.