In the post Cold War era the United States started an extensive and very expensive program to reduce or eliminate chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons (CBRN). Several important factors underpinned their policies.
First, the reduced military menace from the former Soviet Union had increased the relative importance of lesser powers, especially those armed with weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Second, international, political and technological trends had increased the threat to international security from proliferation. Third, new opportunities were opening for enhancing current international proliferation programmers. Washington has spent close to a billion dollars on CBRN nonproliferation projects mainly focused on the former Soviet republics. Cooperation was the end product of extensive diplomatic negotiations.
After five years of negotiations between U.S. and Kazakh officials, a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane transported samples of bubonic and pneumonic plague bacteria to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Both sides also agreed that U.S. and Kazakh scientists will now study the bacteria with the main goal of developing and producing new scientific methods to diagnose and treat the plague.
This specific shipment was part of a larger cooperative biological threat reduction program between the United States and former Soviet republics in Central Asia. This program also targeted diseases that occur naturally in the region which could also be exploited by terrorists. Since the end of the Cold War a number of reports have been published indicating that terrorist groups have shown an interest in creating a dirty bomb to attack various economic, political, and military installations throughout the West. U.S. policies are therefore calibrated to eradicate these activities. Whilst the bulk of these projects are funded and administered by the Department of Defenseʼs (DOD) Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, many other Government departments contribute to the initiatives.
Created in 1991, the CTR initially focused on the nuclear weapons inherited by Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, as well as Russian materiel and facilities. Washington wanted to ensure that these weapons did not fall into the hands of rogue states or terrorist groups. After the successful development denuclearization program and with the bulk of the most pressing Russian nuclear threats under control, the CTR turned to problems posed by biological weapons. The shift illustrated the increasing importance that states place on infectious disease surveillance to international security.
Between 1998 and 2007, the U.S. government invested more than $400 million in biological and chemical threat reduction programs throughout the former Soviet Union. During this period Kazakhstan received $107.4 million and Uzbekistan $78.7 million respectively. Since 1992, the DoD and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) have jointly developed projects to improve the security of Russia’s nuclear weapons as they are dismantled, transported, and stored. Projects have included the delivery to Russia of armoured blankets, security upgrade kits for railcars, emergency response equipment, and super containers used during transport. Ongoing Weapons Protection, Control, and Accounting (WPC&A) projects include upgrading security at storage sites, a computerised weapons stockpile system and exchanging unclassified information about warheads. Between 1992 and 1997, the DoD allocated $116 million of CTR funds for WPC&A programs. By 2000, total WPC&A funding had reached $293.1 million, and the program’s total cost is expected to reach $967.7 million by FY2007. By the year 2011 it reached close to a billion dollars.
As home to the Soviet Unionʼs biological warfare program, the Central Asian republics were a particular focus of the United Statesʼ attention. Stepnogorsk in northern Kazakhstan, for example, was home to a biological weapons facility capable of producing 300 tonnes of anthrax per year. A plant for the manufacture of biological weapons was constructed on a site close to Stepnogorsk. In late 1990, researchers tested the Marburg virus on animals in special explosion-test chambers.
Throughout the Cold War, Soviet scientists also extensively tested biological weapons on Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea and on Ustyurt Plateau in the Uzbek steppe. The Vozrozhdeniye Island test site was part of the older Soviet biological warfare program. When the program eventually abandoned the island it left behind caches of anthrax buried underground alongside other dangerous microorganisms buried in the soil. The newly-independent Central Asian republics were unaware of the activities that took place inside facilities of the Soviet biological and chemical program. The resources that the Central Asian governments could allocate to conversion activities were extremely limited, making CTR funding crucial. The United States and Kazakhstan first signed a cooperative nuclear and chemical reduction agreement in 1993. A similar agreement was extended to Uzbekistan in 2001.
Under the CTR agreement funding was allocated for the dismantling of biological and chemical facilities like Stepnogorsk and Vozrohdeniye Island. By 2000, three sites at Stepnogorsk were destroyed with weapons production and testing buildings dismantled by 2007. In addition, CTR funds also significantly improved the physical protection, safety, and security of the facilities that housed biological and chemical-agents. The Kazakh facility was also the focus of efforts to redirect defence scientific resources to civilian programs. Currently, Central Asian scientists are working with U.S. counterparts to strengthen detection, diagnosis and responses to the outbreak of infectious diseases and biological weapons attacks. For example, a significant amount of funding was given to support Kazakh research of Congo-Crimean hemorrhagic fever and anthrax. The CTR program also funds Uzbek biological and chemical scientists working on the mapping of anthrax, plague, and tularemia, as well as the surveillance of human and animal brucellosis.
Currently a comprehensive study of Vozrozhdeniye Island is funded by the United States and administered by the Uzbek Centre for Prevention and Quarantine. Kazakh and Uzbek scientists monitor the island for the plague and other diseases that might have been introduced to the island during Soviet programmers. The dramatic shrinking of the Aral Sea in recent years further exacerbates the proliferation risks if pathogens remain on Vozrozhdeniye Island. Birds and rodents are potential carriers of dangerous diseases to the mainland, as are people who visit the island. However, conditions have improved with the destruction of biological weapons facilities on the island followed by the decontamination of Uzbek territory that housed Soviet facilities.
In 2011, the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency introduced the Caspian Sea Maritime Proliferation Prevention (Azerbaijan). The project supports and assists the development of a comprehensive capability to detect and interdict CBRN weapons and materiel along Azerbaijanʼs maritime border on the Caspian Sea. It provides surveillance and advanced detection equipment as well as the upgrading of existing naval vessels and facilities.