The Proliferation Security Initiative

By: Guest Authors

By: Peter Brookes

Missile defense is undoubtedly an important part of a comprehensive approach to reducing national security threats against the homeland from weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missiles. However, while missile defense undermines an adversary’s confidence of successfully launching a devastating strike against the United States, the U.S. can and should take additional steps to improve its security.

One way to increase security is to develop the means to prevent the materials, technologies, and even complete weapons systems-especially ballistic missiles and WMD-from falling into the hands of those who would harm the United States and its friends and allies.

Regrettably, in the anxious days following the attacks on September 11, 2001, no such international program existed that could effectively limit the proliferation of WMD and delivery systems, despite the existence of a wide range of arms control treaties and regimes.

For instance, on December 9, 2002, the North Korean freighter So San was interdicted in the Arabian Sea on its way to Yemen by the Span-ish frigate Navarra, acting on counterproliferation intelligence from the United States. When challenged by the Navarra, the So San tried to evade, but the Navarra fired warning shots across its bow. Spanish special operations forces ultimately boarded So San and found 15 North Korean-made, short-range Scud missiles and 85 drums of chemicals hidden beneath sacks of concrete in the ship’s hold.

Despite this successful interdiction of missiles and chemical weapons precursors, the vessel with its cargo was released because international law did not, at the time, allow seizure of WMD-related or missile-related materials on the high seas.

Deeply concerned about the possibility of a rogue state or terrorists attacking the homeland with WMD, the United States led a global effort to create a new consensus on the means and methods to fight the trade in the world’s most dangerous weapons.

The answer was the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which President George W. Bush announced in March 2003 at a meeting in Poland. Today, with more than 90 partner countries, the PSI is the first multilateral effort to stem the traffic in WMD, missiles, and their components. The PSI addresses the need for a more dynamic approach to curbing global proliferation. It operates as a collection of voluntary partnerships that uses information-sharing and existing national laws to address the problems posed by WMD and ballistic missiles.

While U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540, which was adopted unanimously, called on all member states to cooperate to prevent trafficking in WMD, the PSI was the first international effort to put this into practice.

Because PSI is based on as-needed counterproliferation activities, not a formal treaty, it has distinct advantages over previous efforts. For example:

First, the PSI’s lack of formal mechanisms eliminates the potential for lengthy bureaucratic interference in interdiction operations. This contrasts sharply with other international institutions that often prefer debate over action.

In practice, the PSI also allows for action against proliferation threats without forming a consensus or even taking a formal vote of participating members, some of which for political reasons may not want to commit themselves to a specific counterproliferation action. This streamlined structure allows for quicker consultation, coordination, and decision making-sometimes just on a bilateral basis-which in turn allows for a timelier and more effective response to proliferation challenges.

Second, the PSI allows states to participate without requiring lengthy negotiations or entrance into rigid and often complicated agreements or treaties that might require ratification in each country’s respective parliaments. Instead, states are encouraged, rather than obligated, to participate in and contribute to PSI efforts according to their interests and capabilities, which enables them to engage in an ad hoc manner.

In addition, PSI nations can choose to respond actively but quietly to specific counterproliferation threats without revealing their participation or even participating in PSI exercises, which are held from time to time as a deterrent to would-be proliferators.

The growing strength and potential enforcement reach of the PSI’s multilateral partnerships around the globe has made the traffic in WMD and ballistic missiles a high-risk proposition for proliferators. Using existing national laws and authorities, PSI member states can work together to search vessels, planes, and vehicles transiting their territory, territorial waters, or airspace to prevent the transshipment of WMD, ballistic missiles, and related components. The PSI also provides another conduit for international diplomatic, military, intelligence, and law enforcement cooperation, coordination, and consultation and for the sharing of information, operational experiences, and best practices in antiproliferation and counterproliferation efforts.

Even better, PSI has been a success. It is credited with interdicting ballistic missile components headed for Syria, seizing sensitive material headed to Iran and North Korea, and contributing to Libya’s decision to abandon its nuclear weapons programs.

Because its activities are often classified, the public may never be fully aware of the PSI’s successful land, sea, and air interdictions; its impact on preventing proliferation; or the ways in which it is enhancing U.S. security. Yet the PSI’s counterproliferation record, exercises, and operations have likely deterred, delayed, or even prevented WMD, ballistic missiles, and related materials from falling into the wrong hands.

While not all states have joined, the level of support for the PSI demonstrates worldwide agreement that stronger measures and international cooperation are needed to defeat the threat from proliferation of WMD and ballistic missiles. With North Korea already a nuclear weapons state, Iran likely to go nuclear in the near future, and al-Qaeda still interested in acquiring WMD, the threat to U.S. interests at home and overseas is real.

States clearly need to work together to prevent the trade in WMD and ballistic missiles, or at least to make it more costly and difficult, whether the proliferators’ motivation is financial or strategic. In a dangerous world, in addition to developing and deploying missile defense, the PSI provides another dynamic, proactive tool for enhancing our national security against the prevailing threat of WMD and ballistic missiles and those that would use them.

The Heritage Foundation is releasing a new film in February 2009 about missile defense in America titled 33 Minutes. Visit the site at to view the film trailer, get access to a wide array of information about missile defense and nuclear weapons issues, find out how missile defense works, and more.

Peter Brookes is Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs and Chung Ju-Yung Fellow for Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. His areas of expertise include national security, Asia, intelligence, terrorism, and missile defense. Brookes is also a columnist for the New York Post and a contributing editor for Armed Forces Journal magazine. He has over 300 published articles in over 50 newspapers, journals, and magazines. Brookes testifies before the Senate and House of Representatives on foreign policy, defense, and intelligence issues and frequently makes public addresses both domestically and internationally. Before coming to Heritage, Brookes served in the George W. Bush Administration as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs, and prior to that he served with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, the State Department at the United Nations, and in the private sector in the defense industry.

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