Weapons inspection: does it have a future?

'Gulf War II' was fought, we are told, because the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Committee (UNMOVIC) weapons inspectors were unable to locate Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the Iraqi régime did not produce them or demonstrate their destruction to the satisfaction of the US and UK governments.

Since the end of the warfighting phase, coalition forces and specialist teams have sought WMD without success. This may mean that there are no WMD remaining in Iraq, presenting the UK government with some difficulty in justifying the waging of war and calling into question the quality of the intelligence they based their case on. In view of the extent of Iraq's WMD programme in the 1980s, regardless of whether the alleged recent (1998-2002) programmes existed or not, it would be incredible if there were no WMD residue present. The alternative explanation is, therefore, that the weapon inspection procedures are flawed.

Since the advent of developed societies, people have sought to control the possession of weapons either as a tool of subjugation, as part of a demilitarisation programme to minimise the potential for conflict or to facilitate the resolution of conflict. Weapons inspection, the practical implementation element of arms control, in theory involves threat identification, weapon location, weapon identification and overseeing the destruction, securing or monitoring of the nominated weapons.

Threat identification

Threat identification relates to the recognition that the uncontrolled possession of specified weapons increases the probability of crime or conflict and, conversely, that their control or destruction facilitates the establishment or maintenance of a secure and stable environment. The achievement of the control or destruction of weapons usually requires the agreement of states (for example the Warsaw Pact and NATO, or the Soviet Union and the US, during the Cold War) or parties, such as the Republican and Loyalist terrorist organisations in Northern Ireland. Under some circumstances, however, weapons inspection may be imposed on states or parties as a condition of defeat. This is obviously illustrated in the case of Iraq at the end of the 1990-91 Gulf War, and to a lesser extent the belligerents in Bosnia. The weapons subjected to an arms control regime (and thus open to inspection) range from small arms to landmines and WMD.

Weapon location

The location of weapons may be relatively simple, involving the state or party taking inspectors to declared sites and making the weapons available to them. On the other hand, it may be a highly complex operation involving the most sophisticated intelligence-gathering capabilities, detailed analysis and planned and systematic searches. Pivotal to an effective search is detailed knowledge of the methods of concealment - camouflage, disassembly, normalisation and disguise. In 1991, as a condition of their surrender, the Iraqis were obliged to make all information relating to their nuclear, biological, chemical and strategic weapons systems available to the coalition forces. At the direction of the UN Security Council, the UN Special Commission to Iraq (UNSCOM) was subsequently formed to corroborate the information provided, to locate WMD and long-range weapons, and to supervise their destruction. UNSCOM and its successor UNMOVIC had the widest-ranging legislative powers ever accorded to a weapons inspection regime. These were backed up by the most sophisticated intelligence agencies in the world and the threat of punitive military strikes if the Iraqi government did not conform. Consequently, Iraq began by releasing a large amount of information and provided access to nominated inspection sites but, with the passage of time, information became increasingly difficult to extract and access harder to achieve. It is a matter of conjecture as to whether this was the result of a carefully developed Iraqi strategy, or of an opportunistic exploitation of UNSCOM weaknesses. It is clear, however, that 12 years after the end of the 1990-91 Gulf War and despite the most invasive weapons inspection policy ever implemented, the full extent of Iraq's WMD programme remains unknown.

The fact that weapons inspection was undertaken by the UN may have contributed to the problems UNSCO and UNMOVIC experienced, although it is difficult to see an appropriate alternative considering the requirement for international consensus. Some have suggested that the UN was deliberately handed this responsibility as a vehicle for demonstrating its incompetence. If this is true the UN has come out of it rather well, despite its mistakes, by demonstrating the limitations of weapons inspection. By default, the UN has also illustrated the methods by which success might be achieved. Initially, the hurdles to UNSCOM's success were the working practices of the UN: an aversion to security of information; a lack of effective information filing and retrieval systems; an unwillingness to censure individual underperformers for fear of offending donor countries; and a division of responsibility between the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) and UNSCOM.

The nations that provided personnel to these organisations also contributed to the difficulties experienced. While levels of subject matter expertise were not always up to the expected standard, a greater problem was the unsuitability of some individuals to the rigours of their task and their unfamiliarity with the methods of achieving success. As well as subject matter expertise, physical and psychological robustness, the ability to live and work closely with individuals of different cultures, a capacity for detailed planning and meticulous execution were essential but sometimes absent personal and professional attributes.

The demand by some UN member states that information gained during weapons inspections be passed to them directly, contrary to the spirit of their UN undertakings, and a suspicion that some individuals were tasked with concealing information that would implicate their country in the Iraqi weapons programme, compounded an already difficult situation. Despite this, IAEA/UNSCOM achieved some major successes over a period of several years. It remains a matter of conjecture how much more might have been achieved had a personnel selection regime been implemented and skills such as systematic search been employed.

Weapon identification

While the identification of many weapons (such as rifles and air-delivered bombs) is relatively straightforward, when weapons are broken down into their component parts - either to deceive deliberately or as part of a manufacturing, demilitarisation or storage regime - it may be difficult even for the most experienced inspectors to make an accurate identification. On occasions, the carrier (empty munition) may be readily identifiable but the intended payload much less so. This is particularly true when dealing with weapon systems at the research and development stage. The potential for dual use adds another level of complexity to identification, particularly when dealing with improvised or unconventional weapons. Tanks fitted to light aircraft, for example, may be used for spraying crops with pesticide or for delivering chemical warfare agents. Even more confounding is the potential to use pesticides for legitimate as well as illegitimate objectives.

The storage or manufacturing site may also compound the difficulties in identifying a weapons system, its components or intended use. Stored in military barracks or ammunition compounds weapons are readily identifiable, but away from these environments identification may be significantly more difficult. We all connect what we see with where we see it: hence mortar tubes in an armoury will be obvious, but much less so in an engineering workshop stripped of attachments and identifying marks and perhaps co-located with lengths of pipe.

In many instances site characteristics or the behaviour of site personnel will give away its true purpose. Isolation, unusually high levels of security, purpose-specific buildings and equipment, attempted manipulation of the areas to be scrutinised and the responses to careful questioning, including a refusal to respond, may all indicate the presence of weapons or their components.

Destruction, securing and monitoring

Once identified, compliance with the terms of the weapon inspection protocol will usually be implemented through destruction, securing or monitoring. In the case of Iraq, WMD and long-range weapons were destroyed while sites that produced legitimate products but had the capacity to manufacture weapons (dual-purpose sites) were monitored.

As part of the Dayton accord, specified numbers of weapon systems held by the Bosnian government's security forces, essentially those beyond the legitimate needs for self-defence, were secured and monitored. During 'Op Harvest' in Macedonia, a few thousand weapons were handed in by Albanian separatists and destroyed. These represented only a tiny percentage of their estimated holdings. One of the conditions of the Northern Ireland peace agreement was that Republican and Loyalist terrorist organisations put their weapons beyond use. This is perhaps one of the least visible of modern weapons inspection regimes and has not been undertaken, despite claims to the contrary, to the satisfaction of most of the individuals or parties interested in the ultimate success of the Good Friday Agreement.


Weapons inspection, the key compliance element of arms control, reduction, limitation and destruction regimes, has at its best achieved some noteworthy successes. At its worst, however, it has been a failure. The work of UNSCOM/UNMOVIC, probably the most invasive weapons inspection system ever implemented, has illustrated what can be achieved with appropriate protocols, procedures and personnel and the extent of the failures that may occur when these requirements are ignored. It should be recognised that in the absence of co-operation from the inspected party, weapons inspectors must possess both subject matter expertise and an intimate understanding of how to search, in addition to the requisite personal qualities essential to undertaking stressful work in the glare of international publicity. Understanding how weapons might be hidden will significantly increase the probability of their detection, even in the absence of high-quality intelligence. This is, of course, based on the premise that the weapons exist.

Garth Whitty is head of RUSI's Homeland Security and Resilience Programme.

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