Egypt's quiet weapons build-up

/ Source: NBC News

A number of documents NBC News has obtained from the United States, Russia and Israel — some of it public, some declassified under the Freedom of Information Act — help shed some light on Egypt's steady development of several weapons of mass destruction programs over the past decade and a half, including its nuclear potential and details of a joint North Korean-Egyptian missile development agreement.

The overall impression of officials in the United States, as well as those in Israel and Russia, is that Egypt has quietly been developing weapons, in particular biological weapons and missiles.  

Much of Egypt’s superweapons development, of course, is aimed at countering Israel's long standing and large-scale superweapons programs, as well as establishing itself as the leading power in the Arab world. 

Israel's weapons of mass destruction program is daunting, even to the first Arab state that signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state. With an estimated 200 nuclear warheads, more than Great Britain, and 100 medium-range missiles, Israel is in a world of diminishing nuclear programs, a regional superpower, at least.

Still, while Egypt continues to point an accusing finger at Israel's nuclear weapons capability, there is considerable evidence that Egypt has been quietly building up its own superweapons programs, including some evidence of interest in nuclear and radiological weapons. 

In other words, Egypt may not have clean hands.

The United States has growing concerns that Egypt is working on several weapons programs it sees as destabilizing to Middle East peace.

During the past decade and a half, both the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (FIS) and the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) have publicly noted the existence of programs previously unknown. The following is a breakdown of what the documents say about Egypt’s weapons systems development programs.

Evidence of nuclear build-up
The most revealing document is the Russian intelligence document, produced by the KGB's successor organization, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service or FIS. An extraordinary public document, it was issued at a time of extraordinary public openness and has not been updated since.

In the document, "Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction," issued on Jan. 28, 1993, the Russians noted that although there is "no special program of military-applied research in the [Egyptian] nuclear sphere," there are some developments of note.

  • The development of the 22-MW research reactor at Inshas, north of Cairo, built with help from Argentina;
  • Egypt has contracted with India to upgrade a 30-year-old Soviet research reactor from 2-MW to 5-MW;
  • Egypt has contracted with Russia to supply a MGD-20 cyclotron accelerator which would be helpful in exploring uranium enrichment technologies;
  • Egypt has begun building a facility at its Inshas research center, which the Russians noted "in its design features and engineering protection could in the future be used to obtain weapons-grade plutonium from the uranium irradiated in the research reactors.”

In addition, NBC News obtained the U.S. Customs Service debriefing of Abdel Kadr Helmy, an Egyptian spy,  jailed in the 1980's for trying to obtain various missile technologies, including Pershing-II guidance packages. 

Helmy said in the debrief — which he now disavows — that Egypt had an active nuclear weapons development program that included sending uranium to Pakistan for enrichment to bomb-grade levels. Helmy said that an Egyptian Brigadier, Ahmad Nashet, ran both the civilian nuclear establishment in Cairo, as well as the nascent bomb program.

Development of chemical weapons
The Egyptians are also interested in chemical weapons. The Russian FIS document specifically noted, "Techniques of the production of nerve-paralyzing and blister-producing toxic agents have been assimilated."

Furthermore, the FIS report stated: "There is information to the effect that Egypt is displaying interest in purchases overseas of warheads intended for filling with liquid chemical warfare agents. The stockpiles of toxic substances available at this time are insufficient for broad-based operations, but the industrial potential would permit the development of the additional production in a relatively short time."  

It may very well be that the warheads the Russians discussed were ultimately bound for Iraq.

Confirmation of biological weapons program
Similarly, the Egyptians have a biological weapons program, according to recent statements by the Russian FIS, as well as the U.S. CIA andArms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA).

“At the start of the 1970's," the FIS document stated, "President Sadat confirmed this, announcing the presence in Egypt of a stockpile of biological agents stored in refrigerating plants. Toxins of varying nature are being studied and techniques for their production and refinement are being developed at the present time in a [unnamed] national research center." 

In response to a question during a U.S. Senate Government Affairs Committee hearing on Feb. 24, 1993 regarding proliferation concerns, then CIA Director R. James Woolsey confirmed that Egypt is counted as a nation with biological weapons capability. 

Annual U.S. ACDA reports on treaty compliance similarly listed Egypt as a probable biological weapons state.

In three annual reports to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since 1995, ACDA has used the same language to assess the Egyptian program: "The United States believes that Egypt had developed biological agents by 1972. There is no evidence to indicate that Egypt has eliminated this capability and it remains likely that the Egyptian capability to conduct biological warfare continues to exist."

What is also interesting about these subsequent reports is that unlike a similar report in 1994, ACDA did not include this sentence: "The United States however has not however obtained recent information on this program," the implication being that the U.S. did receive damning information about the program starting in 1995.

The Russian FIS was less circumspect in its 1993 report, stating: "The country has a program of militarily applied research in the area of biological weapons, but no data have been obtained to indicate the creation of biological agents in support of military offensive programs. The research program in the area of biological weapons date back to the 1960's."

Strides in missile development, thanks to North Korea
The area where Egypt excels is in missile development.

The Russians FIS report noted: "By 1990, Egypt's missile forces were armed with a regiment each of Soviet Scud-B [approximately 186 miles] and Frog 7 [approximately 43 miles] transporter-erector-launchers and also a certain quantity of Sakr 80 and Sakr 365 Egyptian-Iraqi-North Korean short-range missiles. It is technically possible to fit the Scud and Frog warheads with chemical weapons.

“An agreement was concluded in 1990 on military cooperation with China in accordance with which Beijing is to assist in the modernization of the Egyptian Sakr plant and help establish the production of new modifications of the Scud B-class missiles and three domestic types of Egyptian surface-to-surface missiles."

A 1992 Israeli Defense Force (IDF) memorandum on Mid East missile programs provided this appraisal of the Egyptian program: "Egypt attaches great importance to the acquisition of GGM [Ground-to-Ground Missile] and to the building of a congruent technological infrastructure. During the 1950s, and aided by German Nazi scientists, a concerted effort was made to build factories which would manufacture missiles. This effort continued over the years; at present the Egyptian army diverts resources to this endeavor.

"Egypt's principal GGM [Ground-to-Ground Missile] focus is on the Scud, at source a Russian ballistic missile. Cairo would like to build the infrastructure which would enable it to assemble its own Scuds, with the aid of foreign countries and companies.  North Korea is Egypt's main ally in this regard.

“At the beginning of the 1980s North Korea bought tens of Scud-B missiles from the Egyptians. The Scud-B is a medium range missile (approximately 174 miles), originally Russian, capable of carry a warhead of up to one ton. 

“In return, the North Koreans helped the Egyptians set up the infrastructure for missile production and assembly. This was done via North Korean scientists and the transfer of North Korean technology. Work is continuing in these factories at present; they are said to begin active production in 1993.”

Similarly, the FIS noted, "Using technology obtained from Egypt the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] is upgrading the Scud-class missiles purchased earlier in the USSR and exporting them to countries of the Near and Middle East."

Condor-II missile development
In addition, testimony by U.S. Customs Service agent Daniel Burns before the House Ways & Means Oversight Subcommittee during an April 18, 1991 hearing about “Administration & Enforcement of U.S. Export Controls" bolstered the belief in Egypt’s sophisticated missile development program.

Burns testified about conversations he had with Abdelkader Helmy, an Egyptian-American rocket scientist who had pleaded guilty to helping Cairo obtain equipment and material for the Condor-II missile. The missile was a joint project of Egypt, Argentina and Iraq. In his testimony, Burns said Helmy discussed with him several projects including:

  • “The financing of the [Condor-II] program by Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and the roles of Egypt and Argentina and Iraq;"
  • "the Egyptian effort to develop a nuclear warhead, including the Cobalt-60 effort and the purchase of uranium from France;"  
  • "the outline of the Scud missile joint development program between Egypt and North Korea;"
  • "the details of an Iraqi chemical warhead and its planned utilization;"
  • "the knowledge of President Mubarak of the Condor program and the fact that he approved it in 1984;" and
  • "the modification of the SCUD and SS-10 missile."

Furthermore, Burns testified that, "I also developed information in some of the other corporations that he had been in contact with during this investigation — that he had approached the Coleman Research Corp., located down in Huntsville, about obtaining Stinger guidance systems….early in our wiretap investigation we overheard him being asked to check on the remotely piloted vehicle, known as the "Scarab" that was being built by Teledyne Ryan, which is, essentially, for the lack of a better word, the poor man's cruise missile."

Helmy, in his own testimony that day, discussed the North Korean-Egyptian Scub-B upgrade program. Helmy said, "The Scud-B, I knew everything...from the Egyptian official...the other relationship with the Koreans, I knew it."

The Cobalt-60 comment is particularly revealing since Cobalt-60 is an ideal warhead for a radiological bomb or "dirty" bomb, that is, a bomb which disperses a radioactive material on detonation.