Maybe it’s time for government task forces to leave the Cold War and come into the digital era?

Monday I found the good part of the Defense Science Board’s “Assessment of Nuclear Monitoring and Verification Technologies.”  Today I’ll address what’s wrong with the rest.

The discomfort of the task force that produced the report shows early in the Executive Summary:

Too many factors have changed, and are changing from our historic basis and experience developed throughout the Cold War.  

The list of participants includes a number of people who were highly placed in the national laboratories in the 1980s. That was before the fall of the Soviet Union, the Cold War ongoing. Up until the actual dissolution, in late 1991, few thought that it would really happen. There was an immediate response relative to nuclear weapons: Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus sent their nuclear missiles back to Russia; President George H. W. Bush unilaterally decreased the US nuclear arsenal; and US weapons laboratories engaged with Russian weapons laboratories. There was talk about denuclearization and an economic “peace dividend”, but people in place whose careers had been devoted to dealing with the Soviet nuclear menace couldn’t change their nuclear strategic thinking, most of which persists today.

The “our” in that sentence I quoted, in context, refers to the United States. But it has a wistful ring – there is no comparison for “Too many” – that may come from the individuals on the task force. This can account for a number of things in the report.

The “changing factors” are detailed in Chapter 1. But the details are unspecific. Here are the two major factors:

The actual or threatened acquisition of nuclear weapons by more actors, for a range of different reasons, is emerging in numbers not seen since the first two decades of the Cold War.

The pathways to proliferation are expanding.

The only specific mentioned with the first assertion is Russia’s statement of defensive use of theater nuclear weapons if attacked. Which has nothing to do with “acquisition of nuclear weapons by more actors.” For the second, the A.Q. Khan network is the example. On this slender basis, a need for comprehensive monitoring of many more things than have been monitored in the past is declared.

Synergies, matrices, and a paradigm shift complete with a flow diagram are proposed, which is the sort of thing that happens in a report like this. Unfortunately, they clog up the logic.

Descriptions of very generalized threats occur at other places in the report. But only a small number of countries have been identified that are likely to want and be capable of developing a nuclear weapons program. Motivations and capabilities change, of course, but it is unlikely that most countries would choose that path. The threat of non-state actors is another focus. Again, few groups have the motivation and capability to be such a threat. Looking at the nations that have appeared to be threats would have made for a more interesting report. Because Chapter 2 describes a program that is likely to be necessary between the United States and Russia and can be extended to other nations, it escapes the problems of the rest of the report.

Which countries have a nuclear weapons capability or seem to want one? Israel, India, and Pakistan all have nuclear weapons and have refused to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). North Korea withdrew from the NPT and performed underground nuclear tests. Iran’s extensive nuclear program has provoked suspicions that they want nuclear weapons or a close capability. Burma was suspected of having a nuclear weapons program, but it has declared that it has given up that idea. Saudi Arabia brings up the possibility it might try to acquire nuclear weapons in discussions of Iran’s program. South Korea and Japan get nervous about North Korea, but US defense policy has persuaded them that they do not need nuclear weapons.

That’s it. Terrorist acquisition of a bomb or building one is vanishingly unlikely. The Khan network seems to have been rolled up. North Korea may also be selling nuclear weapons secrets, but lessons learned from the Khan network, particularly in export control, make it likely that another such network would be detected earlier. And there is no bomb without fissionable material, in which no significant commerce has been detected. Even North Korea is unlikely to start selling its very limited supply, although we need to know more about its uranium enrichment capability.

The report recommends using intelligence methods, including signals intelligence, to follow possible networks of illegal procurements and cooperation toward building bombs. That’s unexecptionable, except for the current concerns about NSA surveillance. Recommendations as general as in this report, however, could contribute to the perceived need for very broad data collection.

Chapter 5 lists shortcomings of present detection methods and the functions that need to be improved. Nuclear weapons and fissionable materials are not all that radioactive and therefore are hard to detect. Nothing has changed there. Section 5.6.2 on crowdsourcing has attracted attention. It’s lukewarm on the idea – problems with quality assurance, for one example – and cites a rather doubtful study done by University of Maryland students. That’s not actually crowdsourcing; I would have cited some of what Jeffrey Lewis has done at Arms Control Wonk.

Crowdsourcing implies analysis open to anyone, which was not present in the Georgetown University project. But a group that doesn’t blog or tweet or probably even read Arms Control Wonk might not know that. It’s attractive to think of many eyes, many detectors looking for arms control issues. We kick those ideas around behind the Nuclear Diner counter. But we haven’t found a way to make it work. Lewis’s posting of intriguing overhead photos with commentary from readers has been perhaps the most effective use of crowdsourcing. Another, less organized, crowdsourced analysis of strange structures in the Chinese desert continued over a few years. A counter, however, would be the Reddit fiasco in attempting to identify the Boston Marathon bombers in real time. Having experts or highly skilled amateurs as part of the crowd seems to be an important factor in successful crowdsourcing.

But one needs to see how social media work to evaluate that. Crowdsourcing, however, is a popular concept these days, and the task force needed to show it was up to date.

I suggest a white team slightly different from the one proposed in section 4.6.4. Its terms of reference would be to assess the real threats in the world. Russia and China are our rivals, not adversaries. The NPT has normalized the idea of not having nuclear weapons so that very few nations are likely to want to acquire them. Which nations are most at risk? What are the kinds of geopolitical events that could change this? What capabilities would non-state groups need to acquire nuclear weapons? How many have these capabilities? The team might even come up with a deliberately sunny analysis, to be iterated with the lingering Cold War thinking.

More balance would provide a better basis for discussions of national security. Perhaps younger participants should be engaged. The Cold War is over, and the digital world is all around us.





Photo of Choice, a singing group from the 1970s, from Duke University Libraries.

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