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Information and Communications Technology May Be Next Wave for Arms Control

News, Hitachi lecture, 23 May 2014

Inspectors conduct an ultrasonic pulse echo measurement on a container of VX nerve gas at the Newport Chemical Depot, Ind. | DTRA

Used in new ways, information technology could join spy satellites and radiation sensors as tools for assuring compliance with arms control and nonproliferation treaties in coming years, a top State Department official said in a 13 May lecture at AAAS.

Rose Gottemoeller, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, said some new approaches are needed for arms control verification and to monitor for ephemeral events that could signal illicit weapons activity by rogue states or terrorist groups.

During the Cold War, the United States developed sophisticated imaging satellites and other sensors to keep track of the Soviet Union's large delivery platforms for nuclear warheads: bombers, missiles and submarines.

As many of those weapons have been retired or dismantled under arms control agreements, the verification challenges have been changing, Gottemoeller said. "How do you get at really small objects," she asked, including keeping track of individual warheads that may be held in secret storage facilities. How do you determine that a country is no longer producing fissile nuclear materials? And how do you monitor the status of weapons manufacturing facilities that are now devoted to other uses?

"Can we marry the benefits of the information age with the work the inspectors have to do?"

Rose Gottemoeller

The United States will continue to use "national technical means" such as spy satellites to answer such questions, but Gottemoeller said advances in information and communications technology offer new possibilities for the next phases of arms control. Mobile technologies, cloud computing and ubiquitous sensing also have implications for how arms control specialists do their jobs.

Weapons inspectors at facilities in the Russian Federation would benefit from having laptops or tablets that could gather wireless, real-time data from numerous safeguards and verification sensors deployed in and around a building they are about to inspect, Gottemoeller said.

The inspectors would be able to use their limited time on site more efficiently, she said, and would have better clues about which areas might need more attention. Right now, inspectors are not allowed to bring their laptops into facilities, she said.

"Can we marry the benefits of the information age with the work the inspectors have to do?" she asked. "Is this negotiable? I don't know." But she said it is worth pursuing.

Gottemoeller gave the 2014 AAAS-Hitachi Lecture on Science and Society, an annual series sponsored by Hitachi, Ltd. and organized by AAAS.

Rose Gottemoeller | AAAS/Earl Lane

In her talk, Gottemoeller also discussed ubiquitous sensing, a technique that relies on information provided by many mobile platforms (cell phones, iPads, laptops) working in concert. For example, tablet devices are equipped with accelerometers that can detect changes in their orientation, including shaking due to small earth tremors. By networking together the data from numerous mobile devices, Gottemoeller said, analysts might be able to determine whether the shaking was caused by an earthquake or a clandestine nuclear test. There also is an app that can turn smartphones into radiation monitors, another potential sensor use.

The ubiquity of Twitter also can provide useful information. Gottemoeller noted the pattern of "tweets" near the earthquake-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. The geographical origins of messages regarding radiation matched up with the location of radiation "hotspots" gleaned from sensing systems.

"The question is whether we can use these apps on mobile platforms and the inherent capabilities to help us understand what's going on with an ephemeral event like a nuclear detonation or a developing radiation leak at a power plant," Gottemoeller said.

While she said there is "real promise," she also cautioned that any use of ubiquitous sensing and social networking would require anonymity so that no connections were made between the mobile device owner and data collection system.

Information technology also enables "societal verification," which already is being used in the environmental sphere, Gottemoeller said. Residents of the Gulf coast were encouraged to take pictures of beach pollution and oil slicks during the 2010 Gulf oil spill, she said, and to send them to a central database for analysis. Similarly, residents of Seattle are being asked to provide photos of dead starfish on beaches as specialists seek to understand the reasons for a significant die-off of starfish in Puget Sound.

Societal verification for arms control purposes could be more problematic, Gottemoeller acknowledged, depending on the nation involved. Citizens who were to take pictures of missile launches in North Korea, for example, would do so at their peril. More feasible, she said, might be efforts by citizens in more open societies to help monitor the status of buildings formerly used for weapons purposes.

A plant that once made chemical weapons and now has been converted to pesticide production is one example. Nearby residents could be urged to report any hints of unusual activity at the plant to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, Netherlands, she said.

There is ample precedent for use of new technologies in arms control. Gottemoeller cited the use of a Blend Down Monitoring System as part of the 1993 U.S.-Russia agreement to convert weapons-grade uranium from dismantled Soviet nuclear warheads into fuel for U.S. power reactors. The monitoring instruments were installed at three Russian facilities where highly enriched uranium was blended down to low-enriched uranium prior to shipment to the United States for further processing. The unattended monitoring instruments provided a continuous look at enrichment measurements and the flow of material through the Russian processing lines.

Under the 20-year program, 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium (the equivalent of 20,000 nuclear warheads) was converted into reactor-grade uranium. Gottemoeller noted that 10% of U.S. electricity output now comes from nuclear plants using fuel created from Russia's excess weapons material.

"More of this kind of process monitoring is going to be important going forward" on arms control agreements, Gottemoeller said, including ongoing negotiations with Iran about the future of its nuclear program. Such monitoring also could be used to verify compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, she said, and help ensure that chemical manufacturing facilities are not diverted to the illegal production of weapons.

Would rogue states such as North Korea be willing to accept new, intrusive monitoring technologies? "I don't rule out anything in any country," Gottemoeller said, noting that during her tenure as Deputy Undersecretary of Energy in the late 1990s, North Korea had been receptive to U.S. efforts to have spent fuel rods from the Yongbyon reactor packaged for shipment out of the country. The signed agreement subsequently fell through.

While wider use of new technologies in the arms control arena makes sense, there will be technical, legal, political and diplomatic barriers to overcome. Not every nation may be as willing as the United States to embrace the Internet and the global connectivity it provides, Gottemoeller said. But the field of information technology "is moving and moving fast," she said, and the arms control community may reap powerful new tools as a result.

"We'll increasingly have an opportunity to take advantage of what the Web has to offer," Gottemoeller predicted. She noted an intriguing article that happened to appear on the day of her lecture. It described a new Internet-connected scanner, about the size of a flash drive, that uses near-infrared spectroscopy to determine the molecular makeup of objects like food and medications. While it may only give the nutritional breakdown on an apple today, that could be just the beginning. A new generation of miniaturized scanners, useful in a wide range of applications — including identification of weapons materials — could be on the horizon.


Earl Lane

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