Fifty Years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, New Roles for S&T in Nuclear Arms Control

ATLANTA, Georgia—Fifty years after the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, scientists and science diplomacy are playing increasingly important roles in checking the spread of nuclear weapons, experts said at a workshop co-organized by AAAS.

While the Cold War has receded, arms control remains a global priority, driven by fears of terrorism, nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, and lingering tensions between the United States and Russia, said experts meeting at the Georgia Institute of Technology. They described highly sensitive and futuristic technologies to detect nuclear weapons tests and the advance of clandestine weapons programs. And while scientists and engineers play a central role in detection and verification, international research cooperation can also build a climate of trust that supports arms control efforts.

“In terms of U.S. diplomacy, some of the greatest assets we have are not only in our government agencies, but in our foundations, science associations, and other areas,” said E. William Colglazier, science and technology adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “We’re going to have to use all of our assets if we’re going to create a more peaceful world.”

“Nuclear arms control requires painstaking diplomatic and technical work, and the Cuban missile crisis is a clear example of that,” said Vaughan C. Turekian, director of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy. “But in the

Almost a year after the Cuban missile crisis, in October 1963, U.S. congressional leaders looked on as President John F. Kennedy signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. Other treaties and agreements followed in later years.
Almost a year after the Cuban missile crisis, in October 1963, U.S. congressional leaders looked on as President John F. Kennedy signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. Other treaties and agreements followed in later years.

aftermath of the crisis, the record is clear: Scientists and engineers from the competing nuclear powers, through their work on treaties and other arms control initiatives, helped to bring a peaceful end to the Cold War. Similar efforts are continuing today, with great potential impact.”

The workshop, held 3 to 4 October, attracted two dozen nuclear arms and security experts from government and diplomacy, industry, academia, and nongovernmental organizations for off-the-record discussions. Following that, about 150 Georgia Tech students and faculty members heard talks by Colglazier and by Ambassador Tibor Tóth, executive secretary of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).

The events were organized by Adam N. Stulberg, co-director of the Center for International Strategy, Technology and Policy at Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, and by Turekian and Tom C. Wang, deputy director of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy.

“The workshop and public event aimed to dramatize the crisis and celebrate the pragmatism that prevailed as we stood at the nuclear brink 50 years ago,” Stulberg said. “Just as important, we shared with a younger generation some of the key lessons for science diplomacy and for strengthening strategic confidence-building needed to contend with the Cold War’s nuclear hangover.”

Pierce Corden
Pierce Corden

October 1962: The Brink of Nuclear War

Pierce Corden remembers well a mild night in late October 1962: From the small speaker of a transistor radio, President John F. Kennedy was solemnly describing the placement of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida, and warning of possible war. In the following days, a hush descended over the Georgetown University campus where Corden was a student. The whisper of a jet high overhead was enough to prompt a fear that it might be a missile aimed at Washington, D.C. The fate of humanity seemed to hang in the balance.

Across the country, at the California Institute of Technology, Colglazier was a freshman in theoretical physics. “It was a very scary time for those of us who were students there,” he recalls. “There was a pall over the country and nobody was quite sure what was going to come of it.”

A half-century later, retrospectives typically focus on the steely confrontation and the high-level, back-channel diplomacy that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to avert nuclear war. But at the George Tech workshop, experts said those few days at the brink proved to be an inflection point: Ensuing years brought agreements to limit nuclear testing and curb proliferation, and a cohort of scientists and engineers charted careers in the fields of arms control and science diplomacy.

Adam N. Stulberg
Adam N. Stulberg

“What followed in the wake of that crisis in 1962,” Stulberg said, “were a series of arms-control agreements which, while they may not have been the cornerstones of constructive engagement and harmony, certainly helped to create a roadmap for coordinating and regulating the competition so things didn’t go so far off the rails again.”

Corden, a physicist, has worked with U.S. and international arms control agencies for four decades; he’s currently a visiting scholar at the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy. In his presentation, he detailed how the crisis motivated the United States and the Soviet Union a year later to agree on a limited ban on nuclear testing and later to a series of arms control agreements. Beginning about 1980, nuclear weapons in both the United States and the Soviet Union began a steady, continuing decline.

But scientific engagement had a more subtle impact, Colglazier told the gathering of Georgia Tech students. During the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet scientists continued important back-channel communication, often through their respective academies of science.

“They used those dialogues to really talk about the issues associated with controlling nuclear weapons,” explained Colglazier, who served from 1994 to 2011 as the executive officer of the National Academy of Sciences.

E. William Colglazier
E. William Colglazier

When Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet Secretary General in the mid-1980s, “many of the Soviet scientists that Americans had been dealing with actually became Gorbachev’s scientific advisers,” Colglazier added. “Sometimes windows of opportunity emerged where these channels of communications, in very difficult times, had enormous influence.”

A New, More Complex Nuclear Landscape

Today, the nature of nuclear threats is far different than it was at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. There are more nuclear players with “different idiosyncracies,” Stulberg observed. Nations or organizations that might have crude nuclear arsenals or “that don’t subscribe to the established rules and norms” present different challenges to arms control verification, monitoring, and diplomacy.

Some broad signals are strongly hopeful. In all, 183 nations have signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which seeks to prohibit all nuclear explosions, and 157 of them have ratified it. With the exception of two nuclear tests by North Korea since 2006, Tóth said, the world has effectively frozen testing.

But, Tóth said, “we must put the genie of nuclear weapons tests back in the bottle, and we must seal the bottle.” Without that, the world risks a new era of proliferation and testing. The risk is especially high in an arc from the Middle East through South Asia to East Asia, he added, where a number of key nations have not signed or ratified the treaty.

“The next Cuban missile crisis can happen in any of those places,” Tóth warned.

Critical to the success of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament is an array of regimes and technologies for verifying nuclear practices and weapons stockpiles. Some are familiar—on-site inspections, for example, or airplane and satellite imaging. More often, technology of increasing sophistication is being brought to bear.

Consider the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). Its effectiveness is based on an ever-growing array of advanced monitoring stations and sensors—it will include 337 facilities in 89 nations when complete—that can detect nuclear tests by reading even faint atmospheric, seismic, or acoustic signals. A key element of the treaty’s International Monitoring System is radionuclide monitoring; from half a world away, such sensors can detect radioactive particles and noble gases, i.e., xenon, which are associated with nuclear explosions.

Emerging technologies may create remarkably sensitive tools for detecting nuclear activity and verifying nuclear arsenals: satellite-based instruments to read minute changes in the topography of site above a nuclear complex or testing facility, for example, or a GPS system that can discern upheaval in the surface of the Earth caused by underground detonations.

Tracking the Red Balloon

The emergence of complex online networks and social media may be creating a new realm for detecting and tracking nuclear programs, experts said at the Georgia Tech workshop.

Ambassador Tibor Tóth
Ambassador Tibor Tóth

According to Tóth, the CTBT’s verification regime is essentially a global information sharing system, with organizations and government bodies in dozens of nations, hosting hundreds of monitoring facilities, all collecting and analyzing data in a collaborative effort to monitor compliance with the treaty.

Today, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—DARPA—along with the State Department and other federal agencies are in the forefront of efforts to assess the potential for crowd-sourcing and social media in a wide range of applications, from finding a lost child to finding a potential weapon of mass destruction.

In 2009, DARPA initiated a challenge: Teams would compete, using social networks and other means, to identify 10 red balloons at fixed, undisclosed locations around the United States. Among 4300 entrants, an MIT team placed first by finding all 10 balloons in just under nine hours.

Rose E. Gottemoeller, the acting U.S. under secretary of state for arms control and international security, earlier this year announced a challenge focused specifically on how crowd-sourcing can support arms-control transparency.

“Can innovation bring about creative ways to prevent ‘loose nukes’ from falling into the hands of terrorists?” she asked in announcing the competition. “Can smart phone and tablet apps be created for the purpose of aiding on-site inspectors in verifying and monitoring treaty commitments? How can we use commonly available technologies in new and creative ways to support our arms control policy efforts?”

Kelsey Hartigan
Kelsey Hartigan

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a non-governmental organization based in Washington, D.C., has joined with U.S. agencies, national labs, and officials from Sweden and Norway on the Verification Pilot Project. One area of focus for this project is on data—how enormous volumes of data from social networking sites and other areas could be sifted for subtle clues or patterns that indicate activity which violates arms control agreements. The indicators might not be direct or specific—they might not reveal the exact date for a secret nuclear test—but might point to mobilizations of personnel or materials or telling environmental changes. In July, NTI Vice President Corey Hinderstein and Program Associate Kelsey Hartigan presented a paper, “Societal Verification: Leveraging the Information Revolution for Arms Control Verification.” At the AAAS/Georgia Tech workshop, Hartigan said that seeking patterns in social media or other realms of data presents serious challenges, including technical, diplomatic, and privacy issues.

“We can all understand that with the sheer volume of information that’s out there, it’s something that we can potentially tap into,” Hartigan explained. “This is not something that will replace monitoring or on-site inspection, but we do see it as a supplement to those technologies. Of course, how we do that is the question of the day.”

A New Data Diplomacy?

In Turekian’s view, crowd-sourcing and social media point to a broader area of opportunity: science diplomacy based on data. Volumes of data are so vast now, and likely to have interest to so many nations, that agreements for sharing data—and agreements on what to keep secret—may be crucial for 21st century diplomacy.

“Science is ultimately a data-driven enterprise,” said Turekian, who also serves as editor of the quarterly publication Science & Diplomacy. “And so how do you work with colleagues, particularly in countries where you have had limited interaction, on how you actually think of data, share data, trust data?

“Really, science diplomacy is supporting not only the trust-building, writ large, that feeds into treaties…but also the very practical piece on how countries and scientific communities begin to develop protocols for sharing data, which I think more and more is going to be an interesting area for us.”

Vaughan C. Turekian
Vaughan C. Turekian

For example, Turekian suggested that Cuba and the United States could negotiate agreements to share data on areas such as climate change or environmental threats in the Caribbean Basin. Scientific cooperation on such projects could, in time, help to build trust on security issues.

“The distance that almost caused nuclear catastrophe 50 years ago is also a distance where we share so many resources and interests today,” he said. “That’s where this whole issue of science and diplomacy, and how it can help lead to peace and prosperity, is really important.”

There is a human element to such diplomacy, and Turekian, Colglazier, Tóth, and others all alluded to its importance.

Track II diplomacy—non-governmental engagement involving scientists and their associations, for example—proved “extremely influential” in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, Colglazier said. Today, that experience motivates scientist-diplomats and science organizations to engage with counterparts in nations such as Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. Even where government-to-government relations are difficult, eventually “there will be opportunities,” he added. “I think confidence-building really starts with people maintaining channels of communication.”

Engaging young scientists and cultivating their interest in international engagement is another facet of the human element. Colglazier cited the crowd-sourcing competitions at DARPA and the State Department as important ways to tap into the innovative vision of younger scientists and engineers.

If the challenges are going to produce ideas that will be useful for verifying arms control and international agreements, he said, “it’s going from students as much as from people who are further along in their careers.”

Tóth, too, ascribed great importance to the creativity of young people.

“I was thinking about the right side of the brain,” he told students after the workshop. “There is a theory that your generation is relying more on the right side of the brain compared to the left side… The right side is creative, it’s connecting the dots, tuning in more to the Internet and social media.”

He expressed hope that such developmental influences would prepare the “next-perts” of a new generation to solve the complex puzzles of arms control, proliferation, and peace-making.

“This is the challenge I am throwing at you, the next generation,” he said. “And the challenge is: These challenges can be taken care of. Don’t believe it can’t be done. It is do-able.”


View a summary and photos of the workshop prepared by The Center for International Strategy, Technology, and Policy at Georgia Tech.

Learn more about the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy.

View a fascinating multi-media presentation on the chronology of nuclear weapons tests from 1945-1998.