Jeffrey LewisMonitoring the Test Ban

I am working on a series of longer posts related to monitoring the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, but wanted to share an amusing paragraph from the March 2009 edition of Science & Technology Review, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s magazine. (I love S&T Review, by the way.)

I sometimes joke that, if the intelligence community detected North Korea preparing to fire a nuclear-armed missile at the United States, the DNI would warn the President that preemption might compromise sources and methods. Furthermore, his analysts would be totally bummed about the radionuclide and weapons effect data they didn’t get to collect.

I kid because I love the IC.

But I’ve never seen the evil-deed-as-intelligence-bonanza phenomenon quite as clearly as I do in this very good article on monitoring clandestine nuclear tests by Katie Walter:

The most recent nuclear test took place on October 9, 2006, when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—North Korea—detonated a nuclear device. USGS and other organizations worldwide focused on analyzing seismic data from the test. Their aim was to quickly find the location—the epicenter, as it were—of the explosion and measure its size.

Livermore seismologists also analyzed data shortly after the magnitude-4 event but with a different purpose. The last nuclear experiments had been conducted eight years earlier in India and Pakistan. The North Korea test offered a rare source of valuable new data recorded at the seismic monitoring stations nearest North Korea, which the team could use to test its regional models and various calibration algorithms.

Only a seismologist could see calibrating a regional monitoring station as the silver lining to a North Korean nuclear test.


  1. Anon

    🙂 I would find it more laughable that DNI would believe NK launched a nuclear-armed missile at the United States.

  2. Major Lemon (History)

    North Koreans helping seismologists calibrate their algorithms! That sort of international cooperation is so cute and fluffy.

  3. yousaf

    Incidentally, Nature just ran a rather sensible pro-CTBT and anti-RRW commentary.

  4. MK (History)

    Do you suppose the same dynamic was at work with respect to the PLA’s KE-ASAT test? The Bush administration had no grounds to demarch the Chinese leadership against conducting an ASAT test, given its strongly held view that no constraints were acceptable on our military’s freedom of action in space. But we could have demarched to ask whether the Chinese leadership had fully considered the debris consequences of the impending test — unless, of course, the US intelligence community insisted that collection was more important than debris.

  5. Daniel (History)

    It is always a balancing act to respond to and learn from any “evil-deed” events.

    In this case, there was certainly a great deal of information to be gained from the DPRK’s missile launches.

    Of course, it is also sometimes sad that in order to learn how to correctly react to any large scale destructive event (from a hurricane to a volcanic eruption to nuclear attack), there must first be a tragically poor reaction. Hopefully by working hard to learn from these missile tests, some intelligence gathered will help prevent future destruction and loss of lives.

  6. FSB

    I think the USG (under Bush) thought it was better for the Chinese to go ahead with the ASAT test so that they would have something to point to in pursuing their own space control plans, rather than it having anything having to do with collection.

    I doubt if even the US IC predicted the debris consequences of the Chinese ASAT test.

  7. VS (History)

    And paramedic, member of a rescue team, might say that earthquakes happen to keep rescue teams on high preparedness, thus pissing off seismologists. How would they like that, huh?