Michael KreponJoint Verification Experiments

During the Reagan administration, the 1974 Threshold Test Ban Treaty was in Senate limbo, mired in arguments over Soviet cheating. The TTBT limited underground tests to yields no greater than 150 kilotons, but the U.S. intelligence community did not have sound geological data of the Soviet test sites and used questionable extrapolations to infer yields. This methodology, plus the natural margin of uncertainty about underground test yields, led the usual suspects to suspect Soviet noncompliance.

The Soviets did, indeed, cheat blatantly from time to time, most notably by constructing a radar (at Krasnoyarsk) where it didn’t belong under the ABM Treaty and by continuing to pursue an offensive BW program despite their obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention. Die-hard opponents of new treaties rallied around a much wider bill of cheating particulars in the hopes of stymieing deal makers in the Reagan administration. Their bastion was ACDA’s General Advisory Committee, which was then chaired by William Graham. The GAC’s report, “A Quarter Century of Soviet Compliance Practices Under Arms Control Commitments: 1958 – 1983,” threw the kitchen sink at the Kremlin, including the tortured finding that,

While the available evidence is ambiguous, in view of ambiguities in the pattern of Soviet testing and in view of verification uncertainties, and we have been unable to reach a definitive conclusion, this evidence indicates that Soviet nuclear testing activities for a number of tests constitute a likely violation of legal obligations under the TTBT.

Enter, from stage left, the Natural Resources Defense Council. Tom Cochran, Stan Norris and Bill Arkin had “the germ of the idea” that they could provide a spark to improve nuclear test monitoring and promote a comprehensive test ban treaty.

Here’s Stan’s unpublished account:

Sitting around the office one lunchtime, probably in late 1985, Cochran, Norris and Arkin wondered if it might be possible for someone, say NRDC, to set up a monitoring network near the Nevada Test Site to detect secret American tests. It was just one small step from that idea to a larger one in which both U.S. and Soviet test sites would be monitored. Previous arms agreements had traditionally left the verification provisions to the end of the process. Cochran’s idea was to reverse the process and be ready with technical verification support as negotiations were concluding…

Tom wrote a letter to Sidney Drell and Richard Garwin on January 10, 1986, asking their views on a proposal to establish …

… a joint U.S.- Soviet program to demonstrate that ordinary citizen scientists in the U.S. and Soviet Union can verify test ban treaties by establishing and manning a seismic array (3 stations) near NTS and a similar array around one of the primary sites in the Soviet Union. This would not be a government effort, but a citizen’s initiative. The citizens would do what their respective governments have been unable to accomplish.

Soon enough, Tom and the NRDC were partnering with Yevgeny Velikhov and the Soviet Academy of Sciences to set up monitoring stations at U.S. and Soviet test sites. The Reagan administration couldn’t remain stand-offish when presented with the opportunity to clarify concerns over noncompliance with nuclear testing. So in due course, the NRDC initiative prompted joint governmental monitoring experiments at test sites that clarified geological data and yields. The Senate then consented to ratification of the TTBT in September 1990 by a vote of 98-0. The Treaty entered into force in December.

Stan suggests three readings for wonks who wish to learn more about this story: Phil Schrag’s Listening for the Bomb: A Study in Nuclear Arms Control Verification Policy (1989), Matthew Evangelista’s Unarmed Forces: The Transnational Movement to End the Cold War (1999), and Kai-Henrik Barth’s article, “Catalysts of Change: Scientists as Transnational Arms Control Advocates in the 1980s” in Osiris (2006).

Tom was involved in another joint verification experiment when the proliferation of nuclear-armed cruise missiles was a growing concern. In July 1989, he again teamed up with Velikhov to stage monitoring experiments to confirm the presence of a nuclear weapon on the Slava, the flagship of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, anchored near Yalta. The Reagan administration wanted no part of monitoring cruise missiles, a significant U.S. advantage. A State Department official, speaking on background, read the following statement on March 24, 1988:

The Soviets proposed a joint experiment in April to demonstrate their approach for detecting nuclear-armed SLCMs aboard ships with a remote sensor. However, the Soviets could not explain how this experiment would tell us more than we already know. Such technology would not be effective under realistic conditions, including shielded nuclear warheads and radiation background created by nuclear propulsion units, and would in any event be unable to discriminate between nuclear SLCMs and other nuclear weapons aboard the ship.

Foggy Bottom’s spokesperson then added for emphasis, “We said we’re not interested.”

The time is again ripe for creative minds and technical experts to design joint verification experiments. Very hard problems need to be tackled with respect to warhead monitoring and warhead dismantlement. The long slog toward a fissile material cutoff treaty begins with national moratoria on fissile material production for weapons in which other countries can have confidence. Multilateral verification experiments could increase the comfort levels of states that have previously stood aloof from accords related to nuclear weapons. Russia and the United States might also consider joint verification experiments to increase confidence that extremely low yield tests are not being carried out at test sites.

Update | 5:17 pm The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists published excepts of the General Advisory Committee’s unclassified report in its January 1985 issue. I will try to get a full copy of the report. –Jeffrey


  1. BJR (History)

    For a bit more on the JVEs and Soviet “cheating” check out this amazing local news story, “Richard Perle v. the Experts”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MfjG1hE0Qfg

  2. HLC (History)

    A good example of imaginative experimentation on verified warhead dismantlement is the UK-Norway-VERTIC collaboration.

    see: http://www.vertic.org/pages/homepage/programmes/arms-control-and-disarmament/uk-norway-initiative.php?searchresult=1&sstring=Norway#wb_152

  3. Anon (History)

    Well, those were the days when the concern was real — not politicized “concern” to score domestic political points.

    It would be a waste of time for non-USG technical experts to spend their time on this while Heritage fires torpedoes left and right, including at their own feet.

    DC is run by ideology and not analysis anymore so why should anyone with technical expertise spend their time this way?

  4. David E. Hoffman (History)

    Shameless self-promotion: I also tell the story of these joint verification experiments in The Dead Hand, and accounts of the wrangling on the Soviet side. The Krasnoyarsk and Shary Shagan visits are also illuminating. The NRDC played a role where our government would not tread. And to reinforce Michael’s point, it is interesting how worried some Soviet officals were that on-site inspections in the Chemical Weapons Convention (then under negotiation) would expose their illict BW program. It really got their attention.

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