How does it all start? Testing the launch phase of an on-site inspection.

How does it all start? Testing the launch phase of an on-site inspection.

Neither Equilibria nor Forestia feature on any geopolitical map, past or present. These two fictitious States are part of a game scenario to test the functionalities of a comprehensive inspection system. This system is designed to identify potential violators of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). In this scenario, Equilibria suspects Forestia of having conducted a clandestine nuclear test and insists on a thorough investigation on the ground – an on-site inspection.

On-site inspections are a key element of a unique verification regime that is being built up by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) to detect nuclear explosions. These inspections complement the regime’s other two essential elements: the 337-facilities of the International Monitoring System (IMS) and the extensive analysis capabilities of the International Data Centre (IDC). On-site inspections can only be invoked after the CTBT has entered into force.

On-site inspections are a key element of the CTBT verification regime to detect nuclear explosions which can be invoked after the CTBT’s entry into force.

This is not the first time that the CTBTO has taken to the field to test its on-site inspection mechanism. A number of so-called directed exercises and field experiments culminated in the largest ever exercise conducted by the CTBTO in 2008 during a month-long stint at the former Soviet Union nuclear test site Semipalatinsk in present-day Kazakhstan. Many lessons were learned from the Integrated Field Exercise 2008 or IFE08, lessons that are helping to shape the new cycle of exercises in preparation for the next big one in 2014.

The simulation starts: request for an on-site inspection

One fine April morning, the Equilibria representative Nalinie Sewpersadsingh delivered an official request for an on-site inspection to the CTBTO. “My government has strong reason to believe that the Forestia has violated the Treaty by conducting an underground nuclear explosion on Saturday, 14 April 2012,” she informed Vorian Maryssael, the acting Director General of the CTBTO. Equilibria’s request was based on the CTBTO’s analysis of data from its monitoring stations.

Only six days to get the inspection team on the ground.

Simulating launch phase procedures

Equilibria’s intervention kicked off an exercise aiming to test on-site inspection launch phase procedures. The exercise simulated all preparation activities from the receipt of a request for an on-site inspection until the arrival of the in the State that is suspected of having detonated a nuclear device. “The key thing is that we only have six days to get the inspection team on the ground,” said Gordon Macleod who spearheaded the planning of this exercise. “And this part of an on-site inspection has never been tested in the past.”

Playing for real

Simulation and role-play have proved to be highly efficient ways of testing procedures. Building on this experience, exercise planners introduced a new concept – the command post exercise. Evaluator Ian Oliver explained: “So everyone plans everything for real. For example, we’re planning to send people for medical screening.” These people do not really exist. But in order to test the procedure, people need to enact their roles and make all the necessary preparations.  “I want to see it all for real, but we won’t play it for real,” explained Oliver.

The simulation continues: clocks are ticking

The clock started ticking with the receipt and acknowledgment of Equilibria’s request for an on-site inspection by the CTBTO.  So, on the morning of Monday, 16 April 2012, the coordination hub to oversee this intense phase, the Operation Support Centre (OSC), sprang up in the village of Guntramsdorf, south of Vienna. It is here that the CTBTO maintains a storage and maintenance facility for all its inspection equipment (see video). That day a number of dedicated teams began to address the various specifics of preparing for an on-site inspection such as planning, logistics, personnel and administration.


Different coloured arm bands designated the roles of the various groups: blue for the players in the simulation, orange for the control team who steered the exercise from the outside, green for observers and trainees, and yellow for the evaluators.

The clock started ticking with the receipt and acknowledgment of Equilibria’s request for an on-site inspection by the CTBTO.

Planning first field activities

At the centre of an inspection is a team of no more than 40 inspectors. The team started off with a core group of inspectors, recruited mainly from CTBTO staff. During the exercise, Matjaž Prah headed this core inspection team whose main role was to draft the initial inspection plan and prepare for the inspection. Prah explained:  “In the initial inspection plan we list all activities that we need to conduct in the first two to three days of the inspection.”

What are those activities? They include essential issues such as building the base of operations, establishing communication links with CTBTO headquarters in Vienna, ensuring communication in the field, organizing accommodation, and – most importantly – starting with inspection activities.

The inspection team uses a search logic methodology to narrow down the target areas for their investigation.

In a real-life scenario, inspectors will be confronted with an area of up to 1,000 square kilometres. Geophysicist George Tuckwell explained that the inspection team uses a search logic methodology to narrow down the target areas for their investigation. How does this work? Tuckwell elucidated: “We prioritize certain areas to go and pay particular attention to. We also prioritize on obtaining certain pieces of information based on how important that information is to answering our most critical questions about the inspection area.”

“One of the first activities most likely to be conducted is the initial overflight,” added Prah. “It will give the team an overview of the entire inspection area and generates a huge amount of valuable information for the remainder of the search.”

An initial overflight will give the team an overview of the entire inspection area and generates a huge amount of valuable information for the remainder of the search.Matjaž Prah, Inspection Team Leader

Collecting information

The core inspection team was inundated with information from the entire OSC and from offices in the CTBTO.  The IDC’s Peder Johansson updated the core inspection team every day on the latest analysis details relating to the event that triggered the inspection. “It was very interesting to see the questions the team had. At the IDC, we now have a better idea of what kind of parameters an inspection team would be interested in,” he said.

Getting potential inspectors to Vienna

The CTBTO keeps a roster with potential inspectors from all corners of the globe. On the first day of the exercise, members of the personnel team contacted roughly 120 of them by email. Although there was no forewarning, an impressive one third of all people contacted indicated their availability.

A third of all 120 potential inspectors that were contacted during the simulation indicated their availability.

During the exercise, Kim Gensen was based in the OSC where she dealt with travel and accommodation arrangements. She explained why this was sometimes tricky: “We have to make sure that these people are here before the end of the week. And they are coming from all over the world”. There were not just flight schedules and availabilities to deal with, but also visa arrangements for quite a lot of the potential inspectors.

Flying in from Mexico and China

All flight and visa arrangements were for real. A travel agent was involved.  And so was the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which lent a hand in testing the procedures. In two cases, the realism was taken to full conclusion. “We really have two inspectors coming here on Friday. We are flying them in from Mexico and China,” added Gensen.

They can now measure the magnitude of moving people. If my travel helps to improve the timing of such travel arrangements then I’m happy.Claudia Arango Galvan, geophysicist from Mexico

One day later, Claudia Arango Galvan from Mexico City and Gong Bing from Xi’an received a warm welcome from all exercise participants.  Both geophysicists had been pulled out of their daily routines at extremely short notice and flown to Austria. “My immediate reaction was that this is an important mission,” said Gong, “and I’m pleased that I can contribute to it.” Arango Galvan added: “They can now measure the magnitude of moving people. If my travel helps to improve the timing of such travel arrangements then I’m happy.”

100 tons of equipment

An on-site inspection under the Treaty is a big logistical endeavour.  An estimated 100 tons of equipment – from seismic sensors and magnetometers to geophysical instruments and radiation monitoring devices including noble gas detection systems – had to be ready on the ground from day one. “Keep it under steam to make it ready to roll out,” said Rainier Arndt who led a group of equipment experts. “And when the warehouse door opens, we make sure that we can certify that this equipment has been approved, properly packed and ready for shipment,” he explained. 

Signing off

On Friday, 20 April 2012, the exercise came to a conclusion. After a week of intense work in a simulated setting, the inspection team leader Prah briefed the Director General, played by Tibor Tóth, about the Initial Inspection Plan. By signing the inspection mandate that Prah would have to hand over to Equilibria upon arrival, Tóth not only gave it his approval but also confirmed that all timelines had been met. The hard work had paid off.

Getting feedback

Still, the sense of wanting to improve all aspects of an on-site inspection and especially of the launch phase permeated all activities.  A team of evaluators – specialists in the fields of both evaluation and on-site inspections – will help to formulate upcoming tasks and recommend areas for improvement.