Interview: Ola Dahlman, chairman, CTBTO working group on verification (WGB), 1996-2006

Interview: Ola Dahlman,
chairman, CTBTO working group
on verification (WGB), 1996-2006

Chairman of Working Group B (1996-2006)

Ola Dahlman has been engaged in arms control negotiations for over thirty years. He chaired the Group of Scientific Experts (GSE) before and during the negotiations of the CTBT from 1982-96. He headed the Working Group on verification issues (WGB) at the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization  (CTBTO) from 1996-2006.

Dr. Dahlman spent his entire professional career at the Swedish Research Defense Institute (SRDI or FOI) in Stockholm, ending in 2000 as the Deputy Director General. He headed the Institute’s Laboratory for Information Technology and the Laboratory of Weapons and Weapon Systems, which includes research on protection against nuclear weapons. He also directed a broad project on anti-submarine warfare. His own research is on Nuclear Test Ban verification.

Q: Dr Dahlman, you have served for years as Adviser to the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Group of Scientific Experts (GSE) was crucial in preparing the technical and scientific ground for the CTBT negotiations. How did you come to be associated with the GSE and in what capacity?

Creating a Group of Scientific Experts (GSE) was actually an idea put forth by myself and another colleague at the SDRI during the early1970s. We had been holding experts meeting on an ad hoc basis for some time in Geneva, but we were just talking to each other and came to realize that “this was leading nowhere”. So we decided to start a group to keep the process going. We had just published a book on monitoring nuclear explosions so we felt we knew the issue. This proposal was put forward in 1976 and the political environment in Sweden was favourable for such an initiative.

After six months of discussion, the Conference on Disarmament made the unprecedented decision to create this Group of Scientific Experts. Its mandate was unlimited in terms of time and therefore still exists in theory. It grew out of the desire to create a more orderly process. From 1976 to 1982 these expert meetings were chaired by my SDRI boss Dr Ulf Ericson until he passed away. I took over the chair of the GSE in 1982 and held this position for 14 years, until 1996, when I became Chairman of the CTBTO’s Working Group on verification issues.

The Group of Scientific Experts helped build confidence
in three ways: technical, hands-on work and ongoing training.

Q: Was this a more or less natural evolution?

Yes, you could say that since I was dealing with verification research at the SDRI. Since 1969 I had been acting as Adviser to the Swedish Foreign Ministry. There I had the opportunity to work with Alva Myrdal who was a famous authority on arms control and disarmament. It is a very special memory to have had this opportunity to work with her.

Q: It has been said “the value of the GSE’s work and its contribution to the success of CTBT negotiations cannot be overestimated”. In what ways? How did the GSE help to build confidence?

First of all, I would be hard put to disagree with that observation, which was made by Ambassador Jaap Ramaker, the Special Representative to Promote the CTBT Ratification Process, who chaired the CTBT negotiations in 1996. The GSE contributed and helped build confidence in at least three ways.

The first was technical. We worked for a long time to prepare and lay the groundwork for the Verification Regime, especially for seismic monitoring that was considered the most basic component to track underground explosions. During the long Cold War period, when political progress was very limited, there was sometimes unjustified criticism that the only real content of multilateral meetings was technical. But we were there to keep the process going. We used this time to design and test the technical features of the system that paved the way to move forward when the time was ripe.

The GSE was important for its global reach in countries
all over the world. It helped build confidence through
hands-on work in Geneva where 30-40 countries met regularly.

Secondly, the GSE was important for its global reach in countries all over the world. It helped build confidence through hands-on work in Geneva where 30-40 countries met regularly. Those meetings were, of course, only the “tip of the iceberg” because there were many scientific institutions in all those countries.

A lot of financial investment, both national and international, was made during those years in verification research. We set tangible targets and focused national research on the build-up of technical facilities, from Stockholm to Moscow to Canberra to Washington, D.C. In the area of seismic monitoring, even in those early years, the GSE already had 40 of the total 50 primary stations and 80 of the total 120 auxiliary stations fully operational.

 

Thirdly, the GSE’s work was one big training exercise. Even though we had scientists who were well-qualified in their fields, they knew comparatively little about verification. So we held “a huge global training course” at that time focused on seismology only. By having these discussions and experiments, we actually educated each other.

In one sense, the work of the Group of Scientific Experts
comprised “a huge global training course”.

Q: Early in the negotiations , it was already widely accepted that the CTBTO’s International Monitoring System would have a world wide network of seismological stations as its “core”. The seismic stations would be reinforced by complementary technologies plus a rigorous on-site inspection regime to detect nuclear explosions. Could you elaborate?

Within the CTBTO’s realm of seismic monitoring, the real “core” is the 50 primary seismic stations around the world whose data is routinely analyzed. Then there are an additional 120 auxiliary stations that can be called upon when needed.

Within the CTBTO’s realm of seismic monitoring,
the real “core” is the 50 primary seismic stations
around the world.

When verification is undertaken, all the different physical environments have to be covered. To unequivocally identify the source and nature of an explosion, each of four technologies work primarily in different, but sometimes overlapping, physical environments: seismology monitors underground and, to a considerable extent, underwater; infrasound monitors the atmosphere; hydroacoustic monitors underwater explosions. These are the three so-called “wave technologies”.

In addition; radionuclide particulate technology monitors the atmosphere and, to a degree, underground where leakage of so-called “noble gases” takes place. This is the final proof as to whether there has been an underground nuclear explosion.

This IMS network is very elaborate and actually “the most ambitious system of its kind ever established”. That was an enormous achievement for the CTBTO's provisional Technical Secretariat.

This very elaborate IMS network is actually “the most
ambitious system of its kind ever established”.

Q: In retrospect, was this the right approach?

For its day, yes, since there were no satellites in the mid-1990s. Today, we would probably have used satellites but ten years ago there were cost factors and the technology itself was also surrounded by secrecy. I will respond to this question by quoting a British diplomat who said that, in the negotiations process, it is less about right and wrong than about what is acceptable. And the Verification Regime is “adequate in that it satisfies everyone concerned”.

 

Q: What about On-Site Inspections? Why is this such a special feature of the Verification Regime?

The Verification Regime has two parts that require a balanced approach: First you have the online global monitoring; then, if a suspicious event occurs, evidence may be presented before the Executive Council with the possibility of requesting an on-site inspection.

The Verification Regime has two parts that require a balanced
approach: global monitoring with all its four technologies
and if a suspicious event occurs, the specific on-site inspection.

This, along with the consultation and clarification process, is part of the overall process foreseen in the Treaty. It is really expected that the State concerned should clarify as much as possible in a direct dialogue with the State(s) that are raising concerns.

The On-Site Inspection regime itself is unprecedented in that it allows for on-the-ground inspection of a fairly large area of up to 1,000 km². There are few exceptions for States to declare out of bounds ... a few square kilometres perhaps but they have to provide justification for that. There is a necessity to transport a good deal of technical equipment to the site so it's not just walking around but we would employ geophysical exploration techniques to check for seismic movement, gravity, radionuclide in addition to the overflights and visuals recordings that can be undertaken. It's a fairly comprehensive set of options that are available for on-site inspections.

The On-Site Inspection regime s unprecedented in that
it allows for on-the-ground inspection of a fairly large
area of up to 1,000 km².

Q: How would OSIs work  in practice?

There would be two possible scenarios. If you really had a nuclear explosion, could you really go in to do an inspection? Take the case of North Korea where a real event occurred (i.e. the announced nuclear test, which took place on 9 October 2006). If the Treaty had already entered into force, the State would have had to agree to the on-site inspection. If it refused, that would give a very strong political signal. And if inspectors were allowed in, then the use of precision technology would mean that there would be a high likelihood of proof.

The problem is more with the alternative scenario. If you were concerned about a particular event—say an earthquake at some depth in a difficult-to-access region where the political situation was unsettled, then the on-site inspection would find nothing. Here OSIs can have political repercussions.

Take the earlier case of Iraq in 2002-03 where people and countries, for political reasons, were simply not prepared to accept the fact that no proof was found. There were foregone conclusions. This kind of scenario has perhaps not yet been fully talked through in the international community. This applies not only to on-site inspections but to all nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regimes.

 

Q: Why is the CTBT’s entry into force so critical in this respect?

The Treaty must enter into force before we are able to fully operate the global monitoring system and make use of on-site inspections. Entry into force is thus essential for applying the verification measure.

The CTBT must enter into force before we are able to make use
of on-site inspections and of the International Monitoring System
for verification purposes.

The requirement that all Annex 2 states must have ratified the Treaty for it to enter into force is unique. Most conventions only require a certain number of ratifications and then the treaty enters into force, possibly even without the key players. Not so with the CTBT.

A legitimate concern was an EIF formulation to include the key players. We settled on a model requiring ratification by all 44 States that had nuclear capabilities in 1996. Of that number, only a few remain outstanding. The greatest setback was the failure of the United States to ratify the Treaty in October 1999. This really derailed the process.

Q: With regard to the Pioneering Decade of the IMS (1997-2006), in your opinion, what were the most challenging technical obstacles to be overcome?

Perhaps we need to broaden the question here because, actually, the most challenging obstacles were beyond the purely technical realm. We failed to foresee the enormous challenges involved reaching agreement with individual States so that we could work on their territory. The PTS had to negotiate such agreements with virtually each and every one of the almost 90 countries around the world where we have IMS stations and we underestimated the time and effort needed for that.

Q: How well did we succeed?

Seismic monitoring proved to be no problem. We had lots of expertise. Hydroacoustic and radionuclide particulate monitoring were also established sciences. We encountered the greatest challenges in two areas: infrasound and noble gases.

During the IMS’s “pioneering decade”, we encountered the
greatest challenges in two areas: infrasound and noble gases.

Infrasound was a science from the 1960s that had essentially died out. There were few scientific experts available. It was left to us to slowly re-establish this as a branch of science within meteorology, where it should prove to be very useful.

The other challenge was the monitoring of noble gases like Xenon. These are tricky as it requires very sophisticated procedures to capture their presence. We didn’t really know how to do it. The PTS produced some excellent work, meticulously testing with four different kinds of equipment.

Because the detection of noble gases in the atmosphere is the earmark of a nuclear explosion, it was considered politically sensitive by some countries to introduce this technology before the Treaty entered into force. Still, this was the technology that proved that the DPRK event in October 2006 was, in fact, a nuclear explosion by detecting miniscule amounts of noble gas atoms as far away as Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories, some time after the event itself.

 

Q: One of the overarching challenges was developing a synergistic monitoring system for cost-effective CTBT verification. Has the system proven cost-effective?

Cost effectiveness studies are only realistically applicable after the Treaty’s entry into force. There is no technical way of measuring; it’s really the political satisfaction of the States concerned that we would be measuring. So I would say that if the Verification Regime supports the Treaty so that the States Parties are satisfied that they are getting the data they want and confident of its accuracy, then we must consider it cost-effective.

 I don’t find it wise to overemphasize cost. After all, if one considers the costs of military spending, the comparative costs of arms control and disarmament are not even “peanuts”. Conversely, we should invest more, not less, in arms control. And we should do it both efficiently and effectively.

Considering the costs of military spending, the comparative costs
of arms control and disarmament are not even “peanuts”.
Conversely, we should invest more, not less, in arms control.
And we should do it both efficiently and effectively.

In 1997 in our eagerness and rush of enthusiasm at the start-up of the Provisional Technical Secretariat, perhaps we did not consider the life cycle costs of optimizing maintenance and replacement. Now we have been building up the system for ten years and some components are depreciating or in need of replacement.

Q: As for the Noble Gas technology, why was it not included in the original Treaty negotiations?

The Noble Gas technology was, in fact, included in the original Treaty negotiations. The provision was for 40 of the 80 radionuclide stations to have noble gas systems included by the time the Treaty entered into force. Now, however, we have had consensus to move forward with this technology even before the Treaty’s entry into force. We are working very successfully on this.

Noble gas is a new and difficult technology that has been
developed since the negotiations; there was less experience
then. Now the technology is shared and the knowledge
is about to be shared.

Q: Why is this Noble Gas technology so important to detecting nuclear explosions?

More and more people are realizing the importance of the noble gas system’s contribution. Detection of the North Korean event in October 2006 was a case in point. However, this is a new and difficult technology that has been developed since the negotiations; there was less experience then. Now the technology is shared and the knowledge is about to be shared.

Noble gas monitoring is incredibly efficient but it has one problem: you can measure the quantity of noble gases in the atmosphere but you must be able to track the air movement. Therefore, atmospheric transport modeling and monitoring are key issues. Radionuclide particle stations are subject to atmospheric conditions. So much is in the hands of the weather.

How likely is it that a nuclear test could escape noble gas detection altogether? If you can track the atmosphere over a longer period of time, then there is a high probability of detection. Even with underground nuclear tests, there is a high probability that radionuclide molecules will escape. Time is important: the longer the time period, the better. That is true for any verification procedure.

Noble gas monitoring is incredibly efficient but it has
one problem: so much is in the hands of the weather.

Q: Do we need any newer technologies to be included?

Regarding any new technologies on the horizon, what we have at present is more than enough. We don’t need to try to expand the scope of the Treaty and its proscribed verification regime, but we should include scientific and technological developments. One thing that I am particularly keen to push is development information technologies, such as data mining, web technologies and analysis procedures, so that we can really profit from the scientific developments of the last five to ten years.

Developing information technologies, such as data mining,
web technologies and analysis procedures would allow us
to really profit from the scientific developments
of the last five to ten years.

Q: Are there any new technologies that need to be added or any monitoring areas – like outer space – that additionally need to be covered?

Again, politically speaking, there is no need for a new technology since States Parties have already agreed that the verification system we have is “adequate”. If we had done it today, it’s true that it would be natural to use readily available satellite images, but that could still be a national component.

Do we want to add outer space to our monitoring repertoire? Politically, no. Such fantastic scenarios as monitoring for nuclear explosions in outer space? I don’t think any country would really entertain the idea of sending a nuclear device into outer space, considering all the risks and difficulties. In any case, the use of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, in outer space, including testing, is specifically prohibited in the Outer Space Treaty from 1967. The testing in outer space is also prohibited in the Partial Test Ban Treaty from 1963.

One thing that impacts the IMS’s future has been the inordinate
length of time it is taking for the Treaty to enter into force.

Q: You have actively contributed to the build-up of the IMS for many years. What would you say are the most significant occurrences during your “watch”, both within the CTBTO Preparatory Commission and on the world stage—occurrences that directly affect the IMS and its future?

An occurrence that was certainly unexpected – for me, at least – and does affect the IMS’s future has been the inordinate length of time it is taking for the Treaty to enter into force. I had the feeling when I moved to Vienna in 1996 that the Treaty would enter into force quite quickly. There was a sense of urgency. So the most significant external event has certainly been the US’s failure to ratify in October 1999. This has slowed the whole process. Now, additionally, there is the problem of increasing political polarization and outstanding payment in full of several major donor countries’ assessed contributions.

 

On the positive side, the very fact that we are all here at the CTBTO laying all the groundwork for entry into force is significant, even if the former sense of urgency is somewhat lacking. Although we underestimated certain technological problems, as well as how long it would take to negotiate host country agreements, we have demonstrated that a globe-spanning Verification Regime can be built. This is a pretty impressive confidence-building measure in itself. Overall, there has been an enormously positive response. Now we need to inject some additional momentum. Maybe the next US presidential elections in 2008 will bring about a much-needed change. We’ll have to wait and see.

The most significant external event has certainly been
the US’s failure to ratify in October 1999.
This has slowed the whole process.

Q: Although you stepped down in 2006, are you still planning to be active in certain areas of the CTBTO’s work?

When I stepped down from the chairmanship of Working Group B, I was very happy to hand over this task to my close friend and colleague, Hein Haak, and of course have no intention of interfering there!

Demonstrating that a globe-spanning Verification Regime
can be built is a pretty impressive confidence-building
measure in itself.

Still, for any organization working in the intellectual sphere, it’s important to stay in touch with the scientific community. The technology agreed upon in the early 1990s was a scientific achievement in its time, but a lot has happened in the meantime; for example, in the area of information analysis and technology. In order to encourage innovations, it will be essential to stay in touch with science; not only each individual’s ad hoc professional contacts but there is also a need for the organization to cultivate an organized relationship with the scientific community.

The PTS has launched an International Scientific Study project
(ISS) in 2008-09. Scientific institutions worldwide will address
the readiness and capability of the CTBTO verification regime.

As part of a deeper engagement with the scientific community, the PTS has launched an International Scientific Study project (ISS) in 2008-09. Scientific institutions worldwide will address the readiness and capability of the CTBTO verification regime.  They will also look at how science has evolved since the CTBT was negotiated more than ten years ago. There has been a huge improvement in the development of technologies over the last decade. We need to ask ourselves: how can we improve the system from within? How can modern data analysis methods improve the verification capability? Etc. It will indeed be a very interesting project and I am looking forward to continuing working with this!