16 September 2018

Why Cyber Arms Control Is Not a Lost Cause

by John Maurer

Disruption and attack in cyberspace poses a serious challenge to international security. In the face of rapidly-evolving cyber threats, it is natural to look to the past to discover how policymakers managed the emergence of previous disruptive technologies, especially through arms-control negotiations. Recently, some have called into question the usefulness of historical arms-control examples for emerging digital technologies, noting that these new technologies are fundamentally different from the nuclear weapons controlled by the existing arms-control regime. Specifically, arms-control skeptics have claimed that it is easier to verify limitations on nuclear-weapons technologies than on emerging cyber threats . Perhaps the skeptics are correct: only time will tell whether an arms-control framework for cyber can be constructed. History, however, provides us with some reason for hope. After all, today’s ability to control nuclear technology is the result of intentional efforts to develop new technologies, new organizations, and new norms for arms control.

It must be remembered how dark the prospects seemed for nuclear-arms control in 1945. The United States had just triumphed in the world’s first nuclear war, demonstrating that nuclear weapons could prove decisive in determining a future great-power competition. At the same time, nuclear technology was new and largely unknown, its limits untested. The United States faced an emerging nuclear-arms race against adversaries with vast resources and territorial expanses—the Soviet Union, China, the British and French Empires—that dwarfed existing verification capabilities. The future remained uncertain, with the possibility that smaller countries , or even private actors , might gain access to dangerous nuclear technology.

The initial proposals for nuclear-arms control reflected these dim prospects. The United States’ 1946 Baruch Proposal argued that the control of nuclear weapons required the creation of a super-governmental authority, which would control or regulate the mining, processing, refining and use of uranium and other radioactive products. The perceived problems of verification were so great that only this sort of super-national organization could ensure that no one on earth would be able to cheat undetected. Yet this sort of agreement proved to be nonnegotiable, since the Soviets and others rejected its verification provisions , ending the prospects for early nuclear-arms control. At that point, much like skeptics today about cyber, some predicted that arms control would never succeed .

But in the ensuing years, proponents of arms control made tremendous strides in technology, organization, and norms, which totally transformed the nature of the nuclear-arms control problem. Two important examples of technological transformation illustrate the advances made in monitoring the nuclear genie: the expansion of seismic sensing capability, and the development of satellite reconnaissance. These new verification tools proved so successful that today we take for granted their accomplishments. But very little of the nuclear-arms control regime was inevitable: rather, proponents of arms control built the regime piece by piece.

Constructing that arms-control regime was a long and difficult process. Proponents of arms control in the 1940s faced a daunting verification problem: how to surveil the entire earth for signs of nuclear testing. Early arms-control proposals like the Baruch Plan relied on extensive and intrusive inspections by large international organizations to police nuclear activity. Inspectors would need the capability to go anywhere, at any time, for any reason. Others argued that even this sort of authority would be too limited, and instead insisted that only a world government could stem the nuclear-arms race. Even then, the prospects of policing the secret nuclear activities of countries as large as the United States and the Soviet Union remained daunting.

Meeting this challenge would require combining new technologies with new organizations and ideas. As scientists came to understand better the physical effects of nuclear weapons, improvements in sensor technologies provided the opportunity to detect nuclear testing, even at very long distances. American aircraft equipped with radiological sensors were able to detect the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949. But improved sensors only translated into arms-control successes when wedded to new ideas concerning how to structure arms-control agreements. As sensor technology improved, proponents of arms control came to realize that these sensors could be used to alert inspectors to suspicious activity, making the problem of wide-ranging nuclear inspections far more manageable, and potentially opening the way to a ban on nuclear explosions. At the 1958 Geneva Conference of Experts on the Prevention of Surprise Attack, American and Soviet scientists concluded that a network of seismic sensors would provide the most effective means of detecting nuclear explosions, cuing inspectors to suspicious activity. This network would combine the technical capability for wide-area monitoring with the reliability of in-person inspections. By tag-teaming sensors and inspectors , experts concluded that significantly greater verification results could be achieved.

At least initially, the sensor-inspector verification plan did not work . Some scientists in the United States worried that seismographs would not be sensitive enough to detect relatively small explosions, especially if they were concealed in solid rock or large caverns, while Soviet leaders remained resistant to the level of inspections that the United States demanded. As a result, the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty banned only nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, ocean, and outer space, which American leaders believed could be adequately verified employing atmospheric radiation sensors. For the time being, superpower nuclear testing continued underground. Although this treaty only limited testing, the basic concept of verifying a prohibition on nuclear explosions through a combination of seismic sensors and onsite inspections continued to develop throughout the later Cold War. Improved seismographic techniques , especially related to the development of digital computing, made it much easier to detect a nuclear explosion.

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