Towards a Global Weapons Tracking Service
Verification in the age of Google Earth; how technical innovations have transformed verification possibilities
Can there be a convergence opportunity between state security interests and global civil society interests?
Arms control and disarmament options are often circumscribed by perceptions about how ‘verifiable’ they are, that is, the extent to which compliance can be confirmed, or cheating can be detected. Past treaties devised creative solutions to meeting verification challenges, including techniques for managing inspections and data to build confidence in compliance without compromising legitimate activities. The verification technologies previously relied on have now been superseded by dramatic innovations enabling indiscriminate remote observation, e.g. Google Earth now readily provides the level of detail supplied by the costly and politically contentious U2 overflights during the UNSCOM inspections in Iraq in the 1990s.
Technologies transform what can be monitored and how this can happen. They also transform who can be involved. Previous verification systems were developed and implemented by collections of states as part of their treaty commitments, as shown for example in the International Monitoring System set up within the framework of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization. These days, the wide access to sophisticated technologies and data means that a range of non-governmental actors can and do engage with remote monitoring, from RUSI’s Project Sandstone work assessing North Korea through open-source data, to Bellingcat’s investigative journalism which inter alia traced the identities of the people responsible for the Salisbury nerve agent poisoning.
An example of new opportunities in global security is the Open Skies Treaty. Conceived at the dawn of the space age by President Eisenhower and realised by G.H.W. Bush and Michael Gorbachev to help end the Cold War, Open Skies provides for mutual overflights of military bases from Europe to California – using verification to build trust. Wrecked by Trump we can upgrade it. In the twenty-first century Google Earth offers the possibility of global military transparency. Whether open access as “wiki-weapons-tracker” or subject to Treaty a comprehensive Global Weapons Tracking Service could be in operation in months. Glimpses of the possible can be seen in the conflict analysis of ACLED and the satellite photos of North Korea used by NGOs such as FAS. Public access to a world long privileged to intelligence services can defuse conflict and render moot debates over adversaries hidden assets.
Such efforts seem to mirror earlier calls for societal verification, which proposed giving citizens a role in monitoring and reporting on treaty violations, and echo ‘citizen science’ elsewhere, including calls to contribute to astronomical research and wildlife surveys.
In consultation with disarmament and verification experts, this project will consider the realities and future possibilities of open source verification, and how they can be integrated within wider systems of global governance.