Protecting Our Country from Up Above: Updating the Satellite Imagery

So I was at an event by Peacetech Labs when I ran into then Senior Advisor at the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance. We ended up having a much longer conversation about a whole lot of things – quantum computing, innovation at State, and how folks sometimes did not even know how to use excel.

He was a visionary – dare I say – a rare kind at State. We became quite good friends. I was at the Office of Consular Affairs at the time, working on outreach and tech management. I specifically also managed the content, apps, and the ESRI map on the travel.state.gov.

So on the current website, the goal of Arms control is to “build cooperation among allies and partners in order to control the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, their means of delivery, space and cyber capabilities, and conventional weapons…AVC is committed to working intensively for the development of strategic engagement for international security, partnering with U.S. allies and other agencies in fielding missile-defense capabilities for international missile defense cooperation, and promoting U.S. security in outer space.”

What this means is – that when the Secretary or the President shakes hand with Kim Jong-Un to dismantle nuclear missiles, this office is the one to verify dismantlement. Verified dismantlement in a nutshell is to obtain high confidence that the program no longer exists and that reconstitution will be difficult and likely to be detected relatively quickly or at least long before significant quantities of banned items are produced. In this sense, the dismantlement is called irreversible. 

Previous to my time, there was an Entrepreneur in Residence at AVC who had worked to bridge programs with tech vendors and embassies. He mentioned how satellite technologies had not been updated since the 60s.

Satellite images are a product of remote sensing. Remote sensing is a technology for sampling radiation and force fields to acquire and interpret geospatial data. Geospatial data are used to develop information about features, objects, and classes on earth’s land surface, oceans, and atmosphere. Remote-sensing exists today as an extremely sophisticated form of space photography which has developed in the last few decades.

It is crucial to begin monitoring from the early stages of detection from development, production, testing, or storage of non-conventional weapons. It can take a long time to verify the conditions set out in the treaties are satisfied.

The spread of nuclear weapons technology consist of a rainbow of decentralized, sometimes overlapping and sometimes fragmented systems of international agreements, informal arrangements, and national legislations. Not surprisingly, differences in national implementation and enforcement continue to frustrate efforts to keep dual-use goods and technologies out of proliferator hands. These implementation gaps, coupled with the sheer volume of global trade and commerce, have reduced the barriers to entry for intermediaries and created pathways for illicit procurement networks to exploit. 

While the weight of that demand is heavy on any verification system, the certain consequences of failure require no less. To that end, we will have to close disparities between treaty compliance and the existing verification means available to serve that function. Otherwise, the imbalance will continually jeopardize the shared nonproliferation and disarmament aspirations of this century. Strengthening verification standards and practice through modern technology will ultimately strengthen transparency and security inherent in the verification model and renew commitment to compliance. It will then serve not only as a catalyst to future agreement, but also enhance the certainty that those security challenges that nations choose to meet by agreement will not be illusory.