Assessment of Nuclear Monitoring and Verification Technologies

Department of Defense Defense Science Board Task Force Report
January 24, 2014

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear
  • Missile
  • Military


Too many factors have changed, and are changing, from our historic basis and experience in the Cold War, in a manner that should give national leadership pause for concern. The list starts with the fact that fundamental nuclear knowledge is much more widespread. Ubiquitious information access and widespread observational tools are increasing inherent transparency. At the same time, recognition of such increased transparency by potential or actual proliferants naturally leads to more sophisticated methods of denial and deception.

The actual or threatened acquisition of nuclear weapons by more actors, for a range of different reasons, is emerging in numbers not seen since the first two decades of the Cold War. Many of these actors are hostile to the U.S. and its allies, and they do not appear to be bound by established norms nor deterred by traditional means. In some cases of established nuclear powers, nuclear forces are seen as the most affordable and effective alternative to deter superior conventional forces; i.e., nuclear weapons are viewed as a legitimate warfighting capability, especially if their vital domestic or regional security interests are threatened. For example, Russia has publicly stated in doctrine and backed it up with training and exercises that they will use theater nuclear forces if necessary to deter aggression against the homeland.

The pathways to proliferation are expanding. Networks of cooperation among countries that would otherwise have little reason to do so, such as the A.Q. Khan network or the Syria-North Korea and Iran-North Korea collaborations, cannot be considered as isolated events. Moreover, the growth in nuclear power worldwide offers more opportunity for "leakage" and/or hiding small programs, especially since current resources to support safeguards are already strained and will be increasingly challenged by cases of noncompliance.

In short, for the first time since the early decades of the nuclear era, the nation needs to be equally concerned about both "vertical" proliferation (the increase in capabilities of existing nuclear states) and "horizontal" proliferation (an increase in the number of states and non-state actors possessing or attempting to possess nuclear weapons).

The challenges for monitoring in this context are much more difficult. Historically, and even with New START, monitoring has focused on relatively few nations (only two in treaties with Russia) and locations. Moreover, the objects to be monitored have been numerous and easily identifiable (e.g., delivery platforms such as bombers, missiles, and submarines), the facilities supporting the enterprise visible and often declared, and nuclear materials inventories voluntarily declared.

In the nuclear future as seen by the Task Force, monitoring will need to address more widespread foreign nuclear weapons related activities in a "messy" combination of negotiated, non-cooperative, and non-permissive environments. Any or all of the following could be factors in monitoring a particular nation or group of concern:

  • Small inventories of weapons and materials, even as low as a single "significant quantity of fissile material";
  • Small nuclear enterprises designed to produce, store, and deploy only a small number of weapons – either as an end goal, or as the first steps of a proliferant, or a nuclear terrorist operation;
  • Undeclared facilities and/or covert operations such as testing below detection thresholds;
  • Use of non-traditional technologies, presenting at best ambiguous signatures, to acquire both materials and components;
  • Theater nuclear forces and associated doctrine, exercises, and training complicated by the use of mobile, dual use delivery systems;
  • Many more players to whom access by the U.S. or its allies will be limited or extremely difficult, some of whom will be globally networked with global access to relevant science and technology.

The stress on monitoring technologies is significant. Identifying and maintaining track on people, nuclear components and warheads now becomes a requirement, and in many cases, physical access will be limited. Moreover, the broad access to technology and the growing sophistication of cyber offenses by "them" as well as us will allow others to gain insights into our collection capabilities and methods. The challenges are further compounded by the many dimensions of the nuclear enterprise that need to be monitored.


All nations that have nuclear weapons, except for the UK, have dual-capable (DC) weapons, and many of these nations, including recent proliferators, have only dual-capable nuclear systems. It is likely that most potential future proliferators (Iran, etc.) will use dual-capable platforms for their initial, if not longer term, nuclear capability.