Student VEREX: a host perspective

Posted by Andreas Persbo (andreas.persbo) on Jul 29 2011
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament

Hugh Chalmers, London

As a student of nuclear weapons proliferation, I have often hoped that one day I would be referred to as a ‘nuclear weapons specialist’. During the first student-led warhead dismantlement simulation, held in Oslo between 13-17 June 2011, I was somewhat prematurely asked to become exactly that. Along with 19 other students, I spent five days at the Norwegian Institute for Energy Technology outside Oslo as a citizen of a fictitious country, negotiating a verification protocol for a conceptual warhead dismantlement treaty known as the ‘Maghda Agreement’.

As discussed earlier by Kristiane Roe Hammer, the First International Simulation Exercise on the Development of a Nuclear Warhead Dismantlement Verification Model (SS-1) brought students from the University of Oslo and King’s College London together to explore and develop a simulation model for the negotiation and implementation of a warhead dismantlement verification protocol. This simulation built upon the achievements of the UK-Norway Initiative (UKNI) of 2007-2009 by creating a simplified version of the UKNI framework that could be developed to involve students and academics from a number of nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states, enhancing their shared knowledge of the political and technical issues surrounding warhead dismantlement verification.

As a participant of SS-1 it was clear from the beginning that realising this simplified simulation was not necessarily going to be simple; indeed, for all it was a step into the unknown. Was it possible to create a sufficient level of realism to allow for an in-depth exploration of the issues while restraining the simulation within reasonable levels of practicality and expediency?

Setting the stage
Three weeks before the simulation began, preparations began in earnest. All participants had been assigned to one of two ‘teams’: as a citizen of either the inspecting nation or the host nation. When the draw came through I was assigned to the host nation, named the Kingdom of Wum. Our team was told that the ruling administration of the Kingdom of Wum had decided to dismantle its small arsenal of nuclear gravity bombs, and to demonstrate its commitment to their obligations under Article VI of the NPT, a non-nuclear weapon state known as the Republic of Kom had been invited to verify the dismantlement of one of these gravity bombs.

As a team notionally assembled from various civilian and military organisations, we were responsible for negotiating and implementing a verification protocol that would allow for a confident confirmation of dismantlement, while maintaining our commitment to the legal and normative requirements of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, and diligently protecting national secrecy and security interests.

We recognised that beneath this trade-off, which will exist during any real warhead dismantlement verification regime, there was an issue of fundamental importance: what are our national security and secrecy concerns? To understand exactly how our national security and secrecy concerns would affect where this balance was struck, we had to answer the following questions: What is the Kingdom of Wum? What relationship does it traditionally have with the community of world states? How has it maintained these relationships in the past and what is our current strategic outlook? To properly describe our strategic situation we developed a detailed back story of the Kingdom of Wum (an approach similar to one adopted during the UKNI, where the relationship between the host and inspecting nations were similar to existing UK-Norway relations). To differentiate ourselves with the UKNI, we decided to develop a back story very loosely based on an Asian state. The Kingdom of Wum was a traditionally secretive and authoritarian state and although a nuclear weapon state under the NPT, we shunned most forms of multilateral cooperation and remained relatively isolationist. However, a period of ‘societal upheaval’ had resulted in a change in governance, prompting us to address the global perceptions of the Kingdom. We were poor, and couldn’t sustain our nuclear deterrent in its current state. We needed to reintegrate ourselves into the global community to reinvigorate our weak trade relations and to secure our future as a state. As such, the verified dismantlement of one (now redundant) class of warheads would be in our interest.

To replicate the influence of bureaucratic politics in negotiations, we decided to designate some individuals within our team as officials maintained from the previous administration. For these individuals, the tendency towards treating secrecy as a supplement for security would be harder to shed, and creating a cataclysmic shift from secrecy to openness with a highly transparent verification regime would not seem so appealing.

Once we developed an idea of who we were as a nation, we began to designate specific roles within our team. We were informed that there were a number of positions that needed to be filled for practical reasons. These included, among others, a team leader, a facility manager, a security officer, a nuclear technician and a nuclear weapons specialist. It was hoped that these positions would determine not only what practical role would be played during the exercise, but also what our individual concerns would be.

Having filled these roles we set about the official business of initiating dialogue: letters of invitation were sent, compliments and platitudes were exchanged, and short biographies of each team member were submitted. As the designated nuclear weapons specialist, it was my responsibility to know everything about the design of our nuclear weapons; how they were constructed, what condition they were in and what capabilities they maintained. My role therefore suggested that it was in my interest to protect our nuclear warheads as if they were my own. It was bad enough that my government had decided to dismantle part of my livelihood; allowing any leakage of unnecessary information regarding warhead condition or design would undermine both our reputation and national security, and jeopardise my position as the national authority on nuclear weapons design.

As we all tried to settle into our roles, news came through regarding the inspecting team, which made my role as the old sceptical nuclear weapons designer much easier to sympathise with: the Republic of Kom inspection team apparently contained an intelligence agent who had been spying on our activities! A further seed of discord was also inadvertently sown when we received a strongly-worded letter from the inspection team setting out a number of demands regarding the as-yet-non-existent verification protocol. While such demands may not be uncommon, as a team we immediately interpreted these demands not as a preparation for future negotiations, but as a challenge.

With surprising speed all participants came to realise that the upcoming exercise was not necessarily going to be a calm, neutral, technical affair. An air of competitiveness had descended at an early stage, and despite our complicity in it I doubt whether anybody realised at the time what effect this atmosphere would come to have on the negotiations.

Getting to grips with negotiating
During the first day of the exercise the participants were greeted at the University of Oslo by a ‘who’s-who’ of verification experts. We were introduced to the issues surrounding dismantlement verification and negotiation through a number of presentations that were simultaneously nerve-wracking and engaging. It was clear that we had an almost insurmountable task ahead of us: four days in which to negotiate the protocol for a familiarisation visit, implement the visit, then negotiate a protocol for a monitoring visit, and finally implement the monitoring visit. However, the challenge had been set and its scale only seemed to heighten each team’s resolve.

Under the watchful eye of expert advisors, each team sat down with a pre-agreed verification procedure, which broadly defined the terms under which the specific protocol would be negotiated, and began to develop a negotiating strategy. Keen to start on a strong footing, and powered by a strong desire to impress during the upcoming negotiations, the host team quickly produced a verification protocol that described the bare minimum of verification activities. We all knew that this protocol would never be accepted by the other team, but thinking of ourselves as seasoned bargainers we expected to be able to make one or two small sacrifices to the inspection team and have them settle on a verification protocol which exposed a minimal amount of sensitive and unnecessary information to the inspectors, while allowing a clear confirmation of warhead dismantlement. This turned out not to be the case.

On the first day of negotiations, both teams were eager to get started, but were frustrated by a number of technical issues that prevented the host draft of the verification protocol from being circulated in a timely manner. Once these technical glitches had been resolved (and our national anthem played), we finally sat down to the negotiating table. Keenly aware of the limited timeframe, we distributed our draft of the verification protocol amongst the inspection team. Expecting their draft in exchange, we were taken aback when no such alternative draft was presented. As the inspection team reviewed our draft, we found it difficult not feel frustrated. As a previously unpopular nation in the international spotlight, we were very aware that suspicions would naturally fall on us if the negotiations were to fail. As we had invited them to the table, the impetus was on us to successfully negotiate a protocol. But with so little time we began to fear that if they stalled even further we would be forced into accepting an undesirable protocol so as not to seem belligerent.

Eventually the inspection team returned to the table and we were able to start the negotiation of a familiarisation visit protocol. As specific steps of the protocol were addressed I realised that effectively communicating the legitimate concerns of both parties was proving to be an extremely challenging task. From our perspective the inspectors were requesting numerous changes that would weaken our ability to effectively manage their access to the facility and the sensitive information sources contained within, while at the same time doing little to enhance their familiarity with the steps involved in our dismantlement process. From the inspector perspective, it must have seemed like we were deliberately trying to degrade their trust in us. Thankfully, through careful reference to the agreed guidelines in the verification procedure, we managed to better express our concerns and a compromise was reached early the next day. In comparison to the heated negotiations, the familiarisation visit felt for all like a welcome respite, and the visit was successfully conducted to the satisfaction of both parties. But if anybody thought that the final negotiations over the monitoring visit would be relatively relaxed, they were quickly proved wrong.

Similar issues arose during this final round of negotiations; an air of mutual distrust, exacerbated by a combination of fatigue and determination, meant that both the hosts and the inspectors were unable to see eye to eye. The inspection team presented us with a mixture of what seemed like reasonable and unreasonable requests. Again, thinking ourselves seasoned bargainers, and suspecting that our visitors thought similarly of themselves, we approached these requests with a plan. Detector sweeps of the dismantlement room before and after dismantlement made perfect sense, but we held off on agreeing to this until we could trade permission for the rejection of their other demands, namely visual access to the warhead casing and a complete operational history of the warhead. Here we mistakenly thought we had the upper hand. As both parties had notionally agreed on a suitable information barrier that would confirm the presence or absence of the Maghda Agreement- accountable item, we felt that this represented sufficient authentication. Above and beyond the authentication provided by the information barrier, all that could be achieved through visual access to the casing would be the confirmed presence of a casing. We had a similar argument regarding operational history; knowing where a certain warhead had been deployed, and for how long, seemed to have little relevance for the authentication of the warhead of concern. Providing such sensitive, yet unnecessary, information as a confidence building measure seemed to us both a unilateral and foolish decision.

It was over these differences however that the negotiations came to a jarring halt. We had successfully traded sweeping for the dropping of the warhead’s operational history, and as we were attempting to resolve the disagreements over visual access we were informed that we had run out of time—the monitoring visit had to go ahead with the protocol left as it was. As hosts, we were disappointed to hear our guests declare that no matter what occurred during the monitoring visit, they would have to declare to the world that they had low confidence in our dismantlement activities. In a sense my fears during the first day of negotiations were realised. We had spent such a large amount of time ironing out procedural issues and playing bargaining games that we ultimately had insufficient time to address the substantive issue of warhead authentication. When the time ran out both parties were forced to accept an unsatisfactory protocol and as the hosts we had not delivered what we had hoped to. There was always a clear and equitable solution to our differences available, but distracted by fatigue, competitiveness and mutual distrust, both teams lost sight of this opportunity.

We left the negotiating table and embarked on the monitoring visit with an somewhat fatalistic attitude. The negotiations had become so toxic that the inspecting team was prepared to pre-judge their confidence in our dismantlement activities on the outcome of the negotiations rather than the monitoring visit itself. Despite its futility, there was nonetheless an atmosphere of excitement during the monitoring visit, as all our efforts over the past few days were manifested with the help of the Institute’s mock-up warhead and information barrier. But when the dismantlement procedure was completed and each team was left to write up a final report, I was left contemplating where we had made mistakes, and whether or not the simulation itself had been a success.

Considering how deeply involving the negotiations were, it is tough to argue that the simulation was anything other than a considerable success. As a member of the host team, it was worryingly easy to set aside friendships and become the old sceptical nuclear weapons specialist of the Kingdom of Wum, determined to strike a fair and safe balance between transparency and opacity. Although there will always be practical obstacles to producing a highly realistic simulation within an operational facility such as the Institute for Energy Technology, once the mental leaps were made to fully adapt to the freedoms and limitations of the simulation, the experience became immediate and visceral. Indeed, disagreements that arose during our time in Norway are still resurfacing today, although thankfully in a slightly more cooperative and friendly way.

As for where we went wrong, I feel that this can be traced back to a fundamental misunderstanding of the advice given to us by one of the advisors: if negotiations are like a game, it is extremely important to remember that there is more than one type of game. If you believe that negotiating a verification protocol is a pure zero-sum game where one team will ‘win’ and the other team will ‘lose’, then my experience at SS-1 suggests that you will be doomed to repeat our mistakes.

Last changed: Jul 29 2011 at 2:20 PM




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