Pentagon Weighs Enlarging Nuclear Surveillance Program

Aliya Sternstein, Nextgov.com
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Aliya Sternstein, Nextgov.com
Aug. 20, 2013, 5:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — The De­fense De­part­ment is mulling an ex­pan­sion of a sys­tem that es­sen­tially eaves­drops on the en­vir­on­ment for in­dic­a­tions of for­eign nuc­le­ar tests.

The Air Force Tech­nic­al Ap­plic­a­tions Cen­ter’s atom­ic mon­it­or­ing sys­tem di­gests seis­mic, in­fra­son­ic, and hy­droacous­tic data to help veri­fy blasts. A po­ten­tial new con­tract would “provide the plat­form for fu­ture sys­tem growth and en­hance­ments,” ac­cord­ing to an in­dustry so­li­cit­a­tion is­sued on Wed­nes­day.

The sys­tem, housed at Patrick Air Force Base in Flor­ida, was launched in 1999 to check in­ter­na­tion­al com­pli­ance with nuc­le­ar test ban treat­ies.

The im­petus for the pro­posed en­large­ment of the pro­gram could be nuc­le­ar threats from “Ir­an and North Korea, tech­no­lo­gic­al op­por­tun­ity, an agency want­ing to im­prove its cap­ab­il­it­ies, or all three,” spec­u­lated Jef­frey Richel­son, seni­or fel­low with George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity’s Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Archive.

The goals out­lined in last week’s pro­pos­al sug­gest a de­sire for big data ana­lys­is fea­tures that can identi­fy more subtle signs of nuc­le­ar activ­ity.

The fo­cus of the ef­fort is “to fine-tune the cur­rent sys­tem by op­tim­iz­a­tion of soft­ware al­gorithms through sci­entif­ic and en­gin­eer­ing stud­ies,” the so­li­cit­a­tion states. The up­grades are aimed at im­prov­ing “data ac­quis­i­tion, de­tec­tion, as­so­ci­ation, loc­a­tion, mag­nitude/yield es­tim­a­tion, event iden­ti­fic­a­tion, event re­port­ing, data dis­tri­bu­tion, and data archiv­ing cap­ab­il­it­ies to meet cur­rent and fu­ture treaty mon­it­or­ing needs.”

Past nuc­le­ar sur­veil­lance re­ports gen­er­ated by the Flor­ida Air Force cen­ter have triggered both false alarms and val­id alerts.

In 1997, the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion drew cri­ti­cism for leak­ing to the press what turned out to be er­ro­neous as­sess­ments in­dic­at­ing a Rus­si­an nuc­le­ar test. Shortly after the gaffe, Columbia Uni­versity seis­mo­lo­gist Lynn R. Sykes, who served on the Air Force cen­ter’s ad­vis­ory pan­el in the 1970s, urged more care­ful scru­tiny be­fore ac­cus­a­tions are pre­ma­turely shared with the me­dia. “A few key people with­in the gov­ern­ment were re­spons­ible for leak­ing mis­lead­ing and out­dated in­form­a­tion to the press about the event,” Sykes wrote in a re­view of the epis­ode. Fur­ther ana­lys­is de­term­ined that the Aug. 16, 1997, event was an earth­quake and not a clandes­tine nuc­le­ar ex­plo­sion.

In Oc­to­ber 2006, the cen­ter de­tec­ted an event thought to be as­so­ci­ated with a pur­por­ted North Korean nuc­le­ar test, and later con­firmed that the in­cid­ent, in fact, was nuc­le­ar in nature, ac­cord­ing to Air Force of­fi­cials. The cur­rent sys­tem is de­signed to speed Top Secret as­sess­ments to the rel­ev­ant na­tion­al se­cur­ity agen­cies once a for­eign nuc­le­ar test is pin­pointed.

Re­prin­ted with per­mis­sion from Nex­t­gov.com. The ori­gin­al story can be found here.

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