Arms control 2.0? With open source tools, desktop sleuths can go where governments won’t – Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

In the 1990s, to comply with the START treaty, the United States arrayed 365 B-52 bombers in the Arizona desert, cut them into pieces, and left them there for months so that Russia could verify their destruction via satellite imagery. Photo credit: Google Maps and Maxar Technologies.

The arms control community was outraged by the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty in May 2020. The treaty enhances transparency and builds confidence between the state parties, allowing them to conduct specified numbers of unarmed flights over each other’s territories, under regulated conditions. The US decision to unilaterally leave this regime marks the latest in a set of international actions that undermine the complex mix of international treaties designed to engender global stability. But while geopolitical tensions mean that there is unlikely to be a quick breakthrough to reverse this trend, other means may support the transparency and confidence-building functions of internationally negotiated verification arrangements.

The potential for monitoring and verification has been transformed by new information technologies. The internet’s capacity to generate and publish data, as well as make available tools for visualizing and analyzing it, means that activities and artifacts are discernible in a way never before possible. There are now numerous free-to-use tools for remotely tracking planes and ships, as well as ready access to commercial satellites and global systems for monitoring natural disasters. Global environmental remote sensing holds promise from an arms control