Interview: Don Phillips,
Senior manager, CTBTO International Monitoring System Division, 1999-2008

Don Phillips, Chief, Engineering and Development Section, CTBTO’s IMS Division until 2008

Don Phillips served his national government as a Navy pilot, at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and as a technical advisor to the US delegation during the CTBT negotiations (1994-96), before joining the CTBTO in 1999. In different senior management positions, he has been responsible for the installation, operation, certification and maintenance of the 337 facilities that comprise the International Monitoring System.

Q: The Provisional Technical Secretariat (PTS) of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) was created in 1997 with only nine staff members. As former International Monitoring System (IMS), Director Gerardo Suarez described it, most members of that initial 1997 IMS team were new to the world of multilateral diplomacy – and new to each other, coming from nine different countries and quite diverse backgrounds as they did. Could you tell us a little more about those early days? When did you join?

The initial senior management team of the IMS Division came together in 1997. At that time I was still working for the United States on the installation of their 38 IMS facilities so I didn’t arrive at the CTBTO until two years later in 1999. Some of the original senior managers worked together for up to nine years while others departed after five or six years.

The first IMS Director was Gerardo Suarez, a widely known seismic expert from Mexico. Canadian Peter Basham, was the IMS Division Coordinator for the initial five years; Joachim Schulze from Germany was the Chief of the Radionuclide Section;  Sergio Barrientos from Chile was the Chief of the Seismic Section; Alberto Veloso from Brazil was the the Chief of the Infrasound Section; and Martin Lawrence from Australia was the Chief of the Hydroacoustic Section.

The initial senior management team of the IMS Division came together in 1997. The members of the team were experts from all over the world - from Australia, Brazil , Canada, Chile, Germany, Italy, Mexico and the United States.

There were other senior managers in the IMS Division that had expertise in specific fields that significantly enhanced the technical capabilities of the division: Doug Christie from Australia was one of the few infrasound experts in the world;  Franca Padoani from Italy was a  senior radionuclide expert and Holly Given, an American seismic expert who came to the PTS from Scripps Oceanographic Institute in San Diego. Joachim, Martin, Peter and Doug were technical representatives to their repective delegations during the CTBT negotiations in Geneva and thus I had already gotten to know them prior to arriving in Vienna.

Occasionally cultural differences created some interesting situations.

Did everyone come equipped with the skills to deal with different languages?  Well, everyone certainly had the adequate language skills to communicate but occasionally cultural differences created some interesting situations.

Q: With regard to the Pioneering Decade of IMS build-up (1997-2006), in your opinion, what were the most challenging obstacles that had to be overcome?

Technical Challenges

We had—and continue to have—excellent technical people in this organization. So none of the technical challenges were insoluble; complicated maybe, but still soluble. Overall, we have solved the build-up phase very efficiently. Our standards are very high and we have built some of the best nuclear monitoring stations in the world.

Overall, we have solved the build-up phase very efficiently. Our standards are very high and we have built some of the best nuclear monitoring stations in the world.

Now, besides completing the remainder of the build-up we have to keep things moving. For that, the PTS have been restructured to adapt to the emerging technical needs. After all, there would be no sense in spending approximately $300 million dollars on the IMS network and then not sustaining the Signatory States’ investment.

Logistical Challenges

The challenges have been, and remain, daunting. Keep in mind that we have been involved in a globe-spanning construction project that has been going on for over ten years. Since UN affiliated international organizations are entitled to tax exemptions, we must solve legal issues associated with taxation and customs in each and every country. There are huge amounts of money involved and all of the necessary agreements must be in place. This is why the restructuring has created the new Logistics Support Unit whose job is exclusively logistics—to help solve these kinds of problems.

The challenges have been, and remain, daunting. Keep in mind that we have been involved in a globe-spanning construction project that has been going on for over ten years.

On the horizon looms the logistical challenge of sustainment. This will become a major issue as some stations are already eight to nine years old, and other pre-existing (i.e. seismic) ones are even older. All of these stations will eventually be in need of re-capitalization; equipment simply does not last forever, especially in this digital world we live in today. We must be able to deal with this inevitability.

Administrative Challenges

This area is actually where we encountered the greatest difficulties. We had to build a worldwide monitoring network as prescribed by the Treaty. We’re talking about 89 countries, and in some cases a country may have multiple institutions with which the PTS has to coordinate activities.

For example, the Treaty requires that we come up with legally binding Facility Agreements and, while these were being negotiated by the Legal Section, there had to be an official exchange of letters (with the Governments of the host countries) so we would have the basic legal structure in place to commence work on the stations. Sometimes it was as simple as a single fax; other times, it was full of intricacies. For example, some countries have said that they will not negotiate a Facility Agreement until the Treaty is ready to enter into force.

The process of reaching agreements with Palau was so complicated that it required two years and four separate trips to complete the negotiations. Proudly though, the infrasound station (IS39) located there was certified in September 2005 and now Palau is one of the newest States to ratify the Treaty, on 1 August 2007.

Another example of the challenges we encountered was with Palau. First, Palau was traditionally a tribal society with chiefs, in which all land was collectively owned (so that the entire society had to agree to having an IMS station on their common territory).

Second, Palau became an independent country only in 1994 and the new political system was installed on top of the old tribal system that was both multi-dimensional and inter-generational. Often you had older chiefs and younger government officials. Even though the entire population of the country only numbers about 20,000 people, the process of reaching agreements was so complicated that it required two years and four separate trips to complete the negotiations. Proudly though, the infrasound station (IS39) located there was certified in September 2005 and now Palau is one of the newest States to ratify the Treaty, on 1 August 2007.

One last point about administrative problems.  In my opinion, the UN system is not particularly conducive to the workings of a worldwide construction company, which is largely what we have been for the last ten years.

Q: Which station build-ups to date were the most complicated and why? 

In this regard, the auxiliary seismic stations have presented unique challenges. After these stations are formally certified as part of the IMS, the treaty prohibits the CTBTO from operating and maintaining these 120 auxiliary seismic stations except for transmitting data to the International Data Centre and authenticating the data.

The vast majority of auxiliary seismic stations already existed for national purposes but many of them required significant upgrades to meet the CTBTO’s stringent requirements.

The vast majority of these stations already existed for national purposes but many of them required significant upgrades to meet the CTBTO’s stringent requirements. In some cases, we had to construct or upgrade seismic arrays costing several hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, once officially certified, the operation and maintenance of all of the auxiliary stations is the sole responsibility of the host country.

Q: Which ones went smoothly?

Staying on the subject of auxiliary seismic stations, about 85 out of the 120 auxiliary seismic stations have a bilateral partner or “sponsor”, such as an international consortium or national network. In these cases, things generally go smoothly between the PTS, its partner and the host country in terms of maintenance and benefits. The host country gets a state-of-the-art seismic station that can often be used for national purposes; the sponsor often gets the data from an upgraded station with real time communications; and the IMS gets the data it needs to help monitor for nuclear explosions. So we have a three-way-win situation.

The challenge on the horizon is those 30-35 auxiliary seismic stations, some of them in developing countries, which have no bilateral “sponsor.”

In my opinion, the challenge on the horizon is those 30-35 auxiliary stations, some of them in developing countries, which have no bilateral “sponsor.” It is inevitable that there will eventually be failures at a few of these stations and no funding will be available for the repair. Currently, the CTBTO Preparatory Commission has instructed the PTS to investigate failures at auxiliary seismic stations on a case-by-case basis and to work with the host country operators to help them resolve the problems. To date, this has been a successful approach to failures at certified auxiliary seismic stations.

Q: How much longer will it take to complete and certify the remaining stations? Which type will be the most challenging?

The situation is the following: Approximately 8-10% of the facilities remaining to be built cannot be constructed until the political environment improves and we start accelerating towards entry into force. There are some 30-35 stations that cannot be started for either political, environmental or resource reasons. For example, the stations intended for India and Pakistan cannot be started until these countries at least sign the treaty. We will just have to set aside this small, but very important number of the stations until the political climate changes. We have already seen a gradual shift back toward multilateralism, which will likely, in its turn, act as a boost for the non-proliferation regime.

Other stations have environmental issues; the Galapagos Islands (Ecuador), is a world-renowned environmentally protected area. We have to be extremely careful—and we are—not to disturb the natural habitats and to maintain the ecological balance. The PTS abides by all national regulations, we use passive technologies, and we see ourselves as “friends of the environment.”  We always restore the area surrounding the station.

The Galapagos Islands (Ecuador), is a world-renowned environmentally protected area. We have to be extremely careful—and we are— not to disturb the natural habitats and to maintain the ecological balance.

Taking another example, let’s look at the US protectorate of Midway Island. Midway is a former military base and now belongs to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Here again, the island is an  environmentally protected area. We have been told that the authorities have no problem in principle with our non-invasive IMS stations. We can adapt our circumstances to any environment.

Obviously, sovereign governments have the right to decide what is allowed on their territory. It’s just that—to preclude an infrasound monitoring “hole” in the North Pacific—we must be able to use either Midway or Wake Island for an infrasound station.

However, the the Fish and Wildlife Service is concerned about precedent; if an exception is made for the CTBTO, then other organizations may want an exception, too. So exceptional care has to be exercised not to tip the environmental balance. In the case of Midway, the Fish and Wildlife Service has approved the construction of the radionuclide station (RN78) and is currently studying our proposal to install an infrasound (IS58) station on the island. Obviously, sovereign governments have the right to decide what is allowed on their territory . It’s just that—to preclude an infrasound monitoring “hole” in the North Pacific—we must be able to use either Midway or Wake Island for an infrasound station.We also have environmental and difficult logistic issues at Wake Island for the construction of the  infrasound station.

Q: How will the build-up of the IMS be affected by some Member States not paying their assessments in a timely manner?

For the most part, the IMS build-up phase is nearing completion. Now we have to sustain it. We already have the funding to complete approximately 90% of the IMS installations. However, if the money for sustainment is not forthcoming from the signatory States, we can’t wrap these high-tech stations in cellophane! It’s like trying to start a car after you’ve left it parked in the garage for five years. It probably won’t start. We can postpone some things, such as recapitalization of stations, slow down training activities, etc. but eventually there will be a price to pay. Stations will begin to fail and the network will become degraded.

Sustainment of the network is a must. This would definitely be affected by delayed payments. It would lead to temporary station failures and, if continued, to a general “falling apart” of these high-tech facilities.

Sustainment of the network is a must. This would definitely be affected by delayed payment of assessed contributions. It would lead to temporary station failures and, if continued, to a general “falling apart” of these high-tech facilities. It is important that each and every country fully support the build-up and sustainment of the verification regime, and to pay their assessments on time and in full.

Additionally, it seems to me that, what I would call “friends of the treaty”, such as foundations, could provide more financial support. There are lots of very wealthy individuals trying to support philanthropic activities. I believe that if some of these people were approached appropriately, they might be willing to provide support to CTBT-related activities.

Q: On the listing of IMS stations, there are some that carry the designation “TBD”. Where are these stations and what does this acronym signify in terms of the build-up work?

“TBD” means “To be Determined”. But, in reality, the locations for four such stations had already been designated for specific locations. However, when the State Signatory in question [Editor’s Note: India] elected, during the final few days of the negotiations, not to sign the Treaty, those real sites had to be deleted from Annex 1 to the Protocol.

Q: The IMS Sections are going through a restructuring just now. Why is that? How will it change or improve their functioning?

This restructuring is a logical and necessary evolution. The first 7-8 years starting in 1997 were devoted exclusively to the build-up of the worldwide IMS network and the International Data Centre (IDC) and ran in parallel. Once stations began to be certified, starting in the year 2000, then data were being processed and delivered to Signatory States and there was an ever increasing interaction between the two divisions.

In 2002, the Executive Secretary asked me to become the first Operations and Maintenance (O&M) Coordinator to help oversee these inter-divisional activities. I can testify that this was, at times, a painful process for the two divisions to interact, adapt and coordinate rather than acting alone. The organization was experiencing growing pains as it matured and we simply needed a different structure. In 2005, the Hydroacoustic and Infrasound Sections were combined to create the Acoustics Section. With this minor restructuring in the IMS Division, Martin Lawrence (Australia) was freed up as a section chief and was able to take over as the O&M Coordinator. By that time, I had been promoted to the position of IMS Division Coordinator. Martin then held this position until he left the PTS in May 2006 and did a great job, both as Hydroacoustic Section Chief and as O&M Coordinator.

This restructuring is a logical and necessary evolution. The first 7-8 years starting in 1997 were devoted exclusively to the build-up of the worldwide IMS network and the International Data Centre (IDC) and ran in parallel.

In 2005, Working Group B, under the Chairmanship of Ola Dahlman (Sweden), commissioned a world renowned group of experts from different areas of expertise—industry, science, diplomacy, etc. This outstanding team was led by Ambassadors Starr and Rimdap (Australia and Nigeria, respectively). In April 2005 the team published a report that recommended restructuring the PTS along functional lines. According to this plan, one division (IDC) will be responsible for all operational functions while the other division (IMS) will handle all support functions for the PTS.

In April 2005 an expert team published a report that recommended restructuring the PTS along functional lines. According to this plan, one division (IDC) will be responsible for all operational functions while the other division (IMS) will handle all support functions for the PTS.

The final piece of this restructuring towards a classical operational/support organization will be the blending of what, until recently was called the Installation and Certification Group into the Engineering and Development Section in the IMS Division. This new section was officially created on 5 February 2008. In my opinion, this restructuring should further improve the day-to-day work of the PTS and should also provide for resource efficiencies of scale.

As we complete the build-up phase, the focus will turn more and more towards sustaining the Verification Regime. We are already hiring new types of professionals too (e.g. engineers) as the PTS evolves and matures.

As we complete the build-up phase, the focus will turn more and more towards sustaining the Verification Regime. We are already hiring new types of professionals too (e.g. engineers) as the PTS evolves and matures.

Q: Another aspect is the CTBTOs mandatory human resource rotation policy. Do you find this policy good for overall operations? If so, why? If not, how might you adapt it?

In my personal view, rotation in an organization is “good”. We need new ideas and talent. So, in principle, I’m a fan of service limitation, but there are many ways to go about it. Again, my personal approach is based on fair treatment for everyone and competence above all; a business management-type of decision making. I stand by my rule to “never accept an unqualified person just to fill a quota” or satisfy a regional distribution requirement. The single most important factor for hiring staff should always be competence.

Q: You have been responsible for the build-up of the IMS for many years. What would you say are the most significant occurrences during your “watch”, occurrences that directly affect the IMS and its future?

My CTBTO “watch”, which began in 1994, has coincided with a period of rising concern about nuclear proliferation. Non-proliferation worked fairly well during the 30 years from 1968 until 1998, but India and Pakistan both tested in 1998, other proliferation concerns arisen after 2001, and that, plus the announced nuclear test by North Korea in October 2006, put the NPT under increasing stress.

I personally believe that our sister organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is doing a fine job and deserves a lot of credit for balancing its monitoring role with encouraging the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. I also believe that the CTBT's entry into force could be a turning point. After all, the CTBT is the “last barrier” to nuclear testing and further nuclear proliferation.

As long as the signatory States provide adequate funding for sustainment, I am certain that the PTS is capable of ensuring an effective monitoring network. Nobody has ever done anything like this before. It’s unique in history.

Q: Speaking of IMS’s future, how do you see its role evolving? For example, what about the notion of moving from build-up to sustainment mode?

As long as the signatory States provide adequate funding for sustainment, I am certain that the PTS is capable of ensuring an effective monitoring network. Oh, there will be the occasional minor catastrophe—lightning strikes, hydroacoustic cable breaks, flooding, contractual tangles—but I believe we will be successful. Nobody has ever done anything like this before. It’s unique in history.