"[Arms Control Today is] Absolutely essential reading for the upcoming Congressional budget debate on the 2018 #NPR and its specific recommendations ... well-informed, insightful, balanced, and filled with common sense."

– Frank Klotz
former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
A Foundation to Strengthen, Not Erode
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Daryl G. Kimball

Forty years ago this month, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom began observing the first major arms control agreement of the nuclear age. The Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), which took effect on October 10, 1963, not only led to the end of poisonous atmospheric nuclear testing but, in the words of President John F. Kennedy, was a first “step towards reduced world tension and broader areas of agreement.”

The LTBT laid the foundation for later treaties designed to control the number and types of existing nuclear weapons, end all nuclear testing, and prevent the spread of nuclear arms. The result is an imperfect but vital framework of legal, political, and technical barriers that have reduced the dangers of unbridled nuclear weapons competition. To one degree or another, Republican and Democratic presidents since Kennedy have all worked to strengthen these interlocking nonproliferation and disarmament treaties, verification mechanisms, and related export control systems.

Today, President George W. Bush faces the daunting challenge of persuading Iran and North Korea to forswear nuclear weapons and strictly comply with the standards of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Likewise, he needs to dissuade rivals India and Pakistan, which never joined the NPT, from deploying and improving their limited nuclear arsenals. Yet, the Bush team appears to believe that diplomacy and nonproliferation strategies cannot work.

Instead, the Bush administration is reviving a Cold War-era program of research and development on a new class of nuclear weapons designed to counter emerging nuclear and non-nuclear threats. Bush is seeking congressional authorization and funding for research and development of new “low-yield” nuclear weapons intended to incinerate chemical or biological weapons caches and higher-yield “robust nuclear earth penetrators” to destroy deeply buried and hardened enemy targets.

Not only are such weapons militarily impractical, but in the long-run, they are self- defeating. As President Kennedy noted in 1963, “A nation’s security does not always increase as its arms increase … and unlimited competition in the testing and development of new types of destructive nuclear weapons will not make the world safer.” The pursuit of new nuclear weapons erodes the nonproliferation norms established over the last four decades and will likely encourage other states to match or counter the U.S. bid.

Proponents argue that, by reducing the weapons’ explosive yields, collateral damage can be minimized to the point that they become “usable.” But a “small” nuclear blast, with just 1/13 the power of the Hiroshima bomb, detonated at a depth of 20-50 feet, would eject more than a million cubic feet of radioactive debris. If used to target chemical or biological weapons, nuclear strikes would probably spread, rather than destroy, the deadly material.

It is possible to improve the depth of penetration of weapons to destroy deeper targets, but these weapons are hardly “usable.” The “robust” bunker-busting nuclear warheads now under study—the B61 and B83—are not small, but rather high-yield, city-busting behemoths with yields exceeding 100 kilotons.

A nuclear weapon, however big or small, is still a weapon of mass destruction. So long as nuclear weapons exist, their role should be limited to deterring their use by others. The key to holding such buried chemical or biological targets at risk is better intelligence and more effective conventional munitions, not the threat of nuclear attack.

If left unchecked by Congress, the proposals for new nuclear capabilities might well lead to the resumption of U.S. nuclear testing in the next two to three years. This would defy the de facto global test moratorium and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty—a central U.S. nonproliferation commitment. The result would be a new action-reaction cycle of arms competition and renewed nuclear testing by other countries.

Like the LTBT itself, which allowed the nuclear arms race to continue through underground testing, existing arms control and nonproliferation measures do not address every security threat. But to meet today’s proliferation challenges, the nonproliferation regime must be strengthened, not abandoned.

The international community must bolster and expand verification capabilities to detect and deter cheating, countries must work better together to deal with cases of noncompliance, and all states must make good faith progress on their nuclear disarmament obligations. But if the White House continues to underutilize diplomacy and arms control and to claim special exemptions, it will undermine the rules upon which U.S. and global security depend.