CTBT: Now More Than Ever

Daryl G. Kimball

President-elect Barack Obama's November victory represents a clear mandate for change on a number of national security issues. One of the most decisive ways in which Obama can restore U.S. nonproliferation leadership and spur action toward a nuclear-weapons-free world is to win Senate support for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) within the next two years.

By banning the "bang," the CTBT limits the ability of established nuclear-weapon states to field new and more sophisticated warheads and makes it far more difficult for newer members of the club to perfect smaller, more easily deliverable warheads. The CTBT is one of the key disarmament commitments made by the nuclear-weapon states at the 1995 and 2000 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conferences.

Tragically, the Bush administration has stubbornly and actively resisted the CTBT's logic. The treaty now has 180 signatories but has not entered into force because the United States and eight other CTBT rogue states, including China, Egypt, India, Iran, and Israel, have failed to ratify.

Given the 16-year-old U.S. nuclear test moratorium and 1996 decision to sign the treaty, the United States bears most CTBT-related responsibilities. Yet, Washington's inaction diminishes its ability to prod other nations to join the treaty and refrain from testing, and it has severely undermined efforts to repair the battered NPT system.

At the same time, there is neither the need nor any political support for renewed U.S. testing for new nuclear warhead design purposes or for any other reason. The 2010 NPT review conference is fast approaching. Quite simply, it is time to ratify the CTBT.

There is hope. During the presidential campaign, Obama pledged to "reach out to the Senate to secure the ratification of the CTBT at the earliest practical date and...then launch a diplomatic effort to bring onboard other states whose ratifications are required for the treaty to enter into force."

As a result of the 2008 election, at least 60 senators in the next Congress will already be inclined to support CTBT ratification. Convincing two-thirds of the Senate that the treaty enhances U.S. security, is effectively verifiable, and would not compromise future efforts to maintain a shrinking nuclear arsenal will be difficult but is possible.

As a first step, Obama should reiterate his commitment to CTBT ratification and appoint a senior official, backed with interagency support and resources, to coordinate the effort. Such a move will signal a dramatic shift in U.S. policy and demonstrate he is serious about winning senators' support.

Just as President John F. Kennedy did in 1963 with the Limited Test Ban Treaty, Obama should tap into the deep reservoir of public support for a complete end to testing. He must also engage the growing bipartisan group of foreign policy experts, including George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, and dozens more, who have signaled their support for the treaty.

Most important, CTBT proponents will have to explain why the case for the treaty is even stronger today than when it was rejected by the Senate in 1999. For instance, the July 2002 report of a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel documents that, with the combined capabilities of the treaty's International Monitoring System, national technical means, and civilian seismic networks, no would-be CTBT violator can be confident that a nuclear explosion of any military utility would escape detection.

The same NAS report also found that the current Stockpile Stewardship Program provides the technical capabilities that are necessary to maintain confidence in the safety and reliability of its existing nuclear weapons stockpile, "provided that adequate resources are made available...and are properly focused on this task." According to the NAS panel, which included three former lab directors, age-related defects mainly related to non-nuclear components can be expected, "but nuclear testing is not needed to discover these problems and is not likely to be needed to address them."

Obama and his Senate allies must avoid the temptation to pursue unnecessary compromise measures that would undermine the purpose of the test ban. Some have suggested pursuing President George W. Bush's costly plan for new, so-called reliable replacement warheads to assuage CTBT skeptics.

Such bargains are risky and unnecessary and would contradict Obama's campaign pledge "not to authorize the development of new nuclear weapons." The U.S. capability to maintain existing stockpile warheads is more than adequate. The production of a new generation of warheads could lead to calls to test the new designs as well as undermine a principal benefit of the CTBT to disarmament and the NPT: ending new warhead development.

U.S. ratification of the CTBT is possible, necessary, and long overdue. It is now up to Obama to work with the Senate and CTBT supporters to execute a smart ratification campaign and restore U.S. leadership on nonproliferation before the opportunity slips away.