Time for the Test Ban Treaty Is Now

Volume 2, Issue 12, September 12, 2011

A Reply to Jim Woolsey and Keith Payne

The United States signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) fifteen years ago, and the treaty now has 182 members. Russia and China stopped nuclear explosive testing as a direct result of the CTBT and only one nation (North Korea) has conducted a nuclear test since 1998. The CTBT has halted the regular practice of nuclear explosive testing, reducing the nuclear danger to the United States, its allies, and the world.

The United States was able to confidently sign the CTBT in 1996 because it already has the most sophisticated and well-tested nuclear arsenal, having conducted more nuclear detonations—1,054 from 1945 to 1992—than all other nations combined. Moreover, the United States remains the world’s unquestioned conventional weapons superpower. Today, there is no technical or military rationale for the United States to resume nuclear testing, and Washington gains an important constraint on nuclear proliferation by preventing testing by others.

Nevertheless, in a stunning example of grabbing a national security defeat from the jaws of victory, the United States has signed but not yet ratified the CTBT, which has slowed progress toward entry into force. U.S. leadership is essential to trigger ratifications by the eight other states necessary for formal entry into force, and this spring the Obama administration reiterated its support for reconsideration of the CTBT and prompt entry into force of the treaty.

In a May 10 address, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher pledged to take the time necessary to brief senators on key technical and scientific advances in the U.S. stockpile stewardship program and nuclear test monitoring that have occurred since the Senate's brief consideration of the treaty in 1999.
"We are committed to taking a bipartisan and fact-based approach with the Senate," Tauscher said.

Indeed, the case for the CTBT has grown stronger over the last decade. As George Shultz, President Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State, said in April 2009, "[Republicans] might have been right voting against [the CTBT] some years ago, but they would be right voting for it now, based on these new facts.... [There are] new pieces of information that are very important and that should be made available to the Senate."

As the Obama administration provides updated information, senators have a responsibility to take a serious look at the merits of the treaty in light of the new evidence and not rush to judgment on the basis of old or misleading information.

Unfortunately, some CTBT opponents continue to make the same old tired arguments against the treaty, such as the Sept. 8 op-ed, “Reconsidering the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty,” by Jim Woolsey and Keith Payne. It is time to put these misleading claims to rest.

Here are the top four reasons to support U.S. CTBT ratification:

1. The Test Ban Makes America More Secure: Ignoring abundant evidence to the contrary, Woolsey and Payne make the usubstantiated claim that ratification of the CTBT would not strengthen efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons. Woolsey and Payne’s views are at odds with a growing list of bipartisan leaders who agree that the CTBT provides an important constraint on the ability of other states to threaten American security.

 As Dr. Sigfried Hecker, former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in 2009, "the single most important reason to ratify the CTBT is to stop other countries from improving their arsenals."

For example, with additional nuclear testing China could perfect smaller warhead designs and thereby put multiple warheads on its relatively small arsenal of strategic ballistic missiles, increasing the nuclear danger to the United States.

 Potential nuclear-armed states like Iran could use nuclear test explosions to perfect more advanced, smaller nuclear warhead designs that could fit on ballistic missiles. Given Tehran's advancing uranium-enrichment and missile capabilities, it is important to establish additional barriers against a sophisticated Iranian nuclear weapons capability in the years ahead.

Does it make sense to forego the CTBT and leave the door open to the resumption of nuclear testing by Russia, China and others states? Surly not. As Gen. John Shalikashvili, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concluded in his 2001 report on the CTBT, "For the sake of future generations, it would be unforgivable to neglect any reasonable action that can help prevent nuclear proliferation, as the Test Ban Treaty clearly would."

Preventing nuclear testing not only denies proliferators an important tool to develop more threatening warheads, but the CTBT is vital to broader U.S. nonproliferation goals. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would probably not have been extended indefinitely in 1995 without the pledge from the United States and the other original nuclear powers to stop testing and conclude CTBT negotiations by the end of 1996.

If Washington continues to block the CTBT, the United States will have less leverage to strengthen nuclear safeguards, tighten controls on nuclear weapons-related technology, and isolate states that don't follow the nonproliferation rules. 

CTBT proponents do not claim that an end to U.S. testing or further superpower nuclear arms reductions would directly lead other states, such as Iran, to give up their nuclear ambitions. Such a direct link is overly simplistic. 

As Ellen Tauscher said in a speech in Omaha on July 29, 2010: "We are not so naïve as to believe that problem states will end their proliferation programs if the United States and Russia reduce our nuclear arsenals. But we are confident that progress in this area will reinforce the central role of the NPT and help us build support to sanction or engage states on favorable terms to us. Our collective ability to bring the weight of international pressure against proliferators would be undermined by a lack of effort towards disarmament."

In other words, the CTBT won’t by itself stop proliferation, but we can’t improve our chances of stopping proliferation and reducing the nuclear threat without the CTBT.

To date, 182 states have signed the CTBT. All of the United States' major allies, including all members of NATO, support the CTBT. They expect and even encourage the United States to act.  After nearly 20 years without nuclear testing, the United States' friends and foes have no doubt that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is effective and reliable.

As recently as April 29, 2011, the foreign ministers of 10 key U.S. allies—Australia, Germany, Canada, Chile, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates—issued a statement calling on "all states which have not yet done so to sign and ratify the CTBT… We believe that an effective end to nuclear testing will enhance and not weaken our national as well as global security and would significantly bolster the global non-proliferation and disarmament regime."

2. The U.S. Does Not Need Nuclear Test Explosions: As National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) head Thomas D'Agostino said in an April 2011 interview, the United States has "a safe and secure and reliable stockpile. There's no need to conduct underground [nuclear] testing."

The technical strategy for maintaining the effectiveness and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile without explosive testing has been in place for more than a decade. Since 1994, each warhead type in the U.S. nuclear arsenal has been determined to be safe and reliable through a rigorous annual certification process. The NNSA Stockpile Stewardship Program includes nuclear weapons surveillance and maintenance, non-nuclear and subcritical nuclear experiments, and increasingly sophisticated supercomputer modeling.  Life extension programs have successfully refurbished existing types of nuclear warheads and can continue to do so indefinitely. 

A 2009 study by JASON, the independent technical review panel, concluded that the "lifetimes of today's nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence."

The 2002 National Academy of Sciences panel report on "Technical Issues Related to the CTBT" found that the current Stockpile Stewardship Program provides the technical capabilities that are necessary to maintain confidence in the safety and reliability of the existing seven types of nuclear warheads in the active stockpile, "provided that adequate resources are made available...and are properly focused on this task."

The Obama administration's unprecedented $88 billion, 10-year plan for upgrading the nuclear weapons complex should give senators even greater confidence that there is a long-term strategy and more than enough funding to continue to maintain the U.S. arsenal effectively. The administration's long-term weapons complex budget plan represents a 20 percent increase above funding levels during the George W. Bush years.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted in 2010 that: "These investments, and the... strategy for warhead life extension, represent a credible modernization plan necessary to sustain the nuclear infrastructure and support our nation's deterrent."

On December 1, 2010, the directors of the three U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories wrote that they were "very pleased" with the administration's budget plan. Lawrence Livermore director Dr. George Miller, Los Alamos director Dr. Michael Anastasio, and Sandia director Dr. Paul Hommert said that the increased funding plan provides "adequate support" to sustain the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

 Minor cuts and cost savings in the NNSA budget will not change the fact that the NNSA weapons activities budget, now at $7 billion, provides more than enough to get the job done.

Even so, Woolsey and Payne write that “no one knows what types of nuclear weapons may be needed in the future…” and that the United States should in effect block entry-into-force of the CTBT in deference to this unknowable possibility. But in the exceedingly unlikely event that nuclear testing is needed in the distant future, the United States has the option of exercising the CTBT's "supreme national interest" withdrawal clause.

However, given that the United States already has the most advanced and deadly nuclear arsenal in the world, another round of global nuclear tests would only serve to undermine U.S. security by helping other nuclear-armed states improve their nuclear capabilities.

3. The CTBT Is Verifiable: Woolsey and Payne correctly point out that “the CTBT’s International Monitoring System [IMS] provides some impressive detection technology.” Indeed, under the CTBT, no would-be cheater could be confident that a nuclear explosion of sufficient yield to possibly threaten U.S. security would escape detection. But 

CTBT critics often ignore the fact that the IMS is not the only means of test monitoring and treaty verification. U.S. national technical means of intelligence (national seismic and radiation detection stations, spy satellites, human intelligence, and other tools) are extremely capable and data from these sources can be employed to verify treaty compliance.

The CTBT International Monitoring System provides for monitoring stations inside Russia, China, and other sensitive locations, including some places where the United States could not gain access on its own. By establishing a legally-binding ban on testing and providing additional international test monitoring capabilities, the CTBT gives the United States additional tools to resolve compliance concerns and address potential violations.

North Korea has provided two recent real-world tests of United States and global monitoring capabilities. In October 2006, the international monitoring system easily detected North Korea’s relatively low-yield (0.6 kiloton) nuclear explosion at 22 seismic stations and had a solid estimate of its location within five hours of the event. Tell-tale radioactive gases from this test were detected by South Korea, the U.S., and 4,600 miles away in Yellowknife, Canada, at one of the international monitoring network’s noble gas monitoring stations.

The second test by North Korea on May 25, 2009, with a yield of a few kilotons, was detected by a total of 61 international seismic stations. Some have suggested that because the international monitoring network did not detect radionuclide particles from the second North Korean test explosion, the system failed.

But, in fact, the seismic evidence alone would have provided a firm basis for on-site inspections (OSIs). The CTBT sets a limit of 1,000 square km for the inspected area, and the seismic data located the test well within this limit. According to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), “The data would have provided a clear lead to the inspection team regarding where to look.”

On-site inspections in response to signs of a suspicious event would be an important deterrent against potential clandestine nuclear testing, but would only be available once the treaty enters into force. The treaty also permits information from national technical means of verification to support an on-site inspection request.

Woolsey and Payne, however, suggest that because the CTBT requires 30 of 51 nations on the CTBTO's Executive Council to agree to an OSI, states unfriendly to the U.S. could block them. In reality, the CTBT’s on-site inspection provisions were established to balance the need for rapid response to a suspected test against the possibility of “frivolous or abusive” inspections. The approval of 30 out of 51 members of the Executive Council was designed to give nations like the United States. and Israel confidence that inspections would be approved as needed, but not by a small minority with questionable motives.

4. Zero Means Zero: Woolsey and Payne repeat another misleading claim that the CTBT does not define "nuclear test explosion" and therefore some states such as Russia believe low-yield "hydronuclear" tests are permitted. The negotiating record, however, is clear: Article I of the CTBT bans "any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion" and all signatories of the treaty understand that means zero nuclear test explosions.

In 1999, the United States' CTBT negotiator, Amb. Stephen Ledogar, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the subject and said:

“I have heard some critics of the Treaty seek to cast doubt on whether Russia, in the negotiation and signing of the Treaty, committed itself under treaty law to a truly comprehensive prohibition of any nuclear explosion, including an explosion/experiment/event of even the slightest nuclear yield. In other words, did Russia agree that hydronuclear experiments would be banned, and that hydrodynamic explosions (which have no yield because they do not reach criticality) would not be banned?"

Ledogar went on to say: "The answer is a categoric 'yes.' The Russians, as well as the other weapon states, did commit themselves. That answer is substantiated by the record of the negotiations at almost any level of technicality (and national security classification) that is desired and permitted. More importantly for the current debate, it is also substantiated by the public record of statements by high level Russian officials...."

As the Russian government explained to the Duma when it ratified the CTBT in 2000: "Qualitative modernization of nuclear weapons is only possible through full-scale and hydronuclear tests with the emission of fissile energy, the carrying out of which directly contradicts the CTBT." 

 It is clear to all parties that the CTBT establishes a “zero-yield” prohibition on nuclear test explosions.

Doing Nothing Is Unwise

Woolsey and Payne’s arguments amount to a “do-nothing” approach that would deny the United States the benefits of CTBT ratification. Without positive action on the CTBT, the risks of a resumption of nuclear testing will only grow. U.S. ratification, however, would reinforce the taboo against testing and prompt other hold-out states—such as China, India, and Pakistan—to ratify or reconsider the treaty.

Nuclear testing is a dangerous and unnecessary vestige of the Cold War that the United States rightly rejected two decades ago. The United States does not need nuclear weapons test explosions, but those who seek to improve their arsenals do. U.S. action on the CTBT would build support for updating and strengthening the global nonproliferation system at a critical juncture. The Senate’s reconsideration of the CTBT should be based on an honest and up-to-date analysis of the facts and the issues at stake. –TOM Z. COLLINA and DARYL G. KIMBALL