“Reconsidering the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: Sorting Fact From Fiction”
Volume 2, Issue 9, June 20, 2011
After 1,030 U.S. nuclear test explosions, there is simply no technical or military rationale for the United States to resume nuclear explosive testing. At the same time, it is in the U.S. national security interest to prevent nuclear weapons testing by others.
A growing list of bipartisan leaders agree that by ratifying the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the United States stands to gain an important constraint on the ability of other states to build new and more deadly nuclear weapons that could pose a threat to American security.
As Dr. Sigfried Hecker, former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in a 2009 interview, "the single most important reason to ratify the CTBT is to stop other countries from improving their arsenals."
A new round of nuclear weapon test explosions would allow China to perfect smaller warhead designs and allow it to put multiple warheads on its relatively small arsenal of strategic ballistic missiles -- a move that could allow it to increase its nuclear strike capability.
Without nuclear weapon test explosions, potential nuclear-armed states like Iran would not be able to proof test the more advanced, smaller nuclear warhead designs that are needed in order to deliver such weapons using 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.
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."
Engaging on the Technical Issues
Earlier this spring, the Obama administration reiterated its support for reconsideration of the CTBT. In a May 10 address outlining the national security value of the CTBT, 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 national and international 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.
As the administration provides updated information on key technical issues related to the CTBT, Senators have a responsibility to take a serious look at the merits of the Treaty in light of the new evidence that has accumulated over the past decade and not rush to a judgment on the basis of old information.
Stuck in A Time Warp
Unfortunately, some anti-CTBT critics are stuck in the past and are only too willing to ignore key facts concerning the Treaty. Some, including commentators at the Heritage Foundation and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), have even suggested that the U.S. needs to resume nuclear testing.
A May 26 Web Memo from The Heritage Foundation claims that "nothing has changed" over the past decade and any effort to reconsider the merits of the treaty is an "attack" on the Senate.
Such hyperbole defies common sense and is out of step with current technical and geopolitical realities.
As Senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) noted in a statement released immediately following the October 13, 1999 vote on the CTBT: "Treaties never die, even when defeated and returned to the Executive Calendar of the Senate. Therefore, we will have another chance to debate the CTBT. And, it may well be that if my concerns ... can be alleviated, and if the potential for stockpile stewardship during the next decade can be realized, I will be able to vote for a CTBT in the future."
That Was Then, This Is Now
In the decade since the Senate last considered the CTBT, Senator Domenici and 58 other Senators have retired; only 41 Senators who debated and voted on the CTBT in 1999 remain.
Over the years, significant technical advances in the U.S. stockpile stewardship program and verification and monitoring capabilities have been achieved, and the value of the treaty to U.S. efforts to counter the spread of the bomb has grown.
As Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State George Shultz 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."
The Senate's understanding of the issues surrounding the CTBT should be based on an honest and up-to-date analysis of the facts rather than the myths and misperceptions from the last century that are being repeated by some CTBT critics. The following is a brief reality check:
1. Stockpile Stewardship Works: The nuclear weapons laboratory directors report they now have a deeper understanding of the nuclear arsenal and a wider range of tools and techniques to maintain an effective stockpile. Nevertheless, the Heritage Foundation charges "the U.S. nuclear weapons complex has grown weaker."
Those who are in a position to know say, unequivocally, that the arsenal can be maintained without nuclear test explosions and without pursuing new warhead designs. In 2008, Thomas D'Agostino, who was then George W. Bush's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Administrator, said: "We know more about the complex issues of nuclear weapons performance today than we ever did during the period of nuclear testing."
The technical strategy for maintaining the effectiveness and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile 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's 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 the "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."
Not only do the nuclear weapons laboratories have a deeper understanding of the arsenal than they ever did during the days of nuclear test explosions, but they also have more resources than ever.
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.
The administration's $7.6 billion request for NNSA weapons activities for fiscal year 2012 is almost 19 percent higher than the $6.4 billion appropriated by Congress for fiscal year 2010. 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.
The success of the program requires that nuclear weapons labs and NNSA are focused on the highest priority stockpile maintenance tasks and pursue conservative warhead life extension strategies that minimize unnecessary and expensive alterations to already well-understood and proven warhead designs.
2. New Nuclear Testing Is Unnecessary and Unwise: Contrary to myth, maintaining the reliability of proven U.S. nuclear warhead designs does not (and has never) required a program of nuclear test explosions.
According to the 2002 National Academies of Science (NAS) panel that included three former nuclear weapons 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."
Nevertheless, the Heritage Foundation's Peter Brookes recently argued in a New York Post oped that the CTBT would "further compromise ... the arsenal by ending our ability to test ... if necessary." That sounds a lot like the old assertion made in 1992 by then-Rep. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) that "[A]s long as we have a nuclear deterrent, we have got to test it in order to ensure that it is safe and it is reliable."
Mr. Kyl may have had legitimate concerns back in 1992, but it is now abundantly clear that nuclear explosive testing is a vestige of the past that is no longer needed or wanted by the United States.
As NNSA Administrator Thomas D'Agostino put it succinctly in an April 2011 interview: "we have a safe and secure and reliable stockpile. There's no need to conduct underground [nuclear] testing."
In the exceedingly unlikely event that the president of the United States decides to resume nuclear testing, 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 undermine U.S. security by helping other nuclear-armed states improve their nuclear capabilities.
3. The CTBT Is Effectively Verifiable: Despite a decade of advances in national and international monitoring capabilities, the Heritage Foundation argues that "extremely low-yield tests are not likely to be detected by the IMS," or International Monitoring System.
This argument misses the point on verification and implies that low-yield tests are worth the high risk of getting caught.
Those countries that are most able to successfully conduct such clandestine testing already possess advanced nuclear weapons of a number of types and could add little, with additional testing, to the threats they already pose to the United States. Countries of lesser nuclear test experience and/or design sophistication would be unable to conceal tests in the numbers and yields required to master advanced warheads. 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.
CTBT critics also often ignore the fact that the IMS is not the only means of test ban monitoring and 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 U.S. national monitoring capabilities will be even more effective with the CTBT in force-with its global verification and monitoring network and the option of short-notice on-site inspections-than without it. The CTBT 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.
4. Zero Means Zero: Another misleading charge from the Heritage Foundation and other critics is the claim that the CTBT does not define "nuclear test explosion" and therefore some states such as Russia believe low-yield and "hydronuclear" tests are permitted. A June 16 blogpost on the Heritage web site, called "Nuclear Weapons Testing Remains Necessary," states without any supporting evidence that "Russia and China ... claim that low-yield nuclear weapons tests ... do not constitute a violation of the treaty."
Wrong again. The record 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."
5. The Test Ban and Nonproliferation: Ignoring abundant evidence to the contrary, CTBT critics at the Heritage Foundation make the absurd claim that ratification of the CTBT wouldn't strengthen efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons and would actually encourage U.S. allies to pursue their own nuclear weapons.
Preventing nuclear testing not only denies proliferators a tool to develop new types of warhead, but the CTBT is a vital to broader U.S. nonproliferation goals. Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would not likely have been renewed indefinitely in 1995 without the pledge from the U.S. and the other original nuclear powers to stop testing, support the CTBT, and conclude test ban negotiations by the end of 1996.
If Washington continues to hesitate on 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, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, 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."
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 on the CTBT. After nearly 19 years without nuclear testing, the United States' friends and foes have little doubt that the United States nuclear arsenal is effective and reliable.
Nevertheless, the Heritage Foundation's latest blogpost "Nuclear Weapons Testing Remains Necessary" suggests that allies that rely on the credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent would be "incentivized to develop their own nuclear weapons capabilities" if the United States ratified the CTBT.
Really? Our actual allies don't seem to agree.
As recently as April 29, 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," their statement added.
Nuclear testing is a dangerous and unnecessary vestige of the last century that the United States has already given up. By ratifying the CTBT, the United States stands to lose nothing and gain an important constraint on the nuclear weapons capabilities of others that could pose a threat to U.S. security.
The Senate's reconsideration of the CTBT should be based not on myths from the past, but on an honest and up-to-date analysis of the facts and the issues at stake. - DARYL G. KIMBALL