Executive Summary: The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and U.S. Nuclear Disarmament

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Executive Summary: The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and U.S. Nuclear Disarmament

October 6, 1999 4 min read Download Report
Baker Spring
Baker Spring
Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Baker is a former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy

The 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) would bar participating states from conducting explosive tests of nuclear weapons. President Bill Clinton is pressing the Senate to approve ratification of the CTBT, and a Senate vote is scheduled for some time in the next two weeks. U.S. ratification is necessary to bring the treaty into force. The CTBT is a dangerous agreement, however, that would undercut the U.S. policy of nuclear deterrence and with it, national security.

The treaty contains a host of flaws. It is not adequately verifiable or enforceable. The most important flaw with the CTBT, however, is that it puts the United States irreversibly on the path to nuclear disarmament. This goal is, in fact, stated in the preamble to the treaty. The testing program remains an essential ingredient of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. If the weapons cannot be tested to prove their continued reliability, quality concerns eventually will require that they be withdrawn from the arsenal and the stockpile until there are none left.

To compensate for the absence of testing, the Clinton Administration has established the Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship Program (SBSS). It would require the Secretaries of Defense and Energy to certify annually that U.S. nuclear weapons are safe and reliable. If they cannot make such a certification, steps would be taken to resume testing. Unfortunately, the SBSS is based more on wishful thinking than sound science. The technological challenges that must be surmounted are enormous.


There are at least nine reasons why adhering to the CTBT's ban on nuclear testing will lead inevitably to U.S. nuclear disarmament.

REASON No. 1: Tests are necessary to discover safety and reliability problems with nuclear weapons already in the stockpile.
As of 1987, one-third of all nuclear weapons in the stockpile underwent post-deployment testing to resolve problems. In three-quarters of these cases, the problems were discovered as a result of testing.

REASON No. 2: The CTBT will make it very difficult to meet new military requirements.
Maintaining a stockpile of militarily effective nuclear weapons when the ways for meeting existing military requirements may change and altogether new military requirements may emerge can only be addressed through modernizing the nuclear force. The CTBT will bar the explosive testing of the refurbished weapons.

REASON No. 3: The CTBT will make replacing aging delivery systems more difficult.
In the past, new nuclear weapons were designed and built for specific kinds of missiles. Some of these missiles, like the Minuteman III, are getting old. Under the CTBT, replacement missiles would have to be designed and built to the requirements of the warheads, as opposed to the integrated fashion used earlier.

REASON No. 4: The CTBT will exacerbate problems of an aging nuclear stockpile.
When the United States was still conducting explosive tests and producing new weapons, it could replace weapons before serious aging concerns arose. Under the CTBT, the process of replacement will stop.

REASON No. 5 The CTBT will constrain improvements in the safety of weapons in the stockpile.
Not all the weapons currently in the stockpile contain the full array of safety features. The inability to test will bar the creation of new nuclear weapons with the improved safety features.

REASON No. 6. The Administration's nuclear stockpile maintenance program is based on unproven technology.
The SBSS program faces important scientific hurdles. Moreover, the treaty will bar nuclear tests that could be used to confirm that the new technologies are working as anticipated.

REASON No. 7: The CTBT will exacerbate the problem of decreasing diversity in the stockpile.
By 2000, it is expected that there will be only nine types of nuclear warheads in the stockpile. In 1985, there were 30. Problems in just one type of weapon could result in the withdrawal of a large portion of the warheads from the active stockpile.

REASON No. 8: The Clinton Administration, and perhaps future administrations, will find ways to "fudge" the certification process regarding the safety and reliability of nuclear weapons.
To protect the CTBT and not be forced into withdrawing the United States from the treaty, the Secretaries of Defense and Energy may be asked not to look too hard for problems in the stockpile.

REASON No. 9: Forces outside the control of the Clinton Administration could undermine both the withdrawal pledge and the SBSS program over time.
While President Clinton can shape the policy for maintaining the safety, reliability, and effectiveness of U.S. nuclear weapons under the CTBT, future administrations are not bound by it. Congress in the future may choose not to fund the SBSS program. And heavy pressure from foreign states and arms-control groups may prompt future administrations to abandon the program.

Members of the Senate should recognize that the practical effect of ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty will be eventual U.S. nuclear disarmament. The United States cannot maintain a stockpile of safe, reliable, and effective nuclear weapons if it is barred from testing them. The Senate should uphold the existing policy of nuclear deterrence, which more than any other policy has protected the nation and its vital interests since the end of World War II.

Baker Spring is a Research Fellow in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


Baker Spring
Baker Spring

Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy