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Consider Tech Risk When Debating Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

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Should the U.S. finally ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)?

Disarmament advocates say yes. They’re pointing to a new report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) as evidence that the technical issues surrounding the treaty have been resolved.

They’re wrong. Contrary to these accounts, technical and policy disagreements related to CTBT remain.

CTBT would permanently prohibit explosive tests of nuclear weapons by the U.S. Members of the Senate rejected the treaty 12 years ago, yet President Obama has repeatedly called for them to reconsider it.

Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association, for example, in a March 30 article, wrote, “The new NAS report, The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: Technical Issues for the United States, reaffirms the United States no longer needs — and would not benefit from — nuclear explosive testing.”

And a Bloomberg editorial, to cite another example, states the study shows the U.S. doesn’t need to test to maintain a safe arsenal and credible deterrent.

The authors of the NAS report do assert that maintaining a safe, secure, reliable and effective nuclear arsenal is achievable without explosive testing. Unfortunately, they do not acknowledge there are others within the nuclear weapons and scientific technical community who don’t share their confidence.

It was just these kinds of disagreements that caused the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States to report in May 2009 that it could not reach a consensus position regarding U.S. ratification of the test ban treaty. The commission agreed on more than 100 issues related to U.S. nuclear weapons; only CTBT divided it.

For example, opponents of treaty ratification on the commission stated that “maintaining a safe, reliable nuclear stockpile in the absence of testing entails real technical risks that cannot be eliminated by even the most sophisticated ... program, because full validation of these programs is likely to require testing over time.”

One enduring question is whether explosive tests are necessary or helpful to discover safety and reliability problems with weapons. As Baker Spring, The Heritage Foundation’s principal strategic weapons analyst, has pointed out, some technical people are likely to assert that many of the nuclear weapons in the stockpile underwent post-deployment testing to resolve problems, and that problems were discovered in many of those cases.

Another issue is whether CTBT ratification would prevent improvements in the safety of the weapons in the stockpile. For example, would CTBT foreclose innovative technologies that could make nuclear weapons unusable should they fall into unauthorized hands? And would such innovations necessitate testing?

Another important question is whether the U.S. can maintain a credible deterrent with a prohibition on testing. The U.S. nuclear arsenal was designed to deter the Soviet Union, not non-state actors with weapons of mass destruction or states with smaller nuclear arsenals. Do changes in the strategic environment necessitate modernizing and testing U.S. nuclear weapons to meet emerging threats in a changing world? Supporters of the CTBT acknowledge the treaty would impede such innovations.

Of course, there are also major policy issues. The most prominent technical issue that intersects with policy is the Obama administration’s policy of nuclear disarmament. CTBT is not silent on this issue: Paragraph 5 of the preamble plainly states the goal of CTBT is to bring about nuclear disarmament through nuclear atrophy.

At the policy level, it is impossible to reconcile the goal of disarmament pursued through a prohibition on explosive nuclear testing with preserving a safe, secure and reliable nuclear arsenal. A stockpile-stewardship program designed to prevent atrophy in the nuclear arsenal is incompatible with the treaty’s stated intent. Treaty advocates fail to acknowledge this inherent contradiction.

Accordingly, most proponents of U.S. ratification of the CTBT, both here and abroad, are likely to object to every specific step in the stockpile-stewardship program that serves to sustain the U.S. nuclear stockpile and arsenal, including those recommended by the NAS study, following U.S. ratification of the CTBT.

Finally, in the course of any future ratification debate in the U.S., treaty proponents are likely to make all sorts of commitments to stockpile stewardship to win Senate approval. It’s worth recalling that during Senate consideration of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, Obama promised to provide enough funds to modernize the aging U.S. nuclear arsenal and infrastructure. Such modernization was deemed critical to win Senate support.

The president has walked away from these commitments, most recently in his fiscal 2013 budget request. This experience is instructive for any member of Congress who would consider supporting CTBT, when commitments may be abandoned by those seeking “nuclear zero.”

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Owen Graham, a research coordinator for national security and foreign policy in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation, Washington.

First appeared in Defense News

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