Testing the World's Patience
You would think with the current hysteria about nuclear proliferation, 8 out of 10 Americans supporting a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty (CTBT), 170 states signed onto the CTBT, 180 monitoring sites established, and the US military stating that a test ban should be in force that such a treaty would exist. Well, alas such optimism would be misguided. In 1999, the US senate refused by a margin of 48 to 51 (2/3rd majority is required for all US treaty ratification) to ratify the treaty signed by President Clinton. Despite the best efforts of the arms control community, the CTBT, the result of five painstaking years of negotiation, has been languishing on the sidelines of international affairs. This fact is as frustrating as it is dangerous.
The opponents of a comprehensive test ban treaty tend to argue the following points:
1) US nuclear weapons will not be as safe without regular testing
2) Confidence in the reliability of the nuclear stockpile will decline in the absence of nuclear testing
3) The CTBT is not completely verifiable. It is possible for states to cheat for military gain, without the possibility of detection
4) New nuclear designs cannot be developed without testing.
Note there is a difference between safety and reliability. Safety makes sure that the weapons do not detonate when they are not supposed to and reliability ensures that they do detonate when they are supposed to. While opponents do present legitimate concerns about the problems of the CTBT, these are ultimately not sufficient reasons not to ratify the treaty. Moreover, they display a profound ignorance of the political factors that drive nuclear proliferation. First, any freeze in the nuclear testing would secure America’s lead in nuclear weapons technology. The US not only had the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world but also, as a result of an advanced scientific and academic infrastructure, the most technically advanced ones. It would be hard, as opponents of the CTBT decry, for nuclear weapons states to develop new nuclear weapons in the absence of nuclear tests. Thus the CTBT would help promote U.S. national security. Second, the issue of the reliability of the US nuclear stockpile is potentially irrelevant. If American nuclear laboratories are unsure of the reliability of their weapons, it is unlikely that America’s enemies will have any more of an idea. However, deterrence is not likely to be weakened as a consequence since no opponent will bank on the possibility that an American riposte will prove to be a dud. Besides, given the sheer size of the US armory, if one warhead fails there are sufficiently more to compensate. Nuclear weapons are, as Kenneth Waltz explains, existential deterrents. The threat they pose is so great, that even the hint of their use is often sufficient to deter enemies. Indeed this is traditionally how the US has compelled enemies to change their behavior in China in 1953 and the Suez in 1956. Because nuclear weapons are existential deterrents, the issue of whether they would actually work 100% of the time really misses the point. Unless the US plans to start using kiloton-range nuclear weapons on a regular basis, where issues of reliability could conceivably come into play strategically and economically, this issue is spurious. Americans can thus reap the profits of both nuclear deterrence and CTBT. Third, the CTBT would help America better detect nuclear tests because of the international network of seismic, hydro-acoustic, satellite, airborne radionuclide detection stations. Because the CTBTO is an international organization, it can gain better access for detection than the U.S. can gain on its own. Because of this extensive and growing network of stations, the CTBTO can reliably detect explosions greater than 1 kiloton and often explosions less than a 1 kt. Critics of the CTBT argue that states can cheat on their obligations by conducting explosions of less than 1 kt or by masking (decoupling in the arms control jargon) tests with other conventional explosives such as those used in mining. Detractors also argue that small explosions conducted in sealed underground cavities could elude international monitoring. A few rejoinders need to be made about these points. The issues of decoupling and cavity tests are not as straightforward as they seem. Usually mining explosions are conducted in a serial or “ripple” fashion, not in one single great explosion. Therefore their seismic pattern is noticeably different from that of a small-scale nuclear test. It is also generally easier to distinguish major mining areas from nuclear test sites. The issue of underground cavity tests, while theoretically possible does not detract from the utility of a CTBT. There is very little information than can be obtained from a small nuclear test conducted in sub-optimal test conditions needed to maintain secrecy. While this may not be as big an issue for seasoned nuclear powers such as Russia and China, these are major obstacles for new nuclear proliferators such as North Korea and Iran. Besides, new nuclear states will actually want to communicate their nuclear deterrent by proving their capability through testing. The construction of an underground cavity designed to avoid detection and the release of radioactive debris can be a large-scale operation that can blow the cover of a covert nuclear program. Note the construction of underground facilities in North Korea provided the US with major signals about the North’s nuclear program. In the 1980s, the drilling of a rudimentary testing shaft by South Africa pushed the US to arrest a potential nuclear test by the Apartheid regime. Thus even if the CTBT cannot detect all nuclear tests, it can reliably detect the vast majority of them, and lay additional tripwires to detect proliferators. We can expect that constantly improving detection technology will increase the reliability of the treaty in the future. The treaty will thus naturally become more robust over time without any need to negotiate new clauses. It would be naïve to see the CTBT as a panacea for nuclear testing and proliferation, but it would be equally foolish to reject its utility. Critics of the CTBT and other arms control treaties state that unless the agreements are perfectly verifiable, they will lull the international community into a dangerously false sense of security. Such comments are mind-boggling. It is difficult to believe that some detection capability would be more dangerous than no detection capability at all. It is also inconceivable that America, with its current obsession over terrorism and proliferation would be willing to put the issue on the backburner. Indeed, with the stakes so high, the international community will continue to view rogue states with the greatest suspicion. Indeed the very opposite will happen by rejecting the CTBT. Such contempt for international law hampers American arms control efforts. The treaty does not need to be perfectly flawless to be useful. The NPT clearly has its flaws, as shown by the debacle over Iraq’s and North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs in the 1990, but remains a cornerstone of the nonproliferation regime. Perhaps the reason for the US’s knee jerk reaction against the CTBT lies in its own desire to design and test new nuclear weapons. While it is true that impressive advances in computer modeling technology do not obviate the necessity of weapon testing, developing new nuclear weapons does substantial and unnecessary damage to the nonproliferation regime. In the words of an Indian academic, the US cannot continue to preach nuclear abstinence while itself engage in nuclear promiscuity. The nuclear apartheid enshrined in the NPT promotes nuclear proliferation by attributing prestige and perceived power to the to these kinds of weapons. This is why Article VI of the NPT requires the nuclear powers to engage in eventual nuclear disarmament. By seeking new ways to use nuclear weapons, the US would breach the spirit of the NPT, erode the nuclear taboo, and push states to acquire these weapons to avoid being the target of them. This nuclear hypocrisy is best epitomized by the American strategy of using nuclear bunker busters to destroy foreign stockpiles of WMD. Numerous studies have shown that these weapons would have limited utility since it will always be easier to build deeper bunkers than more performing earth penetrators and because the radioactive debris will limit their uses in inhabited areas where future WMDs could be placed. More to the point, the miniaturization of nuclear weapons eventually makes the use of fission devices useless. Large conventional weapons such as massive ordinance aerial bombs (MOABs) and so-called “daisy cutters” can deliver the same payload as small nuclear weapons without the breaking the nuclear taboo or creating radioactive fallout. The argument about developing new nuclear weapons betrays a parallel agenda in the debate. The problem lies in the fact that the same people in the national laboratories (such as Los Alamos, Sandia, and Livermore) who inform our decisions about the CTBT are those whose livelihood depends on continued nuclear testing. This could explain the flip-flopping of the Los Alamos’s endorsement then rejection of the CTBT. What these positions also do is put the technical before the political. Since proliferation and arms races are above all political phenomena (the weapons do not build themselves) political considerations should take precedence over the technical considerations about the desirability of constructing new weapons and testing the reliability of old ones. The technical benefits of resuming testing are far outweighed by the political fallout and at the end of the day, all that counts is political. If the US is serious about nonproliferation, it will need to reign in its own program, design new ways to ensure the safety of its nuclear stockpile and sign the CTBT. Its time to get serious about proliferation, and we are only doing ourselves harm by stalling on the CTBT.
For more info:
The CTBTO: http://www.ctbto.org
Nuclear Threat Initiative: http://www.nti.org/e_research/e3_9c.html
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (pro-CTBT): http://www.ceip.org/files/projects/npp/resources/ctbt.htm
The National Insitute for Public Policy (anti-CTBT): http://www.nipp.org/3.php