Towards A Post-Test Ban Treaty World
Although no one has quite admitted it, the Senate's recent vote against a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty (CTBT) may close the books not only on the CTBT, but its other Cold War siblings -- Start III and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. What will decide the matter is whether the opponents of the CTBT can offer an alternative agenda for reducing the nuclear threat. If they do, their Senate victory will be seen as a start toward a more sensible set of strategic weapons policies. If they don't, their vote will be sullied as being just the opposite.
In fact, like the ABM Treaty and the deep cuts proposed under START III, the CTBT is derived from the Cold War logic of mutual assured destruction. This theory maintains that nuclear arsenals afford security only if they are kept small and targeted against the enemy's largest cities. Making more reliable, accurate, safer nuclear weapons (which entails nuclear testing) to attack the enemy's military capabilities is bad. Trying to defend against an opponent's few nuclear weapons with missile defenses is even worse. Why? Because such a move would only encourage one's nuclear opponents to build more offensive nuclear weapons to penetrate such defenses, prompting an arms rivalry that could only end in increased tensions, accidental launchings or war.
Thus, the Cold War arms control logic of banning nuclear innovation through a CTBT, dramatically reducing superpower strategic weapons arsenals, and prohibiting nationwide missile defenses through the ABM Treaty. Challenge any one of these three arms control pillars, and the entire triad is jeopardized. That, consciously or not, is precisely what the Senate vote did.
Conventional wisdom says that toppling this agenda is something that we should be squeamish about. Yet, whatever limited utility this arms control agenda might have served in restricting superpower rivalry during the Cold War, the prospect of a global nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia is now extremely remote.
What isn't is the prospect of un-deterrable wars that could be ignited or fanned by smaller nations' strategic weapons or by accidental launchings from Russia or China. In this world, the last thing the U.S. should push is an arms control agenda that glorifies the benefits of small nuclear arsenals targeted against cities and condemns all forms of national missile defense. Indeed, pursuing such an agenda is a sure-fire way to get more nations to think they should acquire small nuclear arsenals of their own.
Instead, the U.S. should back military and arms restraint efforts that discourage such proliferation and reduce the nuclear threats that already exist. As a first step, the U.S. should reduce the nagging uncertainties that now make its retention of over 9,000 nuclear weapons and the expenditure of billions to be ready to make more seem so necessary.
What uncertainties are these? The first is how many nuclear warheads and tons of weapon-usable materials (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) Russia and other nations have or are producing. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, our knowledge of what Russian has on hand and is producing could be off by 30 percent. This is the equivalent of over twice the total amount of weapons material contained in the entire deployed U.S. nuclear weapon force.
As for the world's holdings of "peaceful" weapons usable plutonium, what each country has is not known precisely but their stockpiles are large and growing. In fact, recent estimates indicate that nearly three times more bombs can be made from these civilian stocks than are currently contained in the combined strategic arsenals of Russia and the U.S. Tracking and disposing of this material (which is uneconomical for reactor use) will be a major challenge.
Then there's the question of how safe the U.S. nuclear arsenal can be made without nuclear testing. This one has as many high-powered scientists insisting that there's no risk as there are weapon engineers arguing that without testing an inadvertent nuclear explosion is inevitable. Last, but not least, is the worry that with further proliferation, many smaller, hostile nations could hold larger, more peaceful states hostage to strategic saber rattling. This, then, suggests what needs to be done:
First, stop pushing CTBT, START III, or the ABM Treaty and instead focus on reducing the uncertainties noted above. It may be impossible to track down all of the world's warheads and weapons usable materials but current levels of uncertainties are too high to make substantive reductions safe or practical. This, rather than pleading for new international treaties, should be topic one for the U.S., Russia, and any other nuclear materials producing nation.
Second, avoid dedicating more nuclear weapon expertise to resolve the endless controversies associated with implementing the CTBT. Instead, the U.S. should clarify what the criteria are for making nuclear weapons sufficiently safe, with or without testing.
Finally, ask our weapons laboratories (and those of other nations) to perfect nuclear archeological techniques to clarify how much nuclear weapons usable material has already been made and have them devise ways to make this material much more difficult to access.
Can this Post-CTBT agenda succeed? It's unclear but it can't help but be more sensible than continuing to push the ABM Treaty, START III and the CTBT. These are not only controversial on Capitol Hill, but also increasingly difficult to get past the Russian Duma. On the other hand, if other nations are unwilling to cooperate, the U.S. always can modernize its nuclear arsenal and develop new defenses to cope.
Such a military build up, though, is hardly optimal. After all, defenses of any sort (including missile defenses) work best against small or declining threats. Nor is nuclear deterrence a sure bet as more nations acquire strategic weapons of their own.
A safer world would be one in which U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons declined along with nations' nuclear materials and weapons holdings. Although it would not be free of risk, this world would be one in which the military would be less interested in investing in offensive nuclear weapons than in non-nuclear defenses to insure against the security uncertainties that remained. It would, in short, be a world in which America's security and its efforts to reduce nuclear weapons would be at peace.