Nuclear Test Ban Treaty at 15: A Status Update Recap

Nov 30, 2011


By Eli Jacobs
On Monday the Heinrich Böll Foundation and Arms Control Association co-sponsored an event about the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Two speakers presented on each of two important issues surrounding the treaty. Marvin Adams and Linton Brooks discussed the Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP), tasked with maintaining the safety and reliability of our nuclear stockpile in the absence of explosive testing. Jenifer Mackby and Daryl Kimball then discussed the CTBT itself, Mackby focusing on the international monitoring system and dramatic developments in monitoring technologies, and Kimball on the prospects of U.S. treaty ratification.
Adams argued that, while the SSP has been successful thus far, it faces challenges based on four changes in the weapons complex: warhead aging, manufacturing errors, deeper understanding, and deliberate physical changes to meet new requirements (such as greater safety or lower yield) through Life Extension Programs (LEPs). Most crucial in ensuring an effective response to these challenges is the continued expertise of our nuclear scientists. This expertise binds together the three means of assessing the performance of nuclear warheads: science, past tests, and experiments.
Brooks insisted that the United States would not test nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future. The political bar is too high to pursue this track – even basic maintenance of testing sites could not get Congressional funding. Further, the conditions where the United States would need to test (it needs a new weapon, it needs to improve our weapons’ safety or security, or it discovers a problem and needs to re-certify a warhead system) do not seem as if they could realistically emerge. Importantly, nuclear tests were not intended for quality control or to ensure that our warhead designs worked, but to gather data, and the SSP has proved more than capable of fulfilling this function.
Mackby described the verification provisions of the CTBT, which are designed to prevent clandestine testing. They comprise (1) the International Monitoring System, which consists of a complex array of over 300 stations, including land- and ocean-based sensors, and 16 labs; (2) the International Data Center; and (3) on-site inspections.  Although the CTBT is obligated to monitor the globe impartially, states can emphasize particular points of interest for political reasons, creating the potential for regional monitoring within, for example, the EU or various nuclear weapons-free zones. This more localized monitoring can include technologies not included in the IMS, such as advanced satellite imagery. If a test is detected after the CTBT has entered into force, 30 out of 51 Executive Council members must agree to an on-sight inspection to determine non-compliance. Unlike the IAEA, [Edit: the CTBT Technical Secretariat] does not have the capability to independently judge states to be noncompliant.
Kimball summarized the benefits of the CTBT: it achieves nonproliferation goals without sacrificing U.S. interests, since testing is not necessary to guarantee nuclear reliability. Realistically, the next chance to secure passage will be in 2013, after the next presidential election. However, the Obama administration can lay the groundwork in the interim – pursuing fact-based dialogue with Senate staff, appointing a White House coordinator, and rebutting the claim that the CTBT does not define a nuclear test. Only sustained executive leadership will allow for Senate ratification.
The audience pursued three major lines of questioning. The first was whether there would be a linkage between continued funding for nuclear weapons modernization and the Senate’s willingness to ratify. Brooks stated that, in principle, there’s no real linkage, since our decision not to sign the CTBT does not change our approach to modernization. However, there is assumed to be a political connection between these issues that may influence the ratification debate. Further, a wildcard is the House, whose Energy and Water Committee controls SSP funding allocations through the Department of Energy. If the executive and Senate have a debate to the exclusion of the House, it’s unclear that House spending priorities will match those of the Senate.
The second question was whether Iran must test in order to possess a nuclear capability. Brooks referenced South Africa and Israel, both of whom are commonly understood to have developed quite sophisticated nuclear arsenals without nuclear testing. However, the problem of developing a nuclear warhead small enough to mount atop a ballistic missile and deliver is much more challenging and may be facilitated by nuclear tests. Thus, there are benefits to getting Iran to sign the CTBT even if it decides to pursue a clandestine nuclear weapons program.
The third question was about the prospects for an on-site inspection should Iran test after the CTBT had entered into force. Mackby said that an on-site inspection could be approved for Iran, since the five nuclear weapons states and some of their allies will have seats on the CTBT’s Executive Council. Brooks argued that international regimes such as the CTBT are helpful even if they aren’t universally followed; for example, ratifying wouldn’t prompt North Korea to denuclearize, but it would facilitate multilateral sanctions by demonstrating U.S. commitment to disarmament obligations contained in Article VI of the NPT. Although India and Pakistan engaged in tit-for-tat tests in 1998, even after the CTBT was opened for signature, Kimball pointed to their subsequent decision to stop testing as evidence of the CTBT’s normative force.
To me, that this normative power exists even without the treaty entering into force mitigates the benefits to be achieved by signing it. It’s certainly the case that U.S. ratification would be powerful in convincing other states to ratify. China has explicitly pledged that it would sign if the U.S. does, and India and Pakistan would likely follow. And Brooks mentioned that even Iran would have trouble turning down a trilateral deal that secured their ratification along with Egypt’s and Israel’s.
However, the entry of the treaty into force should not be understood as ensuring the absence of tests. Aside from the threat of multilateral sanctions, there’s no punishment for violating a treaty and there's a provision for withdrawal. Although most states would be inclined not to test, it’s fairly easy to imagine scenarios of dire national security need that may compel a return to testing. A dangerous neighborhood and uncertainty about current nuclear capabilities, the need to demonstrate resolve to deter hostile military action, the requirement for greater confidence in nuclear capabilities in the midst of an ongoing conventional war, and so on.
Of course, the range of scenarios that would result in testing would be reduced by the entry of the treaty into force. However, given the current strength of the anti-testing norm, it’s hard to speak too specifically about what these scenarios are. What conditions would compel states to test now that would not compel them to test in the presence of a CTBT? There are certainly some, but the vagueness of how a CTBT would factor into states’ calculations of national interest makes this benefit very difficult to quantify.
Unfortunately, this ambiguity may play a role in the backseat position taken by the CTBT in recent political discussions, despite Obama’s early support for the treaty. Although a CTBT would serve our national interests, the political realities of Senate ratification, in light of the difficult fight over New START, may make Obama hesitate before committing his limited time and political resources to an objective with such long-term and uncertain benefit. Unfortunately, this does not augur well for the prospects of future U.S. ratification, especially given the economic and budgetary issues consuming political attention.
Eli Jacobs is a research intern for the Project on Nuclear Issues. The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues.