The State Department’s newly released fact sheet, “The Case for the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty: Some Key Points,” vividly demonstrates flawed assumptions behind the Administration’s desire to get this treaty ratified. If anything, the case remains at least as unconvincing as in 1999, when the U.S. Senate decided not to give its advice and consent to the ratification of the treaty.
Instead of going back to the negotiating table, the Obama Administration picked up where its predecessors left off and decided to make the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) another “key element” of the President’s so-called Integrated Nuclear Security Strategy. The fact sheet states that “the absence of U.S. ratification of the Treaty continues to limit our ability to promote a global ban.”
There is no historical evidence that would demonstrate a link between U.S. ability to promote the global ban and its own nuclear weapons testing. In fact, since the United States unilaterally stopped testing its arsenal in 1992, other states, such as France, Pakistan, India, and North Korea, conducted nuclear weapons tests. The Administration forgets that other states base their nuclear weapons testing—as well as their non-proliferation cooperation—on their national security interests, not on being a party to some treaty.
The fact sheet also claims that the treaty establishes a “robust verification regime.” Despite the progress on the International Monitoring System (IMS) that would be tasked with the monitoring of CTBT, the IMS would still not be able to detect militarily significant tests. Contrary to the State Department’s statement in the fact sheet, the IMS was unable to detect any radionuclides following North Korea’s nuclear weapons test in May 2009. Decoupled (or “hidden”) tests are—and will continue to be in the foreseeable future—impossible to detect for the IMS.
The State Department assumes that on-site inspections would help clarify ambiguities regarding a possible nuclear test. This is unlikely in a real-world scenario, because it would be difficult to gain the Executive Council’s (CTBT’s executive body) approval for an inspection in a timely manner—the window when radionuclides would allow states to determine the precise location of a test is short. It is impossible to prevent the offender from obstructionism within the framework of the multinational Executive Council.
Why it would be difficult to get the Executive Council to agree on an inspection? For starters, states that are parties to CTBT do not even share a common definition of what constitutes a nuclear weapons test. While the United States adheres to a zero-yield standard, essentially banning all nuclear weapons tests, Russia and China maintain that low-yield nuclear weapons tests would not violate the treaty. Even low-yield nuclear weapons tests, however, can lead to the development of militarily significant nuclear weapons capabilities.
The last statement in the fact sheet, “The United States Does Not Need to Conduct Nuclear Tests,” is purely a guess. No nuclear weapons expert would certify that the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal does not need testing indefinitely. In addition, certification is less likely over time as the United States is the only nuclear state that does not modernize its weapons. Forgoing the option to test the reliability of its arsenal—or to develop new designs, as new and emerging nuclear states such as Iran or North Korea threaten U.S. interests in vital regions—would be imprudent to say the least.
It bears mentioning that Iran and North Korea are two of 44 states that would have to sign and ratify the treaty so that it could enter into force. The United States would be bound by provisions of the treaty not applicable to its adversaries. Reasons for rejecting CTBT are as strong as ever, and no fact sheet will change this fact.