The recent op-ed by James Woolsey and Keith Payne “Reconsidering the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty” (CTBT) describes the treaty as “an ineffectual gesture that could do more harm than good.” It is hard to disagree with this conclusion.
There are many persistent problems with the treaty, which the U.S. Senate wisely rejected in 1999. Nevertheless, the Obama Administration chose to rejuvenate the treaty and try to get the Senate to ratify it—unchanged.
The Administration hopes that the U.S. ratification of the treaty would prevent proliferation and bring about a change in the thinking of North Korean and Iranian leaders. This is unlikely, because both countries determine whether they become a party to CTBT based on their national interest, not on the U.S. participation.
While the United States has not tested its nuclear weapons since 1992, North Korea has tested its nuclear weapons repeatedly, and Iran remains in violation of its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments. India, Pakistan, and France tested their nuclear weapons during this period as well.
Even if the treaty would enter into force, it would be impossible to enforce. First, CTBT does not really define what constitutes a nuclear weapons test. While the United States adheres to a zero-yield standard—meaning no nuclear testing whatsoever—other countries maintain that low-yield nuclear weapons tests would not constitute a violation of the treaty.
Second, while the International Monitoring System (IMS)—a worldwide network of observational technology for verification of the treaty—achieved progress, the system would not be capable of detecting decoupled nuclear weapon tests. The IMS was unable to detect any radionuclides following North Korea’s nuclear weapons test in May 2009.
On-site inspections, part of the CTBT’s verification regime, would probably not be useful in a real-world scenario, because it would be difficult to gain the approval of the multinational Executive Council (CTBT’s executive body) for an inspection in a timely manner, since the window when radionuclides would allow states to determine the precise location of a test is short and the obstructionism of the offending state is impossible to prevent.
The major flaw of the treaty is its assumption that the United States will not need to test its nuclear weapons at any point in the future. This is wrong. The U.S. is the only nuclear weapons country without a substantial modernization program. Currently, the average age of other U.S. components of the triad is 21 years for the Trident II D-5 SLBM, 50 years for the B-52H bomber, 14 years for the B-2 bomber, and 28 years for the Ohio-class submarine. No one involved in the original Minuteman intercontinental-range ballistic missile design is active in the program.
The United States will have to resume its testing, and CTBT would be a dangerous political obstacle to what has to be done to keep the U.S. arsenal safe, secure, and reliable.