By John Erath
On October 11, I published some reactions to the Russian announcement revoking signature of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). That post focused on Russia and why its leadership chose to take this step and made the case for renewed U.S. administration efforts to ratify CTBT. In this post, I want to look in greater detail at what this means for U.S. nuclear weapons.
I was fortunate recently to tour the Nevada National Security Site, courtesy of the NNSA, and had the opportunity to understand better how the U.S. nuclear weapons enterprise is oriented away from nuclear testing in favor of other avenues for promoting safety and security of nuclear weapons.
Since the negotiation of the CTBT in the 1990s, the Departments of Energy and Defense have routinely stated that testing that would violate the treaty was not needed to be confident of the safety and security of the stockpile. This was somewhat misleading. The reality is not simply that explosive testing remains unnecessary, but that the entire nuclear weapons program, including the current modernization, has been specifically designed so as not to require further testing such as was done during the Cold War. In other words, should Russia and/or China decide to cast aside the de facto moratorium on testing observed since the CTBT’s completion, there would be no imperative for the United States to follow suit.
The argument in favor of resuming nuclear testing, therefore, leans on two factors. First, the idea that there might be some science-fiction level technologies emerging, whether in the United States or elsewhere, that cannot be properly evaluated by current subcritical experiments and simulation. Given that we already know that existing and planned nuclear weapons will remain effective for meeting the National Security Strategy’s “defense and deterrence” requirement, and that current nuclear modernization plans are designed to account for foreseeable threats, the possibility of such technologies suddenly emerging is beyond remote.
The other potential argument in favor of testing is political. U.S. competitors routinely seek to twist international law to impose constraints on American freedom of action, so the argument goes, in order to weaponize American insistence on following rules when they do not do so. By testing in defiance of a global standard, the United States would demonstrate that it cannot be so bound. This is a misleading argument. A global standard is in the U.S. interest. The current de facto moratorium on nuclear testing is far more to the advantage of the United States than a world in which nuclear tests are common would be. The United States has far more previous test data than any other government, as well as significant advantages in computer simulation and subcritical testing. Should other governments resume testing, the United States will still be able to deter nuclear adventurism without following suit.
In a time when nuclear threats and buildups threaten to return the world to a Cold War-like situation, this is good news.
The work being done by NNSA to validate U.S. nuclear weapons without testing should remain an element of nuclear policy with one important caveat: the experiments being conducted at the Nevada National Security Site are highly expensive and need continuous review and evaluation to ensure that the benefits are worth the cost. That said, however, given Russia’s reliance on nuclear threats, China increasing its nuclear forces and North Korea remaining a militaristic pariah, a return to the days when nuclear tests were commonplace would further build perceptions that nuclear war is more likely, and having the ability to provide for nuclear safety and security through other means is advantageous.