Nuclear Test Ban--How Big a Loss? : Verdict Isn’t In on Whether Total Halt Is Wise or Achievable

<i> Ernest Conine is a Times editorial writer</i>

Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, anticipating the explosion of a U.S. nuclear device last week in the face of Soviet calls for a joint test moratorium, warned the Reagan Administration not to think of the Soviets as “chickenhearts.”

That is good advice. But it is equally important that Gorbachev not be led to believe that we are a nation of simpletons.

From the outset, the Soviet campaign for a comprehensive nuclear-test moratorium has been conducted as a propaganda exercise, not as serious diplomacy.

Last summer’s announcement of a self-imposed Soviet moratorium was timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The campaign ended last week with the Soviet cosmonauts protesting U.S. testing plans in a broadcast from the heavens.


The Soviets could not have thought that such showboating would cause President Reagan to change his mind about a test moratorium, but they must be mightily pleased with the political mileage that they gained from the exercise.

The ground had hardly stopped shaking at the Nevada test site last week when some U.S. allies expressed their displeasure. Many Americans have been persuaded that if Reagan would just get onto the moratorium bandwagon, an end to the nuclear-arms race would be at hand.

A total test ban is indeed an interesting, potentially promising approach to arms control. But the issue is hardly clear-cut. Even a prudently negotiated agreement would involve trade-offs that merit careful, up-front consideration.

The test-ban issue involves two questions--advisability and negotiability. Take advisability first:


The Administration’s resistance to a comprehensive test ban is based in part on its desire to continue with nuclear-pumped laser experiments for the Strategic Defense Initiative. Many test-ban proponents want a test ban to head off such experiments. But the test-ban debate would exist if Reagan had never dreamed up “Star Wars.”

Some advocates argue that with a test ban both sides would increasingly lose faith in the reliability of their nuclear stockpiles, and would therefore be less tempted to use them. Other proponents say that a test ban would not prevent checks on the reliability of nuclear weapons--or even the development of new warheads--through the testing of non-nuclear components. Both arguments cannot be true.

Assuming that a permanent test ban would slow the onrush of nuclear-weapons technology, is that advisable? The standard answer is yes, but there are dissenters.

Albert Wohlstetter is a preeminent defense expert who has spent much of his career arguing that nuclear weapons should be designed to kill as few people as possible commensurate with their military purpose. If a total test ban had been in existence since 1957, he says, there would be no “permissive action links"--designed to protect against unauthorized firing of nuclear weapons--nor would we have had the progressive downsizing that has reduced the nuclear yield of U.S. weapons by a factor of 15 since 1957. He argues against foreclosing the prospect of more such improvements.


Some experts worry that if each side had less faith in the reliability of its nuclear weapons, significant cuts in the size of the arsenals might actually be harder to negotiate because both powers would want large stockpiles as a form of insurance.

But let’s stipulate that, on balance, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages of a total test ban. Getting one is still a formidable task.

Keep in mind, first, that what may be a convenient time for one side to halt testing is most always inconvenient for the other. Does anybody believe that Gorbachev would have accepted if Reagan had declared a moratorium a year ago and asked the Soviets to join in before they completed their 1985 cycle of tests? As a practical matter the timing, as well as the substance, of a test ban must be negotiated.

Also, a moratorium by nature would be impermanent and not subject to on-site inspections into possible violations. The real need is not for a moratorium but for a carefully drawn treaty.


Prof. Herbert York of the University of California, San Diego, who was President Jimmy Carter’s chief negotiator in the last attempt to get a comprehensive test ban, warns that a moratorium would not necessarily facilitate a permanent agreement. He believes that the existence of a moratorium would have made his own negotiating efforts more, rather than less, difficult.

Most test-ban discussions leave out the fact that the French, British and Chinese all have their own nuclear arsenals and testing programs. Moscow conceivably would be willing to sign an interim agreement with Washington in the hope that the others could be brought on board later. But it’s unlikely that the Soviets would allow the capabilities of their nuclear laboratories to erode while they were finding out.

Finally, Administration talk about the need to negotiate adequate verification provisions is in part, no doubt, a cover for its fundamental lack of interest in a comprehensive test ban at this time. But verification is a real negotiating problem.

Gorbachev has genially offered to accept on-site inspections “where necessary.” Most test-ban advocates have managed not to notice the qualification, which means that the Soviets would remain the judge of whether to allow on-site investigation of suspicious seismic disturbances.


This jungle of complications does not justify the abandonment of a comprehensive test ban as an ultimate goal. But it may mean, as York suggests, that it should not be the top arms-control priority.

“A comprehensive test ban is a valid goal,” he says, “but I have concluded that it is not a good first step toward true arms control. I don’t believe that such an agreement is practical as long as the great powers are so heavily committed to nuclear weapons for their national security.”

Arms-control advocates might be better advised to spend their energies on behalf of non-nuclear substitutes for nuclear weapons, and of negotiations concentrating on areas where Reagan and Gorbachev are closer to agreement--major cuts in the nuclear arsenals on both sides.