Test Ban Will Deny Fuel for the Arms Race

Eugene J. Carroll Jr. is the deputy director of the Center for Defense Information in Washington.

The good news is that the United States and the Soviet Union are coming closer to agreement on the elimination of all intermediate-range nuclear missiles. The bad news is that, while negotiations are in progress, both sides are testing and building new forms of nuclear weapons to expand their nuclear arsenals. And the worst news is that testing and building are progressing far more rapidly than the talks, which have been on again and off again for almost six years.

This pattern, unfortunately, is nothing new in the nuclear age. The talk-test-build approach to arms control has promised much and delivered painfully little for 20 years. During the decade of the 1970s, American and Soviet negotiators actually signed 10 agreements that purported to constrain the nuclear-arms race in one way or another. In the same decade each side legally tripled the number of nuclear warheads aimed at the other in long-range strategic systems.

According to Gen. John Vessey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the United States went from 3,742 to 9,808 deliverable strategic weapons and the Soviets from 1,861 to 5,764 between 1970 and 1979. The preponderance of these increases resulted from the fact that nuclear testing had made it possible to put multiple warheads onto both land- and sea-launched ballistic missiles.

Much the same pattern marks the decade of the 1980s. It now appears that the Soviets will agree to scrap about 1,565 nuclear warheads while the Americans junk about 400 weapons. These will be beneficial reductions when they occur, certainly not unfavorable to the United States, but they seem much less significant when it is noted that, while negotiations were in progress, both sides were testing and building whole new families of nuclear weapons. The two nations added about 5,400 strategic weapons while negotiating for six years to eliminate about 2,000 intermediate- and shorter-range weapons. This is talk-test-build arms control at its most futile.

After 20 years of experience, it seems clear that we can't hope to control nuclear arms if we continue to test and build new and more destructive weapons while we are talking about the old ones. The reason for this is obvious. New technology, developed through testing, is the fuel of the arms race.

Negotiations only address weapons in being, not new devices that are in the process of being perfected through testing. If either party has a particularly promising test program, it is jealously guarded in negotiations that drag on for years. Thus, when agreement is finally achieved, the new technology is frequently already in production, presumably conferring a military advantage on the proud inventor. The other party must then achieve a comparable capability to offset its perceived disadvantage, and the arms race is pushed up one more level in spite of the agreement that was supposed to limit competition.

The classic example of this process is the MIRV (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle) that the United States made possible through nuclear testing in the 1960s. It was U.S. deployment of MIRV missiles in the '70s, followed six years later by a Soviet catch-up program, that made the SALT I treaty largely meaningless.

The solution to the problem is obvious. Eliminate "test" from the talk-test-build arms-control process. Stop nuclear testing--now. This action would have two immediate benefits. First, it would eliminate the technological push--the fuel of the arms race. Second, it would send a clear signal that both sides were serious about the effort to reduce nuclear arsenals.

A longer-range benefit would be the reduced incentive to produce new weapons. With more than 50,000 nuclear weapons already on hand, the United States and the Soviet Union certainly don't need more nuclear weapons to destroy each other. New, not more, nuclear weapons have always been the lure, but untested weapons are both dangerous and unreliable, and cannot be safely produced or deployed. Therefore, a total test ban would ultimately choke off building. With testing and building out of the process, arms-control talks could finally affect real reductions in existing nuclear arsenals.

Is a mutual, verifiable test-ban treaty achievable? Yes--and easily, if the United States wants one. The Soviets' recent 19-month moratorium on nuclear testing gave positive evidence of their willingness to stop testing. On June 18 they tabled a draft test-ban treaty in Geneva that proposed positive on-site inspection measures plus the creation of an international agency to verify compliance with a test ban. They have offered to resume a moratorium on testing anytime the United States will stop. In effect, they have surrendered control of the issue to America, and we alone can decide when and if nuclear testing stops.

The choices are clear. The United States can go on with talk-test-build arms control indefinitely while nuclear arsenals grow larger and more destructive, or we can stop testing and building new weapons and bring about real reductions. In arguing for the test ban, Nobel Laureate Glenn T. Seaborg lends a note of urgency to the decision with his clear warning: "The hour is late. Let us hope not too late."

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