If U.S. Dumps Test Ban Treaty, China Will Rejoice

Hugh Gusterson is an associate professor in MIT's Program on Science, Technology and Society and author of the forthcoming book "Simulating Armageddon."

According to recent news reports, President Bush is looking for ways to bury the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and has directed the nuclear complex to move into a higher state of readiness for a nuclear test. Chinese President Jiang Zemin and hardliners in his government must be getting ready to break out the champagne, since no country stands to gain as much from a resumption of testing as China--except perhaps Russia, India, and Pakistan. The country with the most to lose is the United States.

When the CTBT was being negotiated in the mid-1990s, some Pentagon officials and scientists within the U.S. nuclear-weapons complex pushed for a treaty that would allow small nuclear tests of a few hundred tons. The Russian and Chinese delegations to the test-ban talks also wanted a treaty that permitted some testing: China wanted to exempt "peaceful" nuclear explosions (for canal and dam construction); the Russians wanted a treaty that allowed tests of a few hundred tons, thinking that this would make it easier to ensure that their aging nuclear weapons still worked and to maintain expertise at their nuclear-weapons laboratories.

After an extensive interagency debate, the U.S. government decided to hold out for a complete test ban. The U.S. concluded that it was much easier to verify a such a ban than a treaty that permitted, say, 200-ton but not 300-ton tests. U.S. defense officials also decided that, with 1,030 nuclear tests under its belt (versus 715 by the former Soviet Union and 45 by China), the U.S. had a well-tested and reliable nuclear stockpile that could not be greatly improved. The U.S. feared that further nuclear testing might enable other countries to catch up and hoped that a global ban on nuclear testing would be a daunting obstacle to countries seeking to develop anything but the most primitive and unreliable nuclear weapons. This decision, endorsed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was made not by starry-eyed antinuclear idealists, but by hard-headed realists in the defense bureaucracy, who saw a test ban as in the vital interest of the U.S. Retired Gen. John Shalikashvili, former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was commissioned by the White House last year to reevaluate that decision. He concluded that "an objective and thorough net assessment shows convincingly that U.S. interests, as well as those of friends and allies, will be served by the treaty's entry into force."

Conservative critics of the test ban treaty say that it prevents us from knowing if our weapons still work. While it is true that detonating a weapon provides the most literal assurance that a weapon works (or did until it was destroyed by the test), such tests were infrequent even in the heyday of nuclear testing, when they were mainly used to validate improvements to the arsenal. However, as part of a bargain within the defense bureaucracy, the Clinton administration replaced nuclear explosive testing with a handsomely funded program for simulated testing and non-destructive surveillance of the stockpile. This Stockpile Stewardship and Maintenance Program currently receives about $5 billion a year. No other country's nuclear-weapons establishment comes close to this. When the CTBT was negotiated, the Russians and the Chinese grumbled that it put the U.S. at an unfair advantage because its nuclear test experience and top-of-the-line simulation technology would enable it to care for its nuclear stockpile while theirs crumbled.

If the U.S. kills the CTBT, Russia and China will be able to test again. This will make it easier for the Russians, who cannot match the U.S. weapons stewardship program, to ensure that their poorly maintained weapons work and to train a new generation of weapons scientists. It will also make it easier for the Chinese, who currently have only single-warhead missiles, to perfect new missiles with multiple warheads. These will, of course, be a valuable asset against the Bush administration's cherished ballistic missile defense system.

Meanwhile, India, which tried to block the CTBT in the United Nations in 1996, would also welcome a resumption of testing. India's 1998 tests revealed design flaws in its hydrogen bombs, and Indian scientists are eager to test again to find out whether they have succeeded in correcting these flaws. If India tests, Pakistan will follow.

If the U.S. resumes nuclear testing, it will also run the risk of being perceived as what it likes to call a rogue state. When France broke its self-imposed testing moratorium in the early 1990s, it was surprised to find itself the target of protests and boycotts all over the world. President Francois Mitterand hurriedly cut short the series of tests. One of the reasons the five official nuclear powers agreed to surrender nuclear testing in the mid-1990s is that the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970--one of the few arms control treaties the Bush administration has not attacked--committed them to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the arms race at an early date." By 1995, the non-nuclear powers, running out of patience, were threatening not to extend the Non-Proliferation Treaty indefinitely without a test ban. In exchange for their extension of the treaty, the nuclear powers made a commitment to end nuclear testing. It would be no small thing to renege on this commitment.

Finally, a resumption of nuclear testing could well reawaken a sleeping giant at home--the domestic anti-nuclear movement. The Reagan administration's intensification of the arms race in the 1980s brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets of New York City for a protest in 1982--the largest street demonstration in American history. On a single day the same year, 1,300 people were arrested for civil disobedience at one of the three nuclear weapons laboratories in the U.S. Does the Bush administration want to return us to those days?

If the Bush administration buries the CTBT, it will enable the Russians, the Chinese, the Indians and the Pakistanis to narrow the gap between their nuclear stockpiles and ours, it will exacerbate international perceptions that the U.S. government lectures others on their behavior while doing as it pleases, and it threatens to unleash social unrest at home. This is a high price to pay for being a little more certain that the greatest nuclear arsenal on earth is still reliable.

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