Sens. Cotton and Lankford: Why the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is still a bad idea

The Obama administration has recently started to pitch the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to the American people.  As they begin yet another politically motivated public relations campaign, it’s important to remember the Senate rejected this deeply defective treaty in 1999, and the case against ratification today is stronger than it was then. 

In the shadow of another North Korean nuclear test, illicit rocket launch, and the catastrophic Iran nuclear deal, the Obama administration advocating for a flawed international nuclear-weapons treaty is mindboggling.  This is the same administration that brought us the futile “Russian Reset,” three new North Korean nuclear tests, and the New START Treaty capitulation.  And that doesn’t include the legacy of letting the bedrock of security in Europe for the last three decades, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, crumble on President Obama’s watch.

Those issues aside, the CTBT is simply not in our national-security interests. First, the U.S. nuclear deterrent is vital to our security.  It’s what prevents major powers, like Russia or China, or rogue regimes, like North Korea or Iran, from attempting a nuclear strike against the United States and allies.  But that deterrent is greatly diminished—and the prospect for nuclear war greatly increased—if there is any doubt about the readiness of U.S. weapons.  Our safety and security depends on the working order of our nuclear forces and there is no room for error.  This is especially true at a time when Russia is issuing nuclear threats against NATO allies.  Our nuclear forces are only a deterrent if they are credible.  

Nuclear weapons do not improve with age. They are composed of inherently unstable parts and materials whose nature changes over time. And while advances in supercomputing and modeling, along with adequate funding for maintenance programs, provide a degree of security in the aging of these weapons, they aren’t perfect. There may come a day when weapons specialists will tell the President they cannot certify the viability of the U.S. nuclear-weapons stockpile without taking a weapon off of the shelf and testing it.  On that day, the President should not be forced to decide between violating a legally binding treaty or putting the security of the United States at risk.    

Second, the treaty doesn’t define the activity that it purports to ban: nuclear weapons-testing.  The Clinton administration determined that the United States would define the CTBT as prohibiting tests that produce any nuclear yield.  But other states, including Russia, have not agreed to that definition.  A “ban” that lets treaty signatories decide for themselves what constitutes a test is no “ban” at all.  This means that under the Clinton interpretation of the CTBT, Russia and other U.S. adversaries would have the ability to conduct tests to improve the effectiveness and reliability of their nuclear stockpiles, but the U.S. would not.  For instance, Russia, which is modernizing its nuclear weapons, could improve warheads designed for an autonomous underwater nuclear-delivery system and low-yield strikes in Europe.  

Those who might claim that Russia would never violate the spirit of the CTBT should remember that Russia signed the CTBT in 1996, but according to the 2009 report of the bipartisan Perry-Schlesinger Commission on America’s Strategic Posture, “apparently Russia and possibly China are conducting low yield tests.” In contrast, the United States has not carried out a test producing any nuclear yield since President George H. W. Bush directed a moratorium on testing in 1992.   

Third, compliance with the CTBT would be unverifiable. While verification technologies have advanced in the last 17 years, so have the ways our enemies hide or mask illicit tests. In some instances, underground tests of small tactical nuclear weapons could be carried out with no abnormal seismic activity detected. And where seismic activity is detectable, we can’t be sure that current technology could confirm a test by detecting radioactive traces.  As the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, General Vincent Stewart, recently testified, no radionuclides have been detected from the North Korea nuclear test that occurred over three months ago and they have a “very robust capability to deceive, contain, hide their full capability and capacity.”

The room for cheating in the CTBT highlights a reoccurring problem with treaties: while the U.S. honors its agreements, rogue nations and Russia do not.  This has been the rule, not the exception. Look no further than the INF Treaty, Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, Open Skies Treaty, Chemical Weapons Convention, and Biological Weapons Convention to see examples of Russia’s tortured definition of compliance. If the CTBT enters into force, the United States would be legally bound to its obligations. No reasonable person can say it would bind countries like Russia, China, Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran in this same way. 

In 1999, the Senate rejected the poorly negotiated and unverifiable CTBT.  It should remain dead.

Republican Tom Cotton represents Arkansas in the United States Senate.

Republican James Lankford represents Oklahoma in the United States Senate.

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