A “Grand Deal” on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: A Faustian Bargain

September 16, 2005 • Commentary

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a multilateral agreement that bans all explosive nuclear testing, is mired in the Senate. Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms refuses to allow hearings or a vote on the treaty until the Clinton administration submits two other signed treaties for scrutiny. One way for the administration to spring the treaty from Helms’s clutches is to make a three‐​way “grand deal” that would keep all interested parties happy. Some Senate Republicans will not accept CTBT unless they are assured that a limited national missile defense (NMD) will be quickly deployed. Russia, in turn, will not accept limited NMD unless the United States agrees to deep bilateral cuts in offensive strategic nuclear weapons — perhaps a reduction from 6,000 to 1,500 warheads each. Because of the Russian economic crisis, many experts predict that the number of functional warheads in Russia’s future nuclear force will decline to 1,000 or below, making Russia more willing to accept limited missile defenses to retain rough nuclear parity with the United States.

Making a grand deal that accepts deep offensive cuts, crash deployment of NMD, and the CTBT all add up to a Faustian bargain for the United States. The substantial gains to U.S. security from offensive warhead reductions and the deployment of a limited NMD are still not worth the potential security risks of ratifying the CTBT. Both administration and congressional Democrats who want to cut the grand deal and the Republicans in Congress who want to sell out opposition to the CTBT to get quick limited NMD deployment have misplaced priorities for the nation’s security.

The goal of maintaining a safe, reliable and militarily effective offensive nuclear deterrent should be the highest priority in U.S. national security, regardless of how many warheads the United States or any potential adversaries (including rogue states) possess. That goal could be compromised by a ban on explosive testing. The administration hopes that sophisticated computer simulations of nuclear blasts being developed under the Stockpile Stewardship program will keep the U.S. stockpile of nuclear warheads safe and reliable and that those simulations can be used to design new types of nuclear weapons if a change in the threat makes them necessary. Yet such simulation technologies are unproven, and no guarantee exists that they will be an adequate substitute for explosive testing. Why not wait to ratify the treaty at least until the technologies are demonstrated? Even the slightest risk to the long‐​term viability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent should not be tolerated.

Republicans who would trade their support for the CTBT in exchange for a commitment to the quick deployment of a limited NMD are starting to believe their overheated rhetoric on missile defenses. To many Republicans, NMD has become the holy grail of U.S. security policy. They often portray anyone who opposes NMD, as do many Democrats, as weak on defense. But they need to keep in mind that a limited NMD is merely insurance against the failure of the U.S. offensive nuclear force to deter potential adversaries from attacking the United States with weapons of mass destruction. In a vast majority of cases, the potent U.S. offensive deterrent will probably be effective, even against rogue states such as North Korea.

The drawback of Republicans trading their support for the CTBT in return for a crash deployment of NMD is that the proven primary deterrent may be undermined to obtain a technologically risky backup system that might prove infeasible or be significantly delayed. It’s like trying to increase the security of your house by trading a month’s worth of food for a proven guard dog in exchange for a backup burglar alarm system containing the latest experimental technology. The dog will die, and the alarm system may not work.

In time, a limited agreement between the United States and Russia to make deep cuts in offensive missiles in exchange for allowing a limited (and thoroughly tested) land‐​based NMD is desirable and probably obtainable. But the Republicans should not sell out their opposition to the CTBT to get NMD. As a backup system that is designed to counter a narrow range of threats, NMD is much less important than the ability to ensure the viability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent through explosive testing. As the number of nuclear weapons is reduced and fewer types of warheads are in the U.S. arsenal, nuclear testing is likely to become even more important for ensuring that the weapons will work. At the present time, there is no need for the United States to rescind its voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing; but nor should it be constrained by a treaty from explosive testing if the threat changes in the future. It is vital to U.S. security that the reduced number of warheads that the United States is allowed under any future agreement be modern, safe and in working order.

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