Towards a Comprehensive Test Ban

Review of a special number of Arms Control Today (November 1990).

Until the Gulf War began to dominate the headlines, the progress of the START (Strategic-Arms Reduction Talks) negotiations between the USA and the USSR was very much in the news. Here for the first time was the prospect of some reduction in the numbers of the long-range nuclear-armed missiles which threatened to destroy the world.

That the superpowers could indeed bring themselves to voluntarily destroy their own weaponry had been shown to be possible by the successful conclusion of the INF Treaty in 1987, which led to the elimination of an entire class of nuclear weapons, the intermediate-range missiles deployed in the European theatre (implementation of this treaty continues on schedule, and most of the missiles concerned have already been destroyed). In any case, measures to limit the numbers and types of strategic weapons go back to 1972 with the signing of the SALT I Treaty, which even if it did not require the actual destruction of any weapons at least brought the nuclear-arms race under some sort of control. The sequel, the SALT II Treaty of 1979, would indeed have led to the destruction of some Soviet missiles, had the USA ratified.

But in addition to these direct attempts to curb the nuclear-arms race simply by imposing numerical limits on various categories of weaponry, two quite different indirect approaches to nuclear-arms control have also been followed. The first of these is embodied in the ABM Treaty, signed in 1972 as part of SALT I; essentially, by forbidding both sides to develop defences against strategic weapons one incentive to build more offensive weapons was removed. The initiative behind this treaty lay entirely with the Americans, and it represented a complete break with all conventional military wisdom, recognizing as never before the unique nature of nuclear weapons. Convincing the Soviets of the validity of the new thinking must surely be regarded as one of the triumphs of American diplomacy. (For this reason, one was all the more shocked by SDI, but that is another story.)

The other indirect approach to nuclear-arms control dates from as early as the middle 1950s, when a number of proposals were made to ban all testing of nuclear weapons. There was considerable public support for such a ban, primarily because of the growing concern over radioactive fallout from atmospheric testing. Moreover, it is realized that even though a test ban could not, of course, do anything to limit the numbers of weapons deployed , it would still brake the nuclear-arms race, to the extent that the development of new types of bombs would be significantly frustrated. This, it should be remembered, was a time of rapidly growing sophistication of nuclear weapons, and there was a recognition that the arms race was being fuelled not only by political considerations but also by the technological imperative.

However, a comprehensive test ban (CTB), i.e., a total ban of all forms of testing, eventually floundered on the issue of verification. There was no problem with the detection of atmospheric tests — these were all too conspicuous — but underground testing was now possible, and this was far more difficult to detect. Even so, by 1958 a conference of American and Soviet experts had agreed that seismic monitoring outside the borders of the testing country, followed by a number of on-site inspections, would be able to establish with 90% certainty all underground explosions greater than 5 kilotons (the Hiroshima bomb was about 12 kt). Nevertheless, there was considerable opposition from the American weapons establishment to a CTB, with the result that the number of on-site inspections that the Americans demanded was too high to be acceptable to the USSR.

The final compromise adopted was the so-called Limited Test-Ban (LTB) Treaty of 1963, which outlawed all nuclear tests other than underground ones. Since this certainly addressed the fall-out problem, public concern over nuclear weapons declined dramatically and remained dormant for some 15 years. In the meantime, the nuclear-arms race continued on its merry way, with virtually no constraint being imposed by the requirement that testing had to be conducted underground.

However, even if nuclear testing was now out of sight, it was not completely out of mind, and sucessive US governments have been under continuing pressure, both from American arms-control specialists and the Soviet government, to accede to a CTB. The general reaction to this pressure has been somewhat reminiscent of St. Augustine’s attitude towards chastity: a CTB is recognized as a desirable long-term objective, but reasons can always be found for evading it in the present.

For many years the objections of American governments to the CTB were two-fold: i) verification procedures were inadequate to ensure against Soviet cheating, and ii) testing was necessary anyway to maintain a credible deterrent. The first objection became less and less plausible as seismological techniques were refined, and collapsed altogether when the USSR dropped its traditional opposition to all but the most limited of on-site inspections. As for the second objection, it was always absurd, since a near-total confidence in one’s weapons is necessary only for a first-strike capability. On the contrary, the credibility of one’s deterrent will fail only if one’s weapons are totally defective, and the adversary knows this with certainty. But as the old objections fell new ones took their place and at the present time it is ‘safety and security’ that provide the raison d ‘etre for nuclear testing.

Now when the reasons proffered in defence of a particular course of action change so frequently one may be fairly sure that the real reason lies elsewhere, and it is a fair guess in the present case that we are witnessing a fairly desperate attempt of the weapons community to save its skin. But, we may ask, given the way in which the danger of war between the superpowers is receding, does it really matter what the weapons people do? The answer here lies in another danger that has always been lurking in the wings, and now is becoming ever more prominent: nuclear proliferation.

When the non-weapon signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) accepted a second-class nuclear status, they did so on the clear understanding that the nuclear-weapons states would ‘pursue …effective measures relating to a cessation of the nuclear-arms race at an early date …’ (Article 6). One such measure, specifically spelled out in the preamble to this treaty, is the agreement in principle by the weapons states to a CTB. Now the NPT is due for renewal in 1995, and at the conference reviewing the treaty late last summer in Geneva it was made fairly clear that unless a CTB is made a reality by the nuclear powers, this renewal cannot be taken for granted. Moreover, in January of this year a conference was scheduled in New York between the signatories of the LTB Treaty to exploit a provision of this treaty that allows it to be amended to a CTB treaty.

It was therefore particularly appropiate that between these two conferences ‘Arms Control Today’ should devote an entire issue to the question of a CTB. Three excellent articles cover all the essential points.

J. Carson Mark, a former Los Alamos theorist, argues persuasively that testing is indeed superfluous to the maintenance of a basic deterrent; he thus concludes that opposition to a CTB is rather a reflection of the neverending development of new weapons. The verification issue is dealt with by Gregory E. van der Fink, who expresses the belief that it should be possible to monitor with some certainty explosions down to one or two kilotons, while admitting that below that threshold there could be problems. However, he still feels that a CTB would be preferable to a low-threshold ban, since even for very low-yield explosions there is always the possibility of detection, and the fear of being caught out should outweigh any military advantage that might accrue.

Gerard C. Smith, former chief US stategic-arms negotiator, eloquently establishes the connection between testing and proliferation. There are two aspects to this connection: the technical and the political. In the first instance, Smith makes the obvious point that without testing it is impossible to develop sophisticated weapons, but quite rightly does not insist too much on this aspect, doubtless recalling that at Hiroshima the USA did a tremendous amount of damage with a weapon that had never been tested at all. Rather, it is the political aspect that Smith emphasizes: when the nuclear powers conduct endless testing, the message being broadcast is that critical security benefits are being achieved, which ‘can only encourage others to follow our example’. Smith draws our attention to the fact that while six of the ‘threshold’ states, Israel, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Brazil and Argentina, have refused to sign the NPT, they are all signatories to the non-discriminatory LTBT; he thus believes that they would be likely to accede to a CTB. Having reminded us that President Bush regards nuclear proliferation as ‘one of the greatest risks to the survival of mankind’, Smith concludes by calling on the president to ‘extend the world leadership he has shown in the Gulf to leading the way to a CTB’.

There is a very depressing sequel to this appeal. The January conference in New York to amend the LTB treaty into a CTB ended with a veto by the USA and the UK. Bush may have disposed of the threat of an Iraqi bomb, at least for a few years, but what about all the other would-be nuclear powers? Does he intend to deal with all of them in the same way? The implications of this veto are immense, and it is incredible that it went almost entirely unreported in the press. Of course, it was eclipsed by the Gulf war, but in view of the importance that was attached to the nuclear threat from Iraq one might have expected that the media would have made the connection with the wider question of nuclear proliferation in general. Even if there is now no prospect of an Iraqi bomb for the foreseeable future, the month of January surely marked a net set-back for the cause of nuclear non-proliferation.

J.M. Pearson, Université de Montréal