ISSN 2330-717X

Revisiting The CTBT: The US Conundrum – Analysis


By Siddharth Ramana

US President Barack Obama in his historic address in Prague in April 2009 laid down his administration’s nuclear ambitions, including the ideal of an eventual global nuclear disarmament. While he conceded that it may not occur in his lifetime, especially given the Republican victory, he has however, continued to push forward for these ideals. This includes the support for contentious issues such as the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

While the FMCT continues to be in a bedlam in the Conference on Disarmament, the CTBT is an area where the US can, and should, unilaterally move forward, especially owing to its quantitative superiority over the other powers. Obama’s democratic predecessor Bill Clinton had to face an embarrassing defeat in his efforts to push forward the ratification of this treaty in 1999, and this would weigh heavily on the minds of the disarmament pundits who wish to revive it. In fact any present attempts to re-visit the CTBT have been emphatically opposed by the Republican minority whip, Jon Kyl, who is quite influential in the Senate.

Nevertheless, there still exists hope for the CTBT, as despite Kyl’s opposition to the New START agreement with Russia it was ratified by the Senate earlier this year. Obama’s preference to go ahead with the CTBT in these difficult times, would serve to strengthen US geo-strategic interests worldwide. It will provide increased international leverage on NPT violators like North Korea and Iran, will help in pushing forward disarmament agenda’s with holdout states like India, Israel and Pakistan, and will help in improving relations with Russia, which is the only nuclear power state to have presently ratified the CTBT so far.

President Barack Obama with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the White House.
President Barack Obama with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the White House.

For Obama, the need to push forward for ratification is also seen in the light of the urgency to boost his credibility, especially if he chooses to stand for re-election. Bearing in mind his electoral manifesto, President Obama has had very little to boast about in international relations. The only exception being the nuclear sphere, where he has successfully held a Security Summit which dealt with non-state actors, brought into affect a new START agreement with Russia, revamped the Nuclear Posture, and improved leverages against Iran’s nuclear program.

Furthermore, for the democrats, the push through of a contentious but internationally important treaty, would lead to a sense of domestic confidence and optimism, especially if it comes after a highly contested budget session. It would help serve the US fiscal policy, by reducing expenditure on weapons which have been repeatedly described as being unusable weapons. Even the revamped Nuclear Review Posture, which further raises the bar on authorizing the use of a nuclear weapon, makes them untenable in the long term and therefore avoiding further expenses associated with their testing, simulations and related exercises will be beneficial.

The Republican opposition to any efforts towards reviving the CTBT can be simplistically described as subscribing to ideological opposition to a rival. However, the arguments given by opponents to the CTBT include fears that present US stockpiles are untested to augment American deterrence policy, and that the New START agreement would encourage rivals such as China to achieve nuclear parity with the US.

Opponents of the 1999 discussion were particularly concerned that current monitoring mechanisms are not fool-proof and therefore the verification clauses of the treaty need to be strengthened before the US can consider revisiting the treaty. Jon Kyl had even cited the views of Paul Robinson, chairman emeritus of Sandia National Laboratory, who had testified before Congress that the reliability of US nuclear weapons still cannot be guaranteed without testing them properly, despite more than a decade of investments in technological advancements.

To counter these arguments, significant strides have been made forward in monitoring mechanisms, including addition of new sensors and augmentation of existing ones in operation by the US. A look at the recordings made by a number of monitoring stations of the two North Korean tests in 2006 and 2009 attest in favor of the new sensors. The yields provided were on the scale which opponents believed would not be detected. To further strengthen the argument in favor of the CTBT, Thomas D’Agostin, the US National Nuclear Security Administration chief, who is responsible for the integrity of the nuclear stockpile, said “we have a safe and secure and reliable stockpile. … There’s no need to conduct underground (nuclear) testing” in an interview to Arms Control Today.

Though proponents of actual testing express misgivings about the data collected from simulations, especially those based on tests last conducted as early as two decades ago. But nuclear weapons plutonium is not affected by the aging process for 85 years or more. Moreover, significant strides made in the US Stockpile stewardship address concerns of weapons longevity. Additionally, with the advent of the Stockpile Curatorship program, advances have been made to replace only parts as and when necessary. These measures should go a long way in addressing concerns relating to the fears of untested stockpiles. Based on these facts, the Senate should reconsider the debate on the CTBT and push for its ratification at the earliest.

Siddharth Ramana
Research Officer, IPCS
email: [email protected]

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IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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