Could Trump Trash The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty?

Think of what the world would be like if Russia, the United States, China, India and Pakistan were testing nuclear weapons.


They are not because of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) which is responsible for shutting down nuclear testing by major and regional powers for more than two decades. Walking away from the CTBT would be extraordinarily dumb and dangerous, but the Trump administration has taken a step in this direction.

The CTBT was negotiated in 1996, but it isn’t solidly in place. While Russia has signed and ratified it, Senate Republicans rejected it in 1999. China, like the United States, has signed but not ratified. There are other holdouts, including India and Pakistan. And yet none of these states has tested nuclear weapons since 1998. When a treaty is negotiated, it’s common diplomatic practice not to undercut its objectives while awaiting its entry into force. Hence the two-decades-long moratorium on testing by every nuclear-armed state except North Korea.

How long this can this situation last? The answer is in doubt now that the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, Jr., has declared at a public forum that the “United States believes that Russia probably is not adhering to its nuclear testing moratorium.” The Treaty sets a “zero yield” obligation: states aren’t supposed to test even with the slightest yields. The State Department defines this as any explosion “that produce a self-sustaining, supercritical chain reaction.” In other words, you can conduct experiments, but the experiments should not produce any seismic activity.

As a result of General Ashley’s statement, it’s now open season against the CTBT for those who want to trash another treaty. Critics of arms control have begun to call on Donald Trump to “unsign” the CTBT, just as he has walked away from the Iran nuclear deal and the Arms Trade Treaty. (Trump also announced withdrawal from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, but in this case, evidence of Russian noncompliance is compelling.) By “unsigning” the CTBT, Trump would tell the world that the United States is no longer bound to respect the Treaty’s obligation not to test nuclear weapons.

Before stumbling into this sinkhole, there are three very important things to bear in mind. First, the U.S. Intelligence Community in general, and the Defense Intelligence Agency in particular, have bad track records in assessing Moscow’s compliance with nuclear testing constraints. Second, National Security Adviser John Bolton and others have a track record of fixing intelligence findings to fit their policy preferences, to the great detriment of America’s national security, expeditionary forces, and international standing. And third, walking away from the CTBT would remove constraints on the resumption of nuclear testing by others far more than on the United States.

Now let’s consider details.

General Ashley declared that the United States believes that Russia “probably” is cheating. This suggests an intelligence community-wide agreement, but Time magazine reports that this is not the case. According to Time’s reporters, there is no consensus, and “the Defense Intelligence Agency generally takes the ‘worst case’ position on military matters.” We deserve to know if there is a difference of view within the intelligence community on whether Russia is “probably” cheating, and if this dispute is about inference rather than evidence. We also need to know whether administration officials are seeking to influence intelligence assessments to suit policy preferences.

The Intelligence Community does not have a good track record when it comes to nuclear testing. In 1974, President Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev agreed to a Threshold Test Ban Treaty, limiting tests underground to 150 kiloton yields — about ten times that of the Hiroshima bomb. This treaty was much derided because the Left wanted a complete cessation of testing, while the Right presumed the treaty wasn’t verifiable and that the Kremlin would cheat.

Sure enough, U.S. readings of Soviet tests indicated that the 150 kiloton-threshold was being breached, and this became part of the bill of particulars against doing new arms control agreements during the Reagan administration. The considered judgment of both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency was that the Kremlin “likely” cheated.

This judgment was later disproven by joint verification experiments at the U.S. and Soviet test sites. The “evidence” used to declare a “likely” violation was faulty. Seismic monitoring capabilities were much cruder back then, and there were wide bands of uncertainty surrounding the actual yields of Soviet tests. Uncertainty levels were magnified further by a lack of understanding of the geology at Soviet test sites, resulting in the systematic overestimation by the U.S. intelligence community of Soviet nuclear test yields. With information based on the joint verification experiments, the issue of “likely” Soviet violations was put to rest. 

Now fast-forward to General Ashley’s claim of “probable” Russian violation of the Comprehensive Test Ban’s zero yield stricture. Monitoring a zero yield treaty is much harder than monitoring whether a 150 kiloton-threshold has been exceeded. Very intrusive inspections — the kind permitted by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty — might help, but the Senate hasn’t consented to the Treaty. Another set of joint verification experiments might once again prove useful, but Washington and Moscow have to improve ties before this can happen.

Even though the Comprehensive Test Ban hasn’t entered into force, the United States, Russia, and many other signatories have wisely decided to set up an international monitoring system able to detect very low yield explosions. The head of this Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization has clarified that this ultra-sophisticated network of over 300 sensors, including several particularly useful to monitor the Russian test site located above the Arctic Circle, has not detected suspicious readings. The United States possesses a parallel monitoring network, which might be even better. We deserve to know whether it has recorded suspicious readings or not.

If it has not, what, then, might possibly account for the Defense Intelligence Agency’s conclusion of a “probable” Russian violation of the zero-yield Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty? The answer might well be inferences drawn from the refurbishment of Russia’s Arctic test site, including the construction of new facilities. But the United States has also refurbished and built new facilities at its test site in Nevada where treaty-permissible experiments are carried out.

Is activity at the Arctic test site suggestive of noncompliance? The answer might well lie in the eye of the beholder. For the Defense Intelligence Agency, it’s possible that suspicious activity and construction at Russia’s test site is sufficient to conclude the probability of a violation.

If this is the case, it’s not sound analysis; it’s inference. Before the drums intensify to “unsign” the Test Ban Treaty, thereby opening the gates to renewed nuclear testing by one and all, the House Intelligence Committee could demonstrate that it’s not totally consumed with Donald Trump’s ties to Russia by calling witnesses and finding out what’s behind the Defense Intelligence Agency’s claim of a “probable” violation. What is fact and what is surmise? It might be true that the Kremlin has tested at yields that are extraordinarily hard to detect. Or it might be true that the assertion of a “probable” violation reflects shoddy intelligence tradecraft or political influence, or both. What’s behind this judgment? The testimony would, of course, be classified, but the Committee could provide an unclassified summary of its findings.

It’s unknown whether John Bolton had any involvement with the DIA intelligence assessment, but another reason for investigation is the National Security Adviser’s record of  “fixing” intelligence to make the case for a second war against Saddam Hussein, a war predicated on weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. Bolton is on record opposing U.S. ratification and entry into force of the CTBT. Is he once again “fixing the facts” to suit his policy preferences? Is the Defense Intelligence Agency once again guilty of reaching conclusions beyond available evidence, and misrepresenting the evidence it has? Or is there strong evidence of Russian violations of the CTBT’s prohibition on testing?

We deserve answers to these questions before opening the floodgates to resumed nuclear testing.

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