Ex-Trump adviser and testing advocate tells Guardian ‘certainly it was discussed’ but no decision was made by the time he left
White House officials held a series of discussions over the past two years on the possibility of resuming US nuclear testing, according to the former national security adviser John Bolton.
“Certainly the subject was discussed,” Bolton, a fierce advocate of testing, told the Guardian. However, there was opposition from some in the administration who felt current computer-based testing of US warheads was sufficient, and no decision was made by the time Bolton left the White House last September.
When the prospect of the first US underground nuclear test in nearly three decades came up at a White House meeting in May, it triggered an outcry from arms control advocates and a Democratic amendment to the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, blocking funding for preparations for a test.
Bolton, who has published a memoir on his time in the Trump White House titled The Room Where It Happened, said the issue was discussed in general terms on a number of occasions while he was national security adviser from April 2018 to September 2019. However, the discussions did not become “operational” as his priority had been to take the US out of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.
Donald Trump first announced he would leave the agreement – on the grounds of Russian violations – in October 2018, and the departure came into effect in August 2019. Bolton made it clear that he planned to withdraw the US signature on the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty (CTBT), paving the way to nuclear testing, if he had stayed on at the White House.
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“We had general discussions about it on a number of occasions but there wasn’t a decision point,” he said. “I personally had other objectives like getting out of the INF treaty. I mean, you can’t do everything all at once.”
A senior official told the Washington Post that the motivation for testing cited in the White House “deputies meeting” in May was to put pressure on Russia and China to enter trilateral arms control negotiations.
“I never made that argument, and I doubt it would provide much leverage,” Bolton said.
His argument for underground testing is that it is necessary to be certain of the reliability of the thousands of warheads in the US arsenal.
Opponents of testing say that the computer-based analysis of the “stockpile stewardship and management plan” is quite sufficient, and that detonating a warhead would trigger a cascade of tests by other nuclear weapons states.
“We don’t know fully what the impact of ageing is on either the reliability or the security and safety of the nuclear devices. So this is something we need for the credibility of the deterrent,” Bolton said. “I’m not talking about massive testing. I’m certainly not talking about atmospheric testing, but as one military commander described it to me: ‘Having 5,000 nuclear warheads is like having 5,000 Toyotas in a garage. You want to know that when you turn the key, it works the first time. Because if it doesn’t, it doesn’t work at all.'”
The administration’s new arms control envoy, Marshall Billingslea, told the Senate on Tuesday: “We maintain and will maintain the ability to conduct nuclear tests if we see reason to do so.” But he added that he was “not aware of any reason to test at this stage”.
Bolton acknowledged that there was resistance to testing from other officials in the Trump administration.
“I think different people have different views,” he said.
Reports of the May meeting also aroused vigorous and bipartisan opposition in Nevada, when the US historically tested its nuclear warheads. Since the last US test in 1992, Las Vegas has expanded considerably and extended much closer to the Nevada test site. Bolton however, argues that local resistance would not be an insuperable obstacle to a resumption of testing.
“I think there are a lot of options on the location, and let’s remember these are underground tests that we’re talking about. You’re not talking about waking up in Las Vegas and feeling the ground move,” he said.
Bolton repeated US allegations that the Russians, Chinese “and maybe others” were conducting very low-yield tests in secret, “so some level of testing could simply bring us up to a more level playing field with the other nuclear powers”.
The US has formally accused Moscow and Beijing of conducting non-zero yield testing, but has not offered any evidence.
I think certainly there’s the potential for external actors, a Gulf country, Israel, working with dissidents inside Iran
Bolton was adamant that the US should not extend the 2010 New Start treaty with Russia, which limits the number of deployed strategic warheads and delivery systems of both countries, principally because it does not cover tactical nuclear weapons, of which Russia has many more than the US.
He supports the Trump administration position that any new round of arms control talks should include China, and suggested other nuclear weapons powers could be involved too.
“I could imagine a strategic arms limitation discussion going forward that has all five permanent members of the [UN] security council, all five legitimate nuclear weapon states under the Non-Proliferation treaty,” Bolton said.
Bolton said he was “delighted” at the string of explosions and fires at Iranian nuclear facilities and other strategic sites in recent weeks, speculating that another Middle Eastern country could be behind the attacks.
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“I think certainly there’s the potential for external actors, a Gulf country, Israel, working with dissidents inside Iran. It’d be hard to believe that wasn’t the case,” he said. “I think it’s very important to prove to the Iranians time and time again that even their most important facilities are vulnerable.
“This is the sort of thing that I think has been absent from the American bag of tools,” he said.
Asked whether the US may already be involved in the sabotage campaign, Bolton replied: “I’m not saying I’ve got any particular information one way or the other. But it wouldn’t bother me if we were. That’s for sure.”