WASHINGTON -- A recent report from a respected research organization will be “grist” for debate as the Obama administration pushes forward with efforts to persuade wary senators to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a high-level arms control official said this spring (see GSN, March 30).
Rose Gottemoeller, acting undersecretary of State for arms control and international security, said promoting the treaty would be among her priorities in the months ahead. She declined, though, to say when the Senate would be formally asked to make the United States a full participant in a global prohibition on explosive testing of nuclear weapons.
“All I will say is we are continuing to work on it now,” Gottemoeller told Global Security Newswire in an April interview. “It’s something I’m going to be putting a lot of emphasis on over the coming months in the summer. And we will be prepared to bring it up when the time is ripe, but not before.”
While the report from the National Academies was widely touted, issue experts said it would be just one piece of a broad, assertive campaign that would be required to achieve CTBT ratification.
The panel of specialists convened by the independent science group in March publicly issued a long-awaited document addressing technical issues related to the treaty. The experts found that, assuming sufficient resources are secured, the United States can maintain its own nuclear arsenal without explosive trials and feel relatively safe that no other state could pull off a secret blast.
Those were two key sticking points that undid U.S. treaty ratification when it was first considered by the Senate in 1999. Without legislative approval from Washington, the United States is not formally bound by the treaty’s strictures and the accord itself cannot enter into force.
President Obama has committed his administration to bringing the ratification matter back to Capitol Hill, though no congressional action is expected before 2013 and would require first a successful re-election bid.
Mitt Romney, Obama’s Republican challenger, appears unlikely to break with his GOP predecessors by supporting the accord. His election could mean that an informal moratorium on underground nuclear tests set two decades ago will continue to stand, or perhaps even could open the door to a resumption of trial blasts.
The response to the National Academies report from the administration has been affirmative but measured.
“We welcome the release of the report by the [National Academies],” Gottemoeller said the following month. “The report, which is by a really esteemed group of experts, is valuable. I think it adds to the grist for informed debate and discussion.”
At least one longtime foe of the treaty indicated after the study’s publication that his position had not changed.
“I will do anything I can to defeat CTBT,” Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said at an April 17 event in Washington.
Achieving a winning vote on the treaty would require strong leadership starting with President Obama and his Cabinet, aggressive outreach, support from former government officials and military leaders informed on the issue, and open-minded Republicans, issue-watchers said.
Obstacles include continued skepticism about the treaty’s merits, deep divisions on Capitol Hill, and GOP assertions that Obama has failed to meet his promises to ensure the upkeep of the nation’s nuclear arsenal. In addition, the Senate that considers test ban ratification might be noticeably less friendly to arms control than the one that approved the New START nuclear arms control deal with Russia in 2010.
“So much of this rests on the politics and not the facts,” said Tom Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association.
“I think the facts of the case are pretty clear from the [report] and other sources that the test ban treaty … would serve U.S. national security interests,” he said. “Unfortunately, the politics are such that the facts don’t often get to see the light of day.”
A Long Wait
The United States became the first signatory nation to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on Sept. 24, 1996. Membership has now grown to 183 countries, 157 of which have ratified the pact.
Forty-four countries that participated in final negotiations on establishing the treaty while operating nuclear power or research programs -- the “Annex 2” states -- must each secure legislative approval for the accord to enter into force. There are now eight holdouts from that group: China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the United States.
The Clinton administration took the treaty to the Senate in 1997; it sat for two years before going to a vote and being rejected 48-51 on Oct. 13, 1999. Support from two-thirds of the chamber, 67 senators, was required for approval.
The situation was far from optimum for CTBT proponents. There were only three days of committee hearings and 18 hours of floor debate ahead of the vote, according to the Arms Control Association. The decision also came less than a year after President Clinton escaped conviction on two impeachment charges.
“You had just a tremendously charged partisan environment where, not dissimilar from today, nobody on the other side wanted to give President Clinton a victory on any issue,” Collina said.
Supporters saw the treaty as a significant building block in the global nonproliferation regime through a prohibition on explosive testing that is key to determining whether new or modernized nuclear weapons actually function. Others worried about the pact’s effects on U.S. national security.
“There were two big issues about the treaty: One was its verifiability and the second was that [senators] weren’t sure about whether the Stockpile Stewardship Program would allow us to maintain a safe and effective arsenal without explosive nuclear testing,” said Gottemoeller, who in 1999 headed nuclear nonproliferation efforts at the Energy Department.
Treaty opponents charged that if the United States ratified the pact, Washington’s confidence in its nuclear deterrent would decline while enemy states might quietly move ahead with developing their own arsenals.
President George W. Bush made no effort to push the treaty but did not lift the voluntary U.S. suspension of testing put in place in 1992 during his father’s administration.
Obama made his intentions known in a 2009 speech in Prague: “To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing, my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned.”
Negotiating the New START nuclear arms control deal with Russia, then shepherding it through the Senate, claimed precedence. The accord, which took effect in February 2011, requires both nations by 2018 to reduce deployed strategic nuclear systems to 1,550 warheads and 700 delivery systems.
The administration last year initiated a campaign aimed at informing lawmakers, congressional staff and the public about the treaty -- particularly the technical advances seen since 1999 that would demonstrate that the United States could feel safe in becoming a full CTBT participant.
Stockpile stewardship, the scientific program of testing and analysis of today’s nuclear warheads, was only three years old at the time and “very immature,” according to Gottemoeller. The nearly 13 intervening years have offered "a wealth of experience” at the national laboratories, which are now delivering science that can sustain the nuclear arsenal, she told GSN.
The U.S. and global means for detecting an illicit nuclear test are also much stronger than in 1999, the official argued. The International Monitoring System, which encompasses more than 300 seismic, radionuclide and other sensor sites operated by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, “was still basically on paper as a system” 13 years ago, the undersecretary said. Today, it is 85 percent complete.
The United States, meanwhile, is replacing satellite sensors for identifying nuclear blasts and continues to make other moves to augment national monitoring capacities, Gottemoeller said. Those U.S. capabilities are described in the report as “superior” to the CTBT system.
The Obama administration requested the report by the National Academies’ National Research Council as a follow-up to a 2002 analysis by another expert panel. The latest document, by a group of veteran scientists both within and outside of government, addresses only the technical basis for agreeing to forgo future nuclear testing.
Among the host of findings: progress on the technical component of the Stockpile Stewardship Program has advanced further than anticipated in the 2002 analysis; seismic sensors can identify subterranean blasts with yields less than 1 kiloton, far less powerful than the weapons dropped on Japan to end World War II; and entry into force would further reduce the potential for secret nuclear testing by allowing for on-site probes of suspicious events.
“So long as the nation is fully committed to securing its weapons stockpile and provides sufficient resources for doing so, the U.S. has the technical capabilities to maintain safe, reliable nuclear weapons into the foreseeable future without the need for underground weapons testing,” scientist Ellen Williams, who led the nine-person expert panel, said in provided comments when the document was released on March 30. “In addition, U.S. and international technologies to monitor weapons testing by other countries are significantly better now than they were a decade ago.”
There is little chance the report will resolve differences on the treaty. Just hours before the document was made public, Bush administration undersecretary of State for arms control and international security Robert Joseph called the pact “fundamentally flawed, both structurally and conceptually.”
Among its weaknesses, he argued during an event in Washington, are a lack of agreed-upon definition for nuclear testing, the requirement should the treaty enter into force for 30 CTBT states to sign off on any on-site inspections, and the absence of an enforcement mechanism for dealing with cheaters. Nations such as China and Russia have not ruled out conducting extremely low-yield blasts that would confer military advantages, even if the United States continues its policy of restraint, Joseph said.
The accord text prohibits “any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion,” which is understood to encompass any blast of any yield, the Arms Control Association said in a rejoinder to CTBT critics issued the same day as the National Academies report.
Testing is “overwhelmingly efficient” in comparison to the more demanding efforts required to ensure an equal level of nuclear safety and operational surety through stockpile stewardship, said Baker Spring, a national security fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
A maintenance program stretching for decades could also produce unforeseen complications, such as having to develop missiles to fit existing warheads rather than design them together “in a more integrated fashion,” he wrote in an analysis published after the expert report was released. Questions also persist about the potential for cheaters to use illicit methods to conduct tests without being detected, according to Spring’s assessment.
Ratifying the treaty would mean accepting the United States would never need nuclear weapons able to meet military needs beyond those identified today, Spring added.
“Would we ever say that for any other category of weapon? Would we say that we never need a next-generation tactical fighter aircraft?” he told GSN. He argued that military officials would say, “’Not on your life.’
“So I also remain skeptical on that level, as well as the question of stockpile surveillance,” he added.
“The point now is the question of how much influence the [National Academies] report will have on the senators who may be asked for a vote. I think the answer to that question is we don’t know,” Spring said.
The report itself does not address whether the treaty should be ratified. One of the panelists, former National Nuclear Security Administration chief Linton Brooks, also declined to say whether he believes the document will aid those pressing for legislative approval.
“That’s a question the report doesn’t deal with. I think you’ve got to ask the administration what their plans are,” he said during an April conference call with reporters. “I’m gonna take sort of a pass on speculating on exactly how the administration will use it.”
The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is among a number of compacts on the radar of the administration and Senate, which are now jousting over the Law of the Sea Treaty. “We hope that CTBT will be the next arms control treaty to come up,” Collina said.
It has become accepted wisdom, though, that no official action will occur before 2013.
The “knock down, drag out fight” over New START “quite rightly” led the administration to forgo any thought of trying to bring the test ban to the Senate during Obama’s first term, said Kingston Reif, nuclear nonproliferation director at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.
He said he was “cautiously optimistic” that Obama would request ratification should he be elected to a second term.
“Overall the message to Republican senators from the administration should be, just as we are not rushing by any means to force a vote, you shouldn’t rush to judgment based on information from 1999,” Reif said.
Only 41 senators who voted on the treaty in 1999 are still in office.
The current Senate has 51 Democrats, 47 Republicans and two independents who caucus with the Democrats.
All Democrats and independents backed New START in the Senate, along with 13 Republicans. Assuming that Obama’s base lines up behind him on the test ban, he would still need at least 14 GOP votes in favor of ratification if the treaty were brought to the Senate this year. No one expects that to occur, and the balance of party seats could be notably different beginning in January 2013, as 33 spots are up for grabs in the November elections.
The Senate GOP leadership directed a reporter’s questions about its position on the matter to Kyl’s office, which did not respond to calls for comment for this article. Kyl, though, is not seeking re-election this year and so might have a voice but no vote in a debate in 2013 or later.
Spring said the Obama administration is not likely to submit the treaty for approval unless it is confident it has the necessary votes. Those do not appear present now, and any turn in a more conservative direction after November would make the job even more difficult, he said.
While the administration can point to the dozen-plus Republican senators who crossed party lines in favor of New START ratification in late 2010, the party has since been outspoken in its criticism of Obama nuclear arms policy.
In the run-up to the vote a year and a half ago, the White House pledged $85 billion in spending over a decade on maintaining and modernizing the nation’s nuclear weapons complex. However, the administration for fiscal 2013 is seeking hundreds of millions of dollars less on nuclear weapons than it projected two years ago, which has stuck in the craw of GOP legislators.
“Our national security and the security of our allies depend on the strength of our nation’s nuclear deterrent. Yet, the United States is the only major nuclear power without a nuclear weapons modernization program to ensure the deterrent’s continuing safety, reliability and credibility,” Kyl said in response to the president’s budget plan.
Some issue specialists argue that not too much should be made in the CTBT debate of current nuclear-weapon spending plans. They note that the $7.6 billion request for the budget year that begins on Oct. 1 is $1.2 billion above the amount appropriated in fiscal 2010. Top officials within the Energy and Defense departments have also said that spending plans are sufficient to maintain the arsenal and that Republican-supported caps on federal spending have limited their options.
The treaty’s failure in 1999 made clear the need for a comprehensive program to lay the groundwork for a vote, Gottemoeller said. An interagency team involving the intelligence community and the Defense and Energy departments has been talking to lawmakers and staffers -- though she declined to offer details of the “confidential discussions.”
“As far as the administration is concerned, we’re going to be making our case as clearly and succinctly as we can and we’ll keep the dialogue open and the discussion open as much as possible," the State official said. "I do think it was good timing to get the report out because it’s during a period of discussion, debate and reflection. It really adds to the range of materials that are available now.”
The National Academies report is “part of the case for the treaty but it’s not the only part,” Reif said. A classified National Intelligence Estimate on the U.S. ability to verify compliance with the treaty would also be available to lawmakers.
The White House and Cabinet would have to make the treaty a priority if they want to secure ratification, Reif said. It would require a program of sustained outreach probably exceeding that required for New START, which ultimately had a degree of bipartisan support that is not yet apparent for the test ban, he added.
Both Collina and Reif said the administration would need to line up a strong cast of “validators” -- prominent former government officials such as ex-military nuclear commanders, previous heads of the U.S. national laboratories and others who could provide an assessment of the changes since 1999 that would affect the test ban regime. Opponents, though, could also line up their own set of high-profile former officials who have argued against the treaty, such as former CIA chief James Woolsey.
Those running the pro-treaty campaign must be willing to listen to the concerns of senators and to respond directly, Collina said. After that, it is up to the lawmakers to determine whether they are persuaded.
The analysts played down the likelihood that Romney would take up the cause should he defeat Obama in November. While prior GOP presidents have pushed arms control measures, the former Massachusetts governor has been critical of New START and has given no indication of support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Romney’s campaign did not respond to a question submitted on Tuesday regarding his position on the treaty.
“I think it all depends on the elections and how they turn out, so we’ll have to wait and see,” Collina said.
WASHINGTON -- A recent report from a respected research organization will be “grist” for debate as the Obama administration pushes forward with efforts to persuade wary senators to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a high-level arms control official said this spring.