Testing, Testing: Is The Clinton Administration Determined To Gut The US Nuclear Deterrent?

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Tomorrow, Clinton Administration cabinet officers are scheduled to meet to consider a draft of Presidential Review Document-19 (PRD-19), a decision memorandum intended to respond to congressional limitations on nuclear testing. These limits were adopted last year at the initiative of Senators Mark Hatfield (R-OR), George Mitchell (D-ME) and Jim Exon (D-NE) and signed into law by President Bush — despite the fact that Mr. Bush correctly claimed the "Hatfield amendment" was inconsistent with the national security.

The Hatfield amendment imposes: a nine-month moratorium on U.S. nuclear testing due to lapse on 1 July 1993; a permanent prohibition on such tests after 30 September 1996 (unless other nations conduct their own tests); and a requirement to negotiate a comprehensive test ban (CTB) by that date.

The Clinton NSC will be asked to resolve essentially two issues: First, will the executive branch exercise the option afforded it under the Hatfield amendment to do a total of fifteen tests between July 1993 and the end of FY1996? The law stipulates that these tests can only be conducted for certain purposes, namely, to improve the safety of certain deployed nuclear weapon systems. The Administration must submit a plan for all 15 tests by 1 June 1993 showing their conformity with the amendment’s requirements; Congress then has 90 legislative days to adopt a resolution blocking such tests.

Second, will the Administration seek authority from Congress to continue a minimal nuclear test program even after September 1996? Most of the relevant agencies reportedly agree that the United States must have the ability to continue to do some testing for the foreseeable future and believe that experiments involving underground explosions of 1 kiloton or less should be permitted.

The Continuing Need for Nuclear Testing

Taking the second issue first, those agencies arguing for continued nuclear testing are right — up to a point. Repeated U.S. government analyses have established that as long as the United States relies upon nuclear weapons for its security, it is going to have to conduct periodic tests to ensure that such weapons are reliable, effective and safe.

In a major report on this issue prepared by the Reagan Administration,(1) for example, the executive branch advised Congress that:


"Nuclear testing is indispensable to maintaining the credible nuclear deterrent which has kept the peace for over 40 years. Thus we do not regard nuclear testing as an evil to be curtailed, but as a tool to be employed responsibly in pursuit of national security." (Emphasis added.)


Nothing in the nature of thermonuclear physics or other relevant facts has changed since that report was issued. If anything, that need has actually increased for, as the analysis noted:


"Under [an agreement providing for] deep reductions in strategic offensive arms [e.g., START I & II], the reliability of our remaining U.S. strategic weapons could be even more important and the need for testing even greater…."


In short, those who oppose such continued nuclear testing, knowingly or unknowingly, would commit the United States to a path that is inconsistent with the maintenance of a credible nuclear deterrent over the long-term.(2) Unfortunately, the steps announced by the Clinton Administration today — which will restructure and downgrade the nation’s efforts to rely upon strategic defenses, rather than offensive nuclear forces, for its security — make all the more irresponsible any decision to preclude continued testing of the latter.

The Bad News: One Kiloton Tests Are Inadequate

For these reasons, the Defense Department and other agencies insisting upon continued nuclear testing are to be commended. They have, however, permitted considerations about what the political "traffic" will bear in the wake of the Hatfield amendment and the 1992 election to distort their professional judgments concerning the level at which such tests need to be conducted.

The truth of the matter is that essential safety, reliability and effectiveness tests cannot be accomplished within the one-kiloton threshold. While testing at that level is better than not being able to test at all, confidence in the credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent simply cannot be maintained without the ability to test at higher yield levels at least on an exceptional basis.

What is more, there is no reason to believe that the United States could effectively monitor other nations’ compliance with a one-kiloton threshold. While such monitoring may be possible in some parts of the globe, assuming the tests are performed in hard rock and with no effort made to dampen the seismic signature of the explosion, this is hardly a sound basis for judging a treaty limit to be "verifiable."

Resume Testing Now

Even more daft than the one-kiloton threshold is the consideration reportedly being given to foregoing the option afforded under the Hatfield amendment to resume testing once the congressionally imposed nine-month moratorium expires on 1 July. The United States is already perilously close to losing its technical ability to conduct safe underground nuclear tests. For example, EG&G — the contractor that supplies technical support to and forms the backbone of the nuclear test program — recently gave its engineers and technicians at the Nevada Test Site 120 days notice that their jobs are going to be terminated.

Personnel associated with the test program at the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons laboratories are similarly finding other lines of work. Unless testing is resumed shortly, lasting and possibly irreparable harm will be done to the highly specialized diagnostic, trouble-shooting and design capabilities upon which an effective nuclear weapons program depends.

Wishful Thinking No Basis for Testing Decisions

Of course, putting U.S. nuclear weapons designers out of business is precisely what proponents of the Hatfield amendment have in mind. The theory is that by so doing, other nations will be deterred from conducting nuclear tests or otherwise embarking upon nuclear weapons programs. In particular, proponents of a CTB routinely cite the prospect that developing nations will refuse to extend the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) when it comes up for review in 1995 unless the United States and other nuclear weapon states have agreed to suspend testing permanently.

Unfortunately, the evidence strongly suggests that such developing nations are deciding to become nuclear weapons states for reasons that have nothing to do with the status of the U.S. testing program. It is, for example, preposterous to believe that North Korea’s pursuit of a nuclear device has been a function of anything other than the calculation that the communist tyrants of Pyongyang would be well served by obtaining — and perhaps selling — nuclear weapons technology. Neither the presence nor the absence of American weapons tests matter to the North Korean decision-makers, any more than they do to their Iraqi, Iranian, Indian, Pakistani and Syrian counterparts.

Far from shoring up the NPT regime, moreover, creating a new comprehensive test ban arms control agenda might well serve to undermine it. After all, a number of states (e.g., Israel, South Africa and Pakistan) are believed to have obtained nuclear weapons capabilities without having to conduct documented tests. It stands to reason that others might be all too ready to sign up to a CTB — particularly one that is known not to be verifiable — if they feel confident that by so doing, their non-compliance with the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty will be subjected to significantly less international scrutiny.

The Russian "Renewed Arms Race" Bogeyman

The hardiest perennial in the anti-testing campaign — and a prominent feature of the current effort to induce President Clinton to reject a resumption of nuclear testing — is the argument that unless the United States observes a moratorium on nuclear testing, the former Soviet Union will resume its own test program and come, thereby, to field a more threatening offensive nuclear force. Incredibly, none other than Russian President Boris Yeltsin has recently trotted out this rather shopworn bogeyman.

In fact, the Russian nuclear forces — like those of every other weapons state — will have to be tested for the foreseeable future. If the Russians choose not to do so, it will in all likelihood be because populations near the one remaining test site in Russia refuse to have more tests conducted there. (Such a position is hardly unreasonable insofar as Moscow — unlike Washington — has consistently permitted radiation from its nuclear tests to be vented, doing incalculable harm over time to the people and environment in the region.)

It strains credulity, moreover, that the Russian government might seriously consider under present circumstances implementing a threat to ignite a new arms race. After all, its ability to cope with pressing economic hardships is already dependent to a significant degree upon the largesse of those who would be the targets of such a race. A massive new nuclear building spree would only be possible if the United States and its allies were willing to pay for and otherwise facilitate it.

The Carter Precedent

President Clinton would be well-advised to learn from the experience of his Democratic predecessor, Jimmy Carter, who came to office determined to achieve a comprehensive, permanent ban on nuclear testing. President Carter was given an opportunity to think the issue through, however; he ultimately concluded that a short-duration (i.e., 3-year) ban was all that could be safely adopted — and even then it would have to permit essential nuclear weapons experiments.

At a minimum, Mr. Clinton should take the following steps before reaching a final decision on PRD-19:

  • Consult with those directly responsible for certification of the safety, reliability and effectiveness of the diminishing U.S. nuclear arsenal in order to obtain candid assessments — uncompromised by perceived political considerations — as to what levels of testing are required to make such certifications for the foreseeable future.

  • Consult with leaders of those nations who depend on the U.S. nuclear arsenal for their security, either directly as allies or indirectly through U.N. Joint Resolution 255 — which was adopted at the time the Non-Proliferation Treaty was submitted and which provides positive security assurances to the non-nuclear weapons states that accede to that treaty. And,

  • Consider carefully the demands of states that now possess nuclear weapons — such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan — for positive security guarantees from the United States as a condition for their joining the NPT as non-nuclear weapons states. While President Clinton apparently blithely provided such guarantees to Belarus when it recently gave up former Soviet nuclear arms on its territory, he must be wary of assuming new, and arguably more callable, guarantees to states like Ukraine without taking the minimum steps necessary to preserve the U.S. nuclear deterrent.


The Bottom Line

The Center for Security Policy believes that the United States cannot provide for its own security — let alone that of other states — without conducting a continuing, if modest nuclear test program. Consequently, it believes that PRD-19 must assure that the nation not only conducts at least the fifteen tests it is permitted to perform prior to 1 October 1996. PRD-19 should also make clear that the U.S. will be required to conduct a small number of underground tests — with most falling at or below the 10-kiloton level but with the right to conduct higher yield tests should the need arise.

Should the Clinton Administration fail to establish these minimal conditions, it will inevitably assume responsibility for seriously degrading the nation’s nuclear deterrent — and, ultimately, for rendering it ineffectual. This is a particularly reckless and irresponsible position given that it will do nothing to prevent pariah states from acquiring their own nuclear arms. Indeed, it may embolden them to use such weapons against an America equipped with neither credible offensive nuclear forces of its own, nor the means to defend against those of its potential adversaries.

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1. The Relationship between Progress in Other Areas of Arms Control and More Stringent Limitations on Nuclear Testing, A Report to the Congress submitted by President Reagan on 8 September 1988.

2. Unfortunately, this is not the only step being taken by the U.S. government that will jeopardize the future viability of its nuclear deterrent forces. See in particular, the Center for Security Policy’s Decision Brief entitled ‘Farewell to (Nuclear) Arms’: D.O.E. Announcement Fulfills Bush Unilateral Disarmament Gameplan (No. 93-D 17, 8 March 1993), which describes how the failure to provide for future sources of the special nuclear material tritium will render all U.S. nuclear weapons ineffectual early in the next century.

Center for Security Policy

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