What Does the Approval of New START Mean for the Prospects of the CTBT?

On December 22, by a margin of 71-26, a bipartisan coalition of senators recognized that U.S. and international security is stronger when the United States takes the lead to reduce the size of world's two largest nuclear arsenals and to limit the ability of other states to improve their nuclear capabilities. The New START vote suggests it is possible for the Obama administration encourage the Senate to reconsider and come together around the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The strong vote for New START is remarkable in this time of hyper-partisanship. As Senator John Kerry noted about this Senate: "70 is the new 95." Senators Kerry and Lugar, along with President Obama and Vice-president Biden pursued a smart, patient plan to consult with and take Republican concerns about the treaty into account and, as a result, New START is truly a success for the nation.

Not only must the United States and Russia continue to work together to further reduce their arsenals, but they must work to prevent other states from building up and improving their nuclear arsenals. In particular, the United States needs to work harder to head off arms buildups elsewhere. To do so, the U.S. needs to solidify the global ban on nuclear testing by ratifying the CTBT.

  • It is clear that the United States no longer needs or wants nuclear testing and that further nuclear testing could help others improve their nuclear capabilities.  Even though the United States has already assumed most CTBT-related responsibilities, it cannot reap the full security benefits of the CTBT until the Senate approves the Treaty by a two-thirds majority.
  • President Barack Obama has declared his support for U.S. ratification of the CTBT as a key component of his broader international efforts to prevent the use and spread of nuclear weapons. A growing list of bipartisan leaders and security experts agree that by ratifying the CTBT, the U.S. stands to gain an important constraint on the ability of other states to build new and more deadly nuclear weapons that could pose a threat to American security.
  • A global verifiable ban on testing would constrain the ability of nuclear-armed states, such as China, to develop new and more deadly nuclear weapons. Without nuclear weapon test explosions, would-be nuclear-armed nations—like Iran—would not be able to proof test the more advanced, smaller nuclear warhead designs that could be used to arm ballistic missiles.
  • Today, no would-be cheater of the CTBT could confidently conduct an undetected nuclear explosion large enough to threaten U.S. security. The international verification system, together with U.S. national technical means of verification, will detect militarily significant tests. However, unless it ratifies the Treaty, the United States cannot take advantage of the international system’s full benefits, such as on-site inspections.
  • U.S. ratification would spur other key nations, such as China, to ratify the Treaty and would reinforce the global taboo against nuclear testing. Without positive U.S. action on the CTBT, the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation and the resumption of testing will only grow.

What does the New START ratification effort tell us about the prospects of other nuclear arms control and nonproliferation initiatives such as the CTBT? First, it shows that when the Senate carefully reviews the facts and dismisses the fiction, when Senators take the time to ask questions and get those questions answered, and when the executive branch pursues a patient, sustained, high-level campaign, even controversial treaties can win enough support to secure a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

Second, the New START vote demonstrates that even when hard-core opponents of pragmatic, commonsense arms control solutions object, there is still a large enough bipartisan group of Senators in the poltical mainstream. Senator Kyl's failed attempt to delay and dither on New START against the overwhelming advice of the United States senior military leadership, every living former Secretary of State, Secretaries of Defense and all major U.S. allies demonstrates that the Dr. Strangelove caucus is outside the mainstream of American foreign and defense policy thinking.

Third, the Obama administration's robust, $85 billion, 10-year plan for upgrading the nuclear weapons complex should give Senators greater confidence that nuclear testing is no longer needed to maintain the effectiveness of the U.S. arsenal. Eighteen years after the last U.S. nuclear test explosion, it is clear that the arsenal can be maintained without nuclear test explosions and without pursuing new warhead designs. Over the past decade, the National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) life extension programs have successfully refurbished existing types of nuclear warheads and can continue to do so indefinitely.

On December 1, the directors of the three U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories wrote that they are "very pleased" with the recently updated $85 billion budget to maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile and modernize the weapons complex through the coming decade. Lawrence Livermore director Dr. George Miller, Los Alamos director Dr. Michael Anastasio, and Sandia director Dr. Paul Hommert wrote that the increased funding plan released in November provides "adequate support" to sustain the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The lab directors' endorsement should put to rest any lingering doubts about the adequacy of U.S. plans to ensure a safe, secure and reliable nuclear stockpile under the CTBT.

Senators of both parties should also recognize that delaying reconsideration of the Test Ban Treaty will create uncertainty about U.S. nuclear policy and jeopardize the fragile political consensus to increase funding to maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile in the years ahead.

Senate approval of New START demonstrates that the American people expect their leaders to take action to reduce the nuclear weapons threat and the CTBT is a vital part of an effective 21st century American nonproliferation strategy.