Test-Ban Treaty and Global Security

By Leonard S. Spector. Leonard S. Spector is a senior associate Washington. | The Christian Science Monitor, August 3, 1993 | Go to article overview

Test-Ban Treaty and Global Security


Leonard S. Spector. Leonard S. Spector is a senior associate Washington., The Christian Science Monitor


WITH President Clinton's decision in July to extend the current US halt on nuclear testing, prospects for a permanent, global ban on nuclear testing look more promising today than they have for more than a decade. Three other nuclear powers, France, Britain, and Russia, also have declared a temporary moratorium on tests. Washington has begun consultations with these nations and with the fifth declared nuclear-weapon state, China, on starting five-way talks for a comprehensive test-ban treaty (CTBT).

Despite the end of the cold war, a number of United States nuclear "hawks" still object to a test ban. They see it as a senseless restraint on US prerogatives that ultimately will damage American security and fail to contribute to nonproliferation. In fact, a CTBT will significantly enhance US security and that of our friends around the world. It is important, however, for both sides of this debate to recognize that the terms of that debate have changed.

For many years, advocates argued that a CTBT would reduce the threat of a catastrophic superpower nuclear exchange by making it much more difficult to deploy new, more destabilizing arms.

Today, however, the collapse of the Soviet Union has largely ended the superpower nuclear rivalry and, with it, the threat of global nuclear war. The security benefits for the US and the larger international community from this fundamental change vastly overshadow any added reduction in the likelihood of superpower nuclear war that a test ban may bring.

Indeed, when he extended the US testing moratorium in July, Mr. Clinton emphasized the halt's potential contribution to slowing the global spread of nuclear weapons. Here, the potential security benefits for the US and its friends are likely to be very substantial.

First, although a comprehensive test ban may begin with the five declared nuclear powers, it is generally assumed that the treaty also will be adopted by a substantial number of nonnuclear states. This will give the treaty considerable weight as an international norm.

Today, the three undeclared nuclear powers, India, Israel, and Pakistan, each could deploy nuclear weapons quickly in wartime. Yet they are not conducting tests for fear of international criticism. Among this group, only India is known to have conducted a nuclear test, one in May 1974.

A CTBT would greatly reinforce existing pressures on these countries to refrain from testing, even if they did not join the treaty. In fact, however, both India and Pakistan have declared in the past that they would join a test-ban treaty. Israel, too, might take this step.

As a result, a CTBT would slow development of next-generation weapons. India, Israel, and Pakistan rely on atomic weapons of the types used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. None has yet developed far more destructive thermonuclear ("hydrogen") weapons, which would require full-scale tests. Moreover, while Israel apparently possesses atomic warheads for its missiles, India and Pakistan have not yet developed them. Progress toward this goal could be retarded, perhaps considerably, if full-scale nuclear tests were precluded.

Second, a CTBT could constrain states like North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Libya that aspire to nuclear weapons. Some CTBT opponents argue that, like Israel and Pakistan, these states would not need to conduct tests to develop rudimentary atomic arsenals. A treaty, they reason, would do little to keep them from crossing the nuclear-weapon threshold.

Most experts agree that testing probably would not be essential. But it must be remembered that Israel developed its capability in conjunction with France; many believe that it received data from one or more French tests. Pakistan is thought to have received a previously tested design from China. Whether other states that lacked such help would have confidence in their nuclear weapons without a test is uncertain. …

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