Challenges of Nuclear Stockpile Stewardship under a Comprehensive Test Ban

By Smith, Harold P., Jr.; Soll, Richard S. | Arms Control Today, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Challenges of Nuclear Stockpile Stewardship under a Comprehensive Test Ban


Smith, Harold P., Jr., Soll, Richard S., Arms Control Today


The nuclear weapons policy and posture of the United States face unique political and technical challenges as the country balances a requirement to maintain its nuclear stockpile against the obligation and desire to provide strong leadership in arms control and non-proliferation. In a world of uncertain dangers and evolving security needs, nuclear weapons and the robust deterrent deriving from them remain fundamental to U.S. national security, although at a level sharply reduced from that required during the Cold War. As Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Walter B. Slocombe told a congressional panel last year, "nuclear weapons will continue to fulfill an essential role in meeting our deterrence requirements and assuring our non-proliferation objectives" until the conditions for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons in the context of general and complete disarmament are realized.1

When President Bill Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) September 24,1996, at the UN General Assembly in New York, after nearly three years of negotiations, a new phase of the nuclear age began. The treaty eliminated one of the primary means of maintaining the safety and reliability of nuclear weapons, but the requirement to maintain a high level of confidence in weapons safety and reliability remains. Although the treaty's "early" entry into force may be blocked by certain states whose ratification is necessary (such as India and Pakistan), their possible continued intransigence will have no effect on nuclear testing by the five acknowledged nuclear powers (the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia), which have all signed the treaty. In addition to the principle of international law that signatories should not violate the objectives of a treaty once it has been signed, each nuclear-weapon state has already declared a unilateral moratorium.

One of the key events in the treat,v's negotiations came in August 1995, when President Clinton announced that the United States would seek a true "zeroyield" test ban. At the same time, he reaffirmed the vital role of nuclear weapons in national security: "I consider the maintenance of a safe and reliable nuclear stockpile to be a supreme national interest of the United States."2

The maintenance of safety, security and confidence in the nuclear deterrent, while the United States continues to provide global leadership in arms control and non-proliferation, will require new and innovative perspectives and processes as the stockpile becomes the oldest in the 50-year history of the nuclear age.

In the absence of underground nuclear test explosions and with no new U.S. nuclear weapons in development, the future arbiter of confidence in the nuclear arsenal will be the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program (SSMP), conducted jointly by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Defense (DOD). The program specifies activities to maintain a high level of confidence that the nuclear stockpile will meet DOD requirements. Rather than relying on the empiricism of testing, the program provides a set of initiatives that will promote an understanding of the fundamental sciences of nuclear explosives and the effects of aging on those explosives. The approach is new, parts of it are relatively unfamiliar, and the program will require an estimated 15 years to reach maturity; thus, the United States could incur some risk as it progresses along the learning curve of science-based stewardship. Nonetheless, several SSMP-related initiatives are already underway, including efforts in stockpile surveillance, the evaluation of aging effects and the development of advanced computational technologies.

The SSMP is tied to a new certification procedure. Each year, DOD and DOE must review the stockpile and recertify its safety and reliability. In the event that the secretary of defense and the secretary of energy determine that a high level of confidence in a particular type of nuclear weapon deemed critical to our nuclear deterrent can no longer be certified, the president, in consultation with Congress, would be prepared to withdraw from the CTBT under the "supreme national interest" clause in order to conduct whatever testing would be required. …

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