Michael KreponTaking Aim at the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

Snippet of the week:

Bullitt: Look Chalmers, let’s understand each other… I don’t like you.

Chalmers: Oh come on now, don’t be naive lieutenant. We both know how careers are made. Integrity is something you sell the public.

Bullitt: You sell whatever you want, but don’t sell it here tonight.

— Sparring between Steve McQueen and Robert Vaughn in the movie Bullitt, screenplay written by Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner

At a May 29th conclave held at the Hudson Institute to call attention to the increasingly brutish world in which we live, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, Jr., spoke thusly:

“Russia’s development of new warhead designs and overall stockpile management efforts have been enhanced by its approach to nuclear testing. The United States believes that Russia probably is not adhering to its nuclear testing moratorium in a manner consistent with the ‘zero-yield’ standard.

“Our understanding of nuclear weapon development leads us to believe Russia’s testing activities would help it to improve its nuclear weapons capabilities. The United States, by contrast, has forgone such benefits by upholding a ‘zero-yield’ standard.”

Think of this as the first volley to extricate the United States from the strictures of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Tim Morrison, musket always at the ready, was on hand to reinforce the point. Tim’s professional life on Capitol Hill and now with John Bolton in the White House has been devoted to tearing down treaties that constrain U.S. freedom of action.

Imagine what the world would be like if Russia, the United States, China, India and Pakistan were testing nuclear weapons. They are not because of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which is responsible for shutting down nuclear testing by major and regional powers for more than two decades. Walking away from the CTBT would be extraordinarily dumb and dangerous, but now there’s the whiff of grapeshot in the air.

The CTBT, negotiated in 1996, isn’t solidly in place. While Russia has signed and ratified it, Senate Republicans rejected it in 1999. China, like the United States, has signed but not ratified. There are other holdouts, including India and Pakistan. And yet the last time any of these states has tested nuclear weapons was in 1998. When a treaty is negotiated, it’s common diplomatic practice not to undercut its objectives while awaiting its entry into force. Hence, the two-decades-long moratorium on testing by every nuclear-armed state except North Korea.

How long can this situation last? The CTBT’s longevity has been jeopardized by General Ashley’s statement about “probable” Russian noncompliance with the Treaty’s zero yield obligation. The State Department defines noncompliance as any explosion “that produce a self-sustaining, supercritical chain reaction.” You can conduct experiments, but you can’t produce yield.

As a result of General Ashley’s statement, it’s now open season against the CTBT for those who want to trash another treaty. Reflexive critics of arms control have begun to call on Donald Trump to “unsign” the CTBT, just as he has walked away from the Iran nuclear deal and the Arms Trade Treaty. (Trump also announced withdrawal from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, but in this case, evidence of Russian noncompliance is compelling.) By “unsinging” the CTBT, Trump would tell the world that the United States is no longer bound to respect the Treaty’s obligation not to test nuclear weapons.

Before stumbling into this sinkhole, there are three very important things to bear in mind. First, the U.S. Intelligence Community in general, and the Defense Intelligence Agency in particular, have bad track records in assessing Moscow’s compliance with nuclear testing constraints. Second, National Security Adviser John Bolton and others have a track record of fixing intelligence findings to fit their policy preferences, to the great detriment of America’s national security, expeditionary forces, and international standing. And third, walking away from the CTBT would remove constraints on the resumption of nuclear testing by others far more than on the United States.

Now let’s consider details.

General Ashley declared that the United States believes that Russia “probably” is cheating. This suggests an intelligence community-wide agreement, but Time magazine reports that this is not the case. According to Time’s reporters, “A senior U.S. intelligence official said after Ashley’s speech that there is no consensus in the intelligence community that Russia has conducted a low-yield test, only that it is assembling the facilities that would be necessary to do so.”  If there is a difference of view within the intelligence community on whether Russia is “probably” cheating, and if this dispute is about inference rather than evidence, we deserve to know about it. We also need to know whether administration officials are seeking to fix intelligence assessments to suit policy preferences.

The Intelligence Community does not have a good track record when it comes to nuclear testing. In 1974, President Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev agreed to a Threshold Test Ban Treaty, limiting tests underground to 150 kiloton yields — about ten times that of the Hiroshima bomb. This treaty was much derided because the Left wanted a complete cessation of testing, while the Right presumed the treaty wasn’t verifiable and that the Kremlin would cheat.

Sure enough, U.S. readings of Soviet tests indicated that the 150 kiloton-threshold was being breached, and this became part of the bill of particulars against doing new arms control agreements during the Reagan administration. The considered judgment of both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency was that the Kremlin “likely” cheated.

Here’s the tortured formulation the Reagan administration and the Intelligence Community arrived at to make this claim:

” While the available evidence is ambiguous, in view of ambiguities in the pattern of Soviet testing and in view of verification uncertainties, and we have been unable to reach a definitive conclusion, this evidence indicates that Soviet nuclear testing activities for a number of tests constitute a likely violation of legal obligations under the TTBT.”

English language translation of intel community-speak: We really shouldn’t be making this call, but political circumstances dictate it.

This judgment was later disproven by joint verification experiments at the U.S. and Soviet test sites. Seismic monitoring capabilities were much cruder back then, and there were wide bands of uncertainty surrounding the actual yields of Soviet tests. Uncertainty levels were magnified further by a lack of understanding of the geology at Soviet test sites, resulting in the systematic overestimation by the U.S. intelligence community of Soviet nuclear test yields. With information based on the joint verification experiments, the issue of “likely” Soviet violations was put to rest.

Turn the clock forward to 1997, when the intelligence community suspected a low-yield test at the Arctic test site soon after the ink was dry on the CTBT. As told by Lynn Sykes, who has written a book about the advances and misadventures of seismologists, the culprit was a very small earthquake southeast of the test site.

Now fast-forward to General Ashley’s claim of “probable” Russian violation of the CTBT’s zero yield stricture. Monitoring a zero yield treaty is much harder than monitoring whether a 150 kiloton-threshold has been exceeded. Very intrusive inspections — the kind permitted by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty — can help, but the Senate hasn’t consented to the Treaty. Another set of joint verification experiments might once again come in handy, but Washington and Moscow have to improve ties before this can happen.

Even though the CTBT hasn’t entered into force, the United States, Russia, and many other signatories have wisely decided to set up an international monitoring system able to detect very low yield explosions. The head of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization has clarified that this ultra-sophisticated network of over 300 sensors, including several particularly useful for monitoring the Russian test site located above the Arctic Circle, has not detected suspicious readings. The United States possesses a parallel monitoring network, which might be even better. Has it recorded suspicious readings, or has it not? We deserve to know this.

If there are no suspicious seismic readings, what, then, might possibly account for the Defense Intelligence Agency’s conclusion of a “probable” Russian violation of the zero-yield Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty? The answer might well be inferences drawn from the refurbishment of Russia’s Arctic test site, including the construction of new facilities. But the United Sates has also refurbished and built new facilities at its test site in Nevada where treaty-permissible experiments without yield are carried out.

Is activity at the Arctic test site suggestive of noncompliance? The answer might well lie in the eye of the beholder. For the Defense Intelligence Agency, it’s possible that suspicious activity and construction at Russia’s test site is sufficient to conclude the probability of a violation.

If this is the case, it’s not sound analysis; it’s inference. Before the drums intensify to “unsign” the Test Ban Treaty, thereby opening the gates to renewed nuclear testing by one and all, the House Intelligence Committee could demonstrate that it’s not totally consumed with Donald Trump’s ties with Russia by calling witnesses and finding out what’s behind the claim of a “probable” violation. What is fact and what is surmise? It might be true that the Kremlin has tested at yields that are extraordinarily hard to detect. Or it might be true that the assertion of a “probable” violation reflects shoddy intelligence tradecraft or political influence, or both. What’s behind this judgment? Testimony would, of course, be classified, but the Committee could provide an unclassified summary of its findings.

It’s unknown whether John Bolton had any involvement with the DIA intelligence assessment, but another reason for investigation is the National Security Adviser’s record of  “fixing” intelligence to make the case for a second war against Saddam Hussein, a war predicated on weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. Bolton opposes U.S. ratification and entry into force of the CTBT. Is he once again “fixing the facts” to suit his policy preferences? Is the Defense Intelligence Agency once again guilty of reaching conclusions beyond available evidence, and misrepresenting the evidence it has? Or is there strong evidence of Russian violations of the CTBT’s prohibition on testing?

We deserve answers to these questions before opening the floodgates to resumed nuclear testing.

Note to readers: A shorter version of this essay appeared in Forbes.com.


  1. Jonah Speaks (History)

    To be sure, “unsinging” the CTBT would be a necessary political prelude to “unsigning” the CTBT, but is that the goal? Another possibility is that the Trump administration is trying to shore up its case for developing and deploying additional low-yield nukes.

    There is “probably” no need for either Russia or the U.S. to “test” low-yield nukes in order to build them, is there? Don’t they “probably” know how already?