Michael KreponThe CTBT Takes Another Hit

Quote of the week:

“I was honored to be the first of 146 leaders to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, our commitment to end all nuclear tests for all time — the longest-sought, hardest-fought prize in the history of arms control. It will help to prevent the nuclear powers from developing more advanced and more dangerous weapons. It will limit the possibilities for other states to acquire such devices . . . Our common goal should be to enter the CTBT into force as soon as possible, and I ask for all of you to support that goal.” — President Bill Clinton

The Trump administration, speaking through the Defense Intelligence Agency, has doubled down on charging Russia with violating the “no yield” standard of adherence to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This may be true, but I have my doubts. Before jumping to conclusions on this matter, it’s important to consider relevant history and motive.

Readers of my last post on this subject will recall the history of misestimating Soviet yields and false charges of violations of the Threshold Treaty in the past, disproven by joint verification experiments. Charges of Russian violation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty arose soon after its negotiation, based on seismic signals and concurrent unusual activity at their Arctic test site. These charges were also disproven, with seismic activity subsequently attributed to a small earthquake nearby. Now along comes General Robert Ashley, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, appearing at a public event to drop the bombshell that Russia is “probably” violating the CTBT.

The DIA has issued a statement on June 13th reaffirming its finding and, contrary to a Time magazine report, clarifying that this is an Intelligence Community-wide assessment:

“The U.S. government, including the Intelligence Community, has assessed that Russia has conducted nuclear weapons tests that have created nuclear yield. Regarding China, the information raised at the Hudson Institute, coupled with China’s lack of transparency on their nuclear testing activities, naturally raise questions about those activities in relation to the “zero yield” nuclear weapons testing moratorium adhered to by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. These are actions that the U.S. government characterizes as inconsistent with the commitments undertaken by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.”

Extremely low yield experiments are most unlikely to produce seismic signatures. How, then, can the U.S. Intelligence Community be sure enough to assess a “probable” violation? The answer is presumably through sources and methods that cannot be revealed, meaning that we are in the dark and we are obliged to trust the U.S. Intelligence Community’s considered judgment.

But as noted above, the U.S. Intelligence Community has a track record of faulty judgment and “confirmation bias” with respect to Soviet/Russian nuclear testing. On top of this, National Security Adviser John Bolton has a history of wishing to be rid of the CTBT. The DIA’s public release of this information and its public reaffirmation is most irregular. Just last April, the State Department issued a report on treaty noncompliance that did not include this finding. Why would a public finding of noncompliance be delivered at the Hudson Institute instead of the State Department’s annual report mandated by Congress? Is the evidence suggesting noncompliance new since April?

The timing of this public finding is also curious, coming when the Congress is arguing over whether to turn the premier, most survivable leg of the Triad — ballistic missile-carrying submarines — into delivery platforms for tactical nuclear weapons. This isn’t wise, and Democrats on Capitol Hill are taking aim at this and other nuclear-related programs. Trump administration officials with the help of the DIA are taking aim at the CTBT.

This would not be the first time that the U.S. Intelligence Community judgment has been bent by policy preferences, nor will it be the last. When John Bolton was Undersecretary of State for Arms Control in the George W. Bush administration, I’m told he took a run at “unsigning” the CTBT, and failed. Walking away from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was as much as the traffic would bear at that time. Paul Sonne of the Washington Post now reports that Senators Cotton, Rubio, Cornyn and Lankford have written to Donald Trump suggesting the CTBT’s “unsigning,” calling it a “deeply flawed treaty that purports to ban all nuclear weapons tests.”

Those with long memories will recall a controversy over “broad” and “narrow” interpretations of the ABM Treaty. Richard Perle, a past master of throwing sand in the gears of treaty making, often said that lawyers and seismologists could be found to arrive at whatever one’s preferred conclusions regarding treaty compliance. An in-house Pentagon lawyer during Perle’s stint as Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Reagan administration looked into the ABM Treaty’s negotiating history and discovered that, lo and behold, the Treaty permitted any and all testing of ABM components based on futuristic principles — activities banned by the Treaty according to its language, its negotiators, and the statements of Nixon administration officials seeking the Senate’s consent to ratification.

A State Department lawyer then sifted through the negotiating record and concluding likewise: that it was insufficiently precise to suggest that the Soviets shared the U.S. view of prohibited activities “in a manner they would consider binding on themselves.” Thus, why should the United States slavishly adhere to obligations that were not fully shared?

Many other negotiated outcomes can be questioned in this way, including the “zero yield” obligation of the CTBT. The view of the U.S. treaty negotiator, Stephen Ledogar, is as follows:

“I have heard some critics of the Treaty seek to cast doubt on whether Russia …committed itself … to a truly comprehensive prohibition of any nuclear explosion, including an explosion…of even the slightest nuclear yield. In other words, did Russia agree that hydronuclear experiments, which do produce a nuclear yield, although usually very, very slight, would be banned and that hydrodynamic explosions, which have no yield because they do not reach criticality, would not be banned? The answer is a categorical ‘yes.’ The Russians as well as the rest of the P-5 did commit themselves.”

The Department of State during the Clinton administration, backed up by documentation yet to be released, reached the same conclusion. Steve is no longer alive to provide authoritative testimony. But even if he were, he can be contested by clever lawyers sifting through the negotiating record to claim that the Kremlin wouldn’t consider the zero yield standard “in a manner they would consider binding on themselves.” If you want to throw sand in the gears, this is the way to do it.

In the case of the ABM Treaty, Secretary of State George Shultz and his eminence grise, Paul Nitze, leveraged clever lawyering to secure a treaty eliminating categories of nuclear arms and to lay the groundwork for deep cuts in strategic forces. The ABM Treaty remained in force to backstop deep cuts. The difference now is that John Bolton and his cohort do not seek clarification and implementation of the CTBT; they want to resume low-yield testing and “unsign” the Treaty.

Never mind that Russian leaders vehemently claim that they have not violated a treaty Moscow has ratified and that Washington has not. The door is open to clarify terms of the Russian moratorium through discussions and joint verification experiments. But absent the prospect of U.S. treaty ratification, Moscow may choose not to cooperate this time, especially on John Bolton’s watch. Instead, expect public charges without remedial action.

A treaty prohibiting nuclear testing that has ended tests with detectable yields by Russia, the United States, China, India, Pakistan, Great Britain and France for two decades deserves to be protected and not undermined — especially when there is no public evidence of any kind of nuclear testing at undetectable yields.

It’s a target rich environment for those who oppose arms control. Add the CTBT to the list. The best way to deter a campaign to “unsign” the CTBT and carry out low yield experiments is through Congress’s power of the purse.


  1. P (History)

    I’m not sure how the US treaty ratification process works, but since the CTBT has already been signed, couldn’t Congress simply ratify it now? Wouldn’t this be even more efficient than the power of the purse?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Ratification will need the consent of almost twenty Republican Senators. This isn’t now likely.

  2. Lee Minjae (History)

    How much this CTBT will impacts on DPRK? There is no mention of DPRK on this article but I know DPRK is one of Nuclear nation now so just wonder what really changed. When Bill Clinton signed this treaty DPRK wasn’t a Nuclear nation so did they include DPRK or they just ignore DPRK?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Very few countries in the world have not signed the CTBT. North Korea is one of them, along with India and Pakistan.
      All three now observe a moratorium on testing, along with every other state that could test but has refrained from doing so. One reason for restraint is the CTBT which sets a global norm against testing, whether you have signed and ratified the treaty or not.

    • Lee Minjae (History)

      If that is the case do they have any justification to enforce their CTBT to unsigned countries??? Global norms sounds great but at the end isn’t it just what US only cares about? US always us UN as their f justification action but at the end it is just what US wants and benefit US

  3. Michael Krepon (History)

    Testimony by Secretary of Defense Harold Brown during SALT II is pertinent here:

    “There is a double bind which serves to deter Soviet cheating. To go undetected, any Soviet cheating would have to be on so small a scale that it would not be militarily significant. Cheating on such a level would would hardly be worth the political risks involved. On the other hand, any cheating serious enough to affect the military balance would be detectable in sufficient time to take whatever action the situation required.”