Many observers believe the Obama Administration, if reelected, will launch a concerted push for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty after the November election. Conventional wisdom also holds that conservatives in the Senate will push for the same kind of deal they won two years ago when, in return for their affirmative votes on the START treaty, they received a promise from the administration to fund the modernization of the nuclear weapons production complex and the stockpile.
This time, conservatives are likely to push for full funding for the CMRR-Nuclear Facility at Los Alamos, a plant that would manufacture up to 80 plutonium triggers a year for nuclear weapons. The Obama Administration is deferring construction of the CMRR-NF while it builds the Uranium Processing Facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Conservatives are also likely to push for a commitment to full funding for Life Extension Programs for the B-61 warhead and the W78/88—with pricetags projected into the tens of billions of dollars. Delivery systems maybe on the negotiating table as well.
The pressure to cut a deal is great. The CTBT has been the holy grail of arms control and abolition communities for decades.
But the deal is fundamentally different this time. Last time, the logic was, “We will agree to reduce the stockpile numbers, but we will assure the remaining stockpile is safe, secure and reliable through modernization. In fact, as we rely on fewer weapons for deterrence, it is ever more critical that we know they will function as designed.”
This time, the logic doesn’t work. In fact, any deal that seeks modernization in exchange for no-testing is fundamentally irrational.
Weapon modernization happens through the Life Extension Program, which introduces new features in each warhead that undergoes the process—some features improve surety and safeguards, others replace aging components, and still others change crucial mechanisms within the nuclear weapon. Take the W76, for example. It is currently undergoing Life Extension and is being modified. Its arming, fusing and firing mechanism is being replaced; systems controlling the altitude and potential yield of the warhead are being changed out; the thermonuclear secondary is being refurbished and components are being replaced.
Each change to the incomprehensibly complex mechanism that is a nuclear warhead introduces a measure of uncertainty. Will the warhead still function as designed? Can it be relied upon? Will it be seen as reliable enough by a potential adversary to deter an attack? With nuclear weapons, the margin for error is infinitesimally small—it approaches zero.
Change a warhead enough, through Life Extension and modification, and confidence will be undermined. And the only way to regain that confidence is—wait for it—by testing it.
But testing, once the deal is made and the CTBT is ratified, is out.
Or is it?
When then-President Bill Clinton signed the CTBT he declared the US intention to forswear nuclear weapons testing forever unless he determined it was in the supreme national interest to resume testing.
What circumstance could occasion the resumption of testing, overriding the US commitment under the CTBT? What could possibly clear the high bar of “supreme national interest?”
Only a failure of confidence in the reliability of the US stockpile.
Those who are going to be asked to sign a deal for votes to ratify the CTBT should be wary. If you sign off on modernization as the price of a yes vote, you are guaranteeing the eventual failure of the CTBT. The “other side” will get its cake and eat it, too—the stockpile will be modernized and we’ll be back to testing.
In that case, the deal is topped off with the supreme irony: everyone loses.