Rethinking the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

It has been nearly 15 years since the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed and ratified by over 2/3 of the United Nations General Assembly. There continue to be several holdouts, but the only state with nuclear potential west of Egypt that has not ratified the treaty is the United States. The last time the CTBT was brought to to a vote in the United States Senate was 1999. As new technology makes it increasingly obvious that the treaty would be beneficial to U.S. national security, the time has come for U.S. policymakers to rethink American participation in the CTBT.

There is one particularly powerful national security argument for ratifying the CTBT. The marginal benefit that the U.S. could gain from further nuclear testing is significantly less than the benefit that  potential military rivals such as China and Iran could accrue. The U.S. conducted over 1000 nuclear tests between its first in 1945 and its last in 1992, and the only reason to ever do so again is to ensure that the weapons are still working properly. However, technological advancements since the Senate rejection of the CTBT in 1999 have rendered nuclear testing obsolete as a means for ensuring the effectiveness of a nuclear arsenal. Meanwhile, other states could steadily approach the U.S.’s level of nuclear capabilities through further testing. Since nuclear capability is close to a zero-sum game, a slight decrease in U.S. capabilities–which most likely would not even occur–is easily worth a significant decrease in the potential capabilities of others. Continue reading