Deep inside the Pentagon, the Trump administration’s nuclear posture review is taking shape. This little known, yet highly consequential process, sets the direction of U.S. nuclear weapons policy. Will this review reflect our “let it be an arms race” Twitter president or something more responsibly restrained?
This month, more than 40 members of Congress sent a letter to President Trump urging him to continue in his predecessors’ footsteps. The letter explained that “starting with President Reagan’s leadership, American presidents have steadily reduced the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, as well as the size of the arsenal.”
It was nuclear testing that fueled the 20th century arms race. As countries relied upon nuclear weapons test explosions to prove their new designs, a competitive frenzy of nuclear weapons development flourished. In this era, the United States conducted 1,030 nuclear tests, more than the rest of the world combined. We developed what is today the most sophisticated nuclear arsenal on the planet.
The last U.S. explosive nuclear weapons test was a quarter of a century ago. The testing moratorium established with bipartisan legislation during the George H.W. Bush administration remains in place today. With the foundation of testing moratoria in both the United States and Soviet Union, the Clinton administration played a leading role in negotiating and garnering support for the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Although the treaty has not yet fully entered into force, it has established a global consensus against testing, with North Korea the sole nuclear tester to break this taboo in the 21st century. The treaty organization also has developed a premier global monitoring and verification system now operating and demonstrating impressive capabilities to detect and deter nuclear testing.
Over these past several decades without explosive nuclear testing, the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories have developed and implemented a robust — and expensive — science-based program that has certified that the U.S. nuclear stockpile is safe and reliable. In fact, laboratory leaders have stated that they have a more fundamental understanding of nuclear weapons than “when we were blowing them up.”
So what could drive the United States to reverse course, abandon 21st century science, and abdicate global diplomatic leadership to resume nuclear testing? Just one thing: an effort to develop wholly new U.S. nuclear weapons. These novel weapons systems would introduce uncertainty into the U.S. arsenal that could lead to an explosive test to provide full confidence.
There is a fundamental national security flaw in the extremists’ proposal. The United States now possesses the strategic advantage: we have most sophisticated nuclear arsenal on the planet, paired with a global norm against nuclear testing. If we conduct an explosive nuclear test, other countries will surely follow suit, using their tests to rapidly develop new nuclear capabilities for their arsenals, and thereby exposing the United States to new threats. What logic would open the pandora’s box of a global nuclear testing breakout for the sake of adding of a new nuclear capability on top of our current overkill superiority?
Many of today’s policymakers have limited memory of the 20th century nuclear arms race — the constant fear and tension, the “duck and cover” drills, the concerns about nuclear fallout. Maybe it seems just a little unbelievable that this history could repeat itself. But in fact, it might be worse. Today, it’s not just Russia and the United States that would embark on dangerous game of one-upmanship, as China, India, Pakistan, and likely others would jump in to develop new and more sophisticated nuclear weapons. Nothing would more effectively throw gasoline on a global nuclear arms race than restarting nuclear testing.
If it is the United States that leads the way to a global nuclear testing breakout, what possible restraint could we influence or enforce upon other nations using diplomatic tools? Any nuclear test would be a highly provocative event inciting a reaction that could quickly spiral out of control. In a 21st century security environment with multiple global “hot spots,” resumption of nuclear explosive testing now might initiate a cycle with the launch of a nuclear warhead as its tragic end.
U.S. resumption of nuclear testing is a dangerous idea that should be clearly rejected in the president’s nuclear posture review. Congress must continue to press for a review and policy that ramps down nuclear dangers rather than incites them and should specifically decry any plans for U.S. resumption of explosive nuclear blasts.
Kathy Crandall Robinson is a senior fellow at Women In International Security, an organization dedicated to advancing the leadership and professional development of women in the field of international peace and security. With decades of experience in nuclear weapons research and analysis, Crandall Robinson specializes in U.S. nuclear policy, Pentagon spending, and the congressional budget process.
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