A total test ban?

Twenty years ago,on Oct. 7, 1963, President John F. Kennedy ratified the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), prohibiting all but the underground testing of nuclear weapons. The first significant nuclear arms control agreement signed by the United States and the Soviet Union, the ban represented an important commitment toward negotiating future limitations in both nuclear testing and weaponry.

Kennedy hoped that the test ban treaty would serve as a stepping stone to the ultimate goal of a comprehensive test ban treaty (CTBT). It is a sad irony that the 20th anniversary of this historic event finds us primarily committed to the production of more than 17,000 new nuclear warheads over the next decade. Preoccupied with START, INF, the MX, and a score of arms control proposals, we have lost sight of the fact that a comprehensive test ban would address the heart of the nuclear dilemma: the continued design and testing of more lethal and sophisticated warheads. Unlike President Reagan's START proposal, a test ban offers the potential for qualitatively capping the nuclear arms race. After more than 20 years of negotiations, a verifiable ban also lies well within the realm of possibility.

There exists no strong rationale for the continued testing of nuclear weapons. Confidence in the reliability of our nuclear deterrent has and can be maintained through alternative methods, such as the routine testing of non-nuclear components, the remanufacture of existing systems to original specifications, and the replacement of defective warheads by others in the stockpile. There is another side to the confidence question. Although a ban on all nuclear testing would probably result in a gradual lessening of confidence in the arsenals of both nations, this would paradoxically increase both US and Soviet security. A loss of total reliability would affect a first-strike planner much more seriously than a nation concerned only with preserving a retaliatory force.

We can no longer hope, as Kennedy once did, to force the nuclear genie back into its bottle through a test ban. A comprehensive treaty would not obstruct the production and deployment of the MX, Trident, cruise missiles, or any of a number of systems whose warheads have already been tested. A ban would, however, prevent the USSR and US from exploiting a new generation of specialized and exotic weapons now under consideration for the late 1980s and beyond.

The administration has allocated increasing resources to design a range of sophisticated enhanced-radiation weapons for use in limited and theater operations. The Pentagon's $500 million laser program is now emphasizing nuclear-generated lasers for a space-based ballistic missile defense system. Complementing this program are efforts to construct an electromagnetic pulse weapon, which would consist of a high-yield nuclear warhead especially designed to disrupt or destroy Soviet command and control capabilities.

The implications of this sort of blatant first-strike weapon, aimed at the nerve centers of each side, are frightening. Such systems and capabilities could incur enormous costs, both economically and in terms of strategic stability, and are best halted from the outset. Yet, it is precisely these future developments in advanced nuclear systems that are conspicuously absent from current arms control negotiations.

A test ban would be among the simplest of current arms control proposals to verify. Verification capabilities have been considerably enhanced by improved seismic monitoring techniques, as well as Soviet agreement in 1977 and 1978 to the installation of tamper-proof seismic stations and the principle of on-site inspection.

According to most seismologists, such a verification regime would practically guarantee the observation of tests down to one kiloton or even less.

The primary obstacles to signing a comprehensive test ban are not innate verification and confidence problems, but a serious lack of political will. It is in our best interests to recognize that the small risks associated with negotiating a ban are far outweighed by the future advantages of a complete halt to nuclear testing.

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