The United States and the Soviet Union are once again in a war of words over ``Who's ahead.'' The issue this time: nuclear weapons testing. On July 29, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev announced that the USSR would cease testing nuclear weapons from Aug. 6 through year's end, and would extend the ban if the US reciprocated. The Reagan administration quickly rejected the request, calling it a propaganda gesture and countering with an invitation to the Soviets to send a team to monitor a US nuclear test to increase confidence in the verification of testing limits.
Regardless of ulterior Soviet motives, the moratorium offer deserved more serious consideration from the Reagan administration. A test moratorium could set the stage for negotiations toward a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which would prevent the further development of new nuclear weapons and constrain further improvements in Soviet warhead technology while retaining the American lead, and contributing to US nonproliferation efforts. By refusing the proposal, the administration has established on ce and for all that it really has no interest in a total test ban agreement.
In fact, the Soviet leader took his lead from past United States presidents. In 1958, President Eisenhower initiated a test moratorium to promote a favorable climate for CTBT talks. The Soviets quickly followed and for three years neither superpower exploded a nuclear device. In 1963, a similar dramatic gesture by President Kennedy helped launch talks leading to the Limited Test Ban Treaty which banned nuclear weapons explosions in the atmosphere, under water, and in outer space.
A treaty banning nuclear tests would be preferable to an informal moratorium because it would allow in-country seismological monitoring equipment and on-site inspections, measures that would facilitate verification. Agreement on such provisions was reached in the CTBT negotiations that took place between the US, USSR, and United Kingdom from 1977 to '80.
Reagan administration policy in opposition to a CTBT is based on inaccurate and often contradictory claims. For example, the administration has asserted that the Soviet Union is ahead of the US in the testing of nuclear weapons and has already completed testing of its newest strategic weapons while the US has not.
If anyone is ahead in the nuclear testing race, it is the US. Since 1945 the US has exploded 765 nuclear weapons, and the Soviets about 563. In 1985, the US has conducted nine nuclear weapons tests and the Soviet Union seven. The US has already fully tested designs for its next generation of nuclear weapons.
It is certainly true, as the administration argues, that, over time, a test ban would inhibit development of new types of nuclear weapons. That is, after all, its principal objective and why it would be an effective means of curtailing the nuclear arms race.
Another argument that the Reagan administration has used periodically in opposing a CTBT is that it would be ``unverifiable.'' Evidence to the contrary is convincing. US intelligence utilizes an extensive worldwide seismic monitoring network to detect, locate, and identify Soviet nuclear explosions. Many seismologists believe that, with the addition of in-country seismic stations, we could detect with high confidence any clandestine Soviet testing at very low levels (1-2 kilotons or below).
Finally, it is often claimed that tests are needed to maintain confidence that existing weapons in the stockpile will work. Such ``reliability'' testing of stockpiled weapons is very rare. Moreover, former nuclear weapons designers have testified that nuclear testing is not necessary to ensure reliability.
An undisclosed reason for administration opposition is that such tests are needed to develop weapons for the ``star wars'' program. One concept that interests scientists most is the nuclear-pumped X-ray laser, tested several times under ground at the Nevada test site. Ironically, the X-ray laser utilizes a nuclear weapon explosion for its energy -- despite assertions by President Reagan that all ``star wars'' weaponry under development is nonnuclear.
The clear American rejection of a test ban will put the US in an awkward position at the upcoming review conference on the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Other nations party to the NPT have always viewed a test ban as a critical first step for the superpowers in fulfilling their obligation within the NPT to pursue ``effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race.''
A complete ban on nuclear testing remains in the national security interest of the US. The quick rejection of the Soviet moratorium proposal casts doubt on the administration's commitment to genuine arms control.
Thomas K. Longstreth is associate director of Research and Analysis with the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based public education organization. The views expressed are his own.