At the heart of the high-stakes duel in Washington over the nuclear test-ban treaty is this unanswered question: How much nuclear-weapons superiority does the United States need?
Both sides in the debate agree that a credible US nuclear deterrent is a good thing, but they differ strongly over how the treaty would affect that capability.
Currently, the United States has about 7,000 strategic nuclear warheads, compared with 6,000 for Russia and fewer than 800 divided among France, Britain, and China, according to the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers here. Both US and world stocks of nuclear bombs have declined sharply in the 10 years since the end of the cold war.
Senate Republicans and other treaty opponents have argued that US superiority would be eroded if the Senate were to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which bans nuclear-arms test explosions.
The Clinton administration and Senate Democrats, backed by European allies, argue that the pact would not threaten American nuclear might.
At press time, negotiations between Senate Republicans and the White House were continuing over whether to delay the contentious Senate vote - scheduled for Oct. 12 or 13 - until 2001, a move supported by Democrats and some Republicans.
Republicans have the votes to block ratification, which requires a two-thirds majority, or 67 votes.
Keeping nations in check
Opponents to the treaty argue on two grounds.
First, they say difficulties verifying the ban could allow nations such as Iraq and North Korea to cheat, conducting low-level tests to build crude nuclear arms. Meanwhile, the US, by permanently halting testing, could suffer a deterioration of its nuclear stockpile and deterrent.
"The CTBT jeopardizes our ability to ... maintain the reliability of our nuclear arsenal," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R) of Virginia said on the Senate floor Oct. 12. "To forgo testing is to live with uncertainty."
He, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, and other Republicans, including the Senate GOP leadership, oppose the treaty.
"We did not design our weapons to last forever," warned Sen. John Kyl (R) of Arizona, stressing that testing would be required to "field new designs to replace older weapons."
Yet supporters of the pact contend that US nuclear power would remain overwhelming. They concede that cheating by so-called "rogue" nations such as Iraq could occur, but argue it would not produce weapons that could threaten US security.
"Tests of the size that could go undetected are of no relevance to our security," says Spurgeon Keeney, president of the Arms Control Association and a former member of the US delegation to early CTBT negotiations.
In addition, the treaty would set up a new international monitoring system that would "far exceed current capabilities," says Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana.
Moreover, treaty supporters say the US could maintain the reliability of its nuclear arsenal without conducting test explosions. Instead, it would rely on sophisticated computer models and nonnuclear explosive tests, costing $4.5 billion a year, that have been used since the US suspended nuclear testing in 1992.
If such nonnuclear testing failed to certify the stockpile's safety and reliability, the US would have the right to withdraw from the treaty after six months "if it decides that extraordinary events ... have jeopardized its supreme interests," the treaty states.
Finally, backers of the treaty say that even if some of the thousands of US nuclear weapons were to become outmoded as a result of the treaty, enough would remain to constitute a potent deterrent.
"Maybe one of those bombs won't go off, maybe 10 ... maybe 3,000," says Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware. "We still have 3,000 left. Back when [I was a kid], we used to see bumper stickers: One atom bomb can ruin your day."
Pressure on the Senate to ratify the treaty has mounted as US allies urge its support. The CTBT has been signed by 154 countries, including the US, but can only take effect if it is ratified by 44 nuclear-capable countries. So far, only 26 of that group have ratified the treaty.
The CTBT, 40 years in the making, aims to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons by prohibiting nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, space, or underground - building on more limited nuclear-test bans in the 1960s and '70s.
It would buttress the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty, which commits the five nuclear powers - the US, France, Britain, China, and Russia - to cut their arsenals, and requires other members not to develop or acquire nuclear arms.
Supporters, including US allies overseas, see the treaty as an important tool in curbing a potential nuclear-arms race between nations such as India and Pakistan. The American public also strongly backs the treaty, with a June 1999 poll showing 82 percent want it approved.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society