The State Department’s Compliance Report Plays the Blame Game, Despite Offering Little Evidence

The State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance yesterday released its annual “Compliance Report,” which provides a detailed overview of US (and other countries’) adherence to various treaty and agreement commitments.

The report’s publication comes at a critical time, as the Trump administration has spent the past few years––and the past three months in particular––dismantling the last vestiges of US commitments to the international arms control regime. The administration has recently declared that it is unlikely to extend New START, has withdrawn from the Open Skies Treaty, has alluded to an intent to resume nuclear testing, and has announced that it will “reinterpret” the Missile Technology Control Regime in order to allow the United States to sell armed drones to previously-forbidden countries.

In addition to its intended purpose––providing the official public US assessment of how other countries adhere to arms control treaties and agreements––the administration clearly sees the Compliance Report as a tool to provide justification for shedding treaties. As such, other countries might question the report’s conclusion that the United States is in full compliance with all of its international obligations, but that other treaty parties are not.

Several sections of the Compliance Report are missing both critical context about how and why certain treaties met their eventual ends, as well as actual evidence for some of its claims about the actions of its arms control partners. To that end, we have tried to fill in some of the blanks below.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty

The report assesses that throughout 2019, the United States was in full compliance with the INF Treaty––the landmark Cold War-era treaty that eliminated and banned all US and Russian ground-launched missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

Although this assertion appears to be technically correct and provides an extensive overview of Russian activities, it is missing some critical context. Both the United States and Russia suspended their respective obligations under the treaty in February 2019, and the treaty officially died in August 2019. Although it appeared that Russia had been violating the treaty for many years, we have argued that the Trump administration’s decision to finally kill the treaty was the wrong move, for several reasons.

Firstly, withdrawal established a false moral equivalency between the United States, who probably was not violating the treaty, and Russia, who probably was. It also put the United States in conflict with its own key policy documents like the Nuclear Posture Review and public statements made last year, which emphasized staying in the treaty while trying to bring Russia back into compliance through diplomatic, economic, and military measures. NATO preferred this approach until the Trump administration changed its mind and decided to withdraw, at which point NATO followed suit to avoid being seen to be in conflict with Washington.

The 2020 Compliance Report states that withdrawal from the INF Treaty was intended as a “remedy” for Russia’s material breach. But if the ultimate goal was to coax or coerce Russia back into compliance, then killing the treaty did the opposite. Instead, it legally freed Russia to deploy even more INF missiles on land, something the report explicitly warns that Russia might do by converting the SS-N-30a/Sagaris (Kalibr) sea-launched cruise missile into a land-based system. It also allowed the United States to explore developing INF-range missiles of its own. Only 16 days after the treaty’s collapse, the United States test launched a crudely-fashioned missile that would have certainly violated the INF treaty––if it had still existed.


The 2020 Compliance Report notes that both Russia and the United States are in full compliance with the New START treaty, which caps the number of strategic nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles that each country is allowed to deploy. This is not newsworthy in itself; mutual compliance was confirmed by State and Defense Department officials during Senate testimony in 2018, after the February treaty deadline had passed.

It is bizarre that the Trump administration is using alleged Russian non-compliance with other treaties in order to undermine the one treaty with which Russia is actually complying. Moreover, unlike any other treaty mentioned in the Compliance Report, the strategic forces limited by the New START treaty are the only weapons of mass destruction that can threaten the very existence of the United States.

New START expires in less than a year, and while Russia has agreed to extend it unconditionally, the Trump administration has been dragging its feet. This should be a no-brainer: the treaty is a good deal for both parties, it offers a critical source of predictability and transparency into Russia’s nuclear forces, and extension is widely supported across the country, even among Trump voters; in fact, it’s one of the very few bipartisan issues still remaining in Congress. Senior military leaders, such as the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, have declared their full support for the treaty, largely because it offers a critical source of transparency and stability in the US-Russia nuclear relationship.

Specifically, during the 2018 Senate hearing, then-Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs noted “The United States benefits from the Treaty’s 18 annual on-site inspections, notifications, and biannual data exchanges, which give us insight into the number of Russia’s strategic offensive arms subject to the Treaty and where they are at any given time.” She further noted, “Should the Treaty expire, U.S. inspectors would lose their current access to Russian strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems, bases, and infrastructure, as well as the Treaty’s biannual exchange of data and associated updates on the location and status of Russia’s strategic offensive arms subject to the Treaty.” However, this fact hasn’t stopped Trump’s new arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea––an ardent opponent of arms control who opposed US ratification of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and supported US withdrawal in 2002 from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty––from inexplicably arguing the opposite point. In an interview with The Washington Times last month, he claimed that “The Obama administration negotiated a very weak verification regime […] which the Russians have been exploiting.” The basis for this claim has not been substantiated by other senior administration or military officials, and is not presented in the Compliance Report itself.

Marshall Billingslea

Marshall Billingslea, the Trump administration’s Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control.

In his recent interview, Billingslea noted that a new or extended New START-style deal would necessarily have to include China. This makes no sense. The entire Chinese arsenal is thought to include about 320 warheads––a fraction of the 4,000-4,500 in the US and Russian arsenals––which is why China’s position has consistently been the same: it will not take part in trilateral arms control negotiations while this strategic imbalance remains.

Therefore, as we have previously argued in Forbes, killing New START because it doesn’t include China would do nothing to address the United States’ security concerns about Chinese nuclear forces. Instead, if limits on US and Russian strategic nuclear forces fell away and caused both countries to increase their nuclear forces, China might decide that it would need to increase its stockpile even further in order to adjust to the greater nuclear threat. This would further exacerbate a post-New START nuclear crisis.

Extension does not require Congressional approval; it simply requires a presidential stroke of a pen. Given that both countries benefit from the treaty, that both countries are in compliance, and that the United States’ NATO allies strongly favor an extension, this is a ripe piece of low-hanging fruit.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

The JCPOA (commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal), is not mentioned at all in the Compliance Report. This is not necessarily surprising, as the Trump administration officially withdrew from––and then violated––the deal in 2018. However, in recent weeks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has argued that the United States remains a party to the deal, and therefore could demand a reimposition of sanctions on Iran if an arms embargo is not extended past October. As Senator Elizabeth Warren correctly tweeted in response, “This makes no sense.” “To extend this arms embargo,” she noted, “the Trump admin is suddenly arguing that the US is a party to the same Iran Deal it abandoned.”

Pompeo’s unconvincing argument is undermined by his own former State Department top arms control official, who noted in her 2018 Senate testimony that the United States completed its “withdrawal from the arrangement on May 8.” Additionally, if the Secretary of State truly believed that the United States was still party to the treaty, why would it be excluded from his own department’s comprehensive annual assessment of US treaty obligations?

The absence of JCPOA is even more curious because Iran’s nuclear activities are covered extensively over seven full pages in the Compliance Report.

Nuclear Testing

The Compliance Report does not assess any country’s compliance with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) because the United States has not ratified it. The report repeats the Trump administration’s statement that it has no intentions to ratify the treaty, but nonetheless assesses that Russia and China may have conducted nuclear weapons tests that fail to meet the United States’ “zero-yield” standard. This assertion echoes the claims initially made by DIA Director Ashley during his remarks at the Hudson Institute in May 2019.

On Russia, the report states that the “United States assesses that Russia has conducted nuclear weapons-related experiments that have created nuclear yield.” But it adds in the next sentence that the “United States does not know how many, if any [emphasis added], supercritical or self-sustaining nuclear experiments Russia conducted in 2019.” A test that released nuclear energy from a canister would require Russian notification under the Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTPT), which Russia has not provided. But the Compliance Report does not present any evidence but says additional information is included in a classified annex.

On China, the report is even more vague and circumstantial. It doesn’t explicitly accuse China of having conducted low-yield nuclear tests nor present evidence to that effect. Instead, the Compliance Report says a number of other activities “raise concern” about China’s adherence to the zero-yield standard of the United States and that “the United States cannot rule out the possibility that China could have conducted activities at its test site that are inconsistent with its moratorium commitment…” Details are hidden in a classified annex.

Open source analysists have not detected “any alarming activity” in this regard. Absent public evidence, both China and Russia have rejected the claims, with the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister “[urging] the United States to abandon the growing practice of misinforming the global community about what is happening,” and the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson “[refusing] to dignify the groundless US allegation with a refutation.”

Claims about Chinese and Russian low-yield testing are not new, but are occasionally used by anti-arms control hawks working to hype the Russian or Chinese threat, in addition to pushing for the United States to resume nuclear weapons testing. It is unfortunate that this year’s Compliance Report echoed these claims without offering any public proof to back them up, and that would-be arms control killers are subsequently using them as “evidence” of cheating.

Presidential Nuclear Initiatives

A new addition to this year’s Compliance Report is a large section (three and a half pages) on the 1991-1992 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs). This is an oddball because the PNIs were unilateral declaration, not treaties, without any verification. Apparently, including the PNIs is part of the administration effort to make the case that Russia is cheating and therefore can’t be trusted with other treaties such as the New START treaty.

Russia is cheating on one part of the PNIs, the report says, because Russia hasn’t eliminated all nuclear warheads for Ground Forces as it promised in 1991. The report explicitly identifies the SS-21 and SS-26 short-range ballistic missiles (the SS-26 is replacing the SS-21) as dual-capable. The report does not explicitly say Russian ground-forces have retained nuclear artillery, a frequent rumor on the Internet. Curiously, the SSC-8 GLCM is not mentioned in the PNI section, even though it is a ground-launched dual-capable weapon (it is addressed in the INF section of the report).

The big picture, of course, is that Russia has fulfilled most of the PNI promises and significantly reduced its inventory of non-strategic nuclear weapons since the 1990s. The Compliance Report only mentions in passing that “Russia continues to abide by some PNI pledges, such as warhead consolidation and likely the declared reduction in stockpiles…” Although Russia retains more non-strategic nuclear weapons than the United States (up to 2,000 according to the Nuclear Posture Review), that has been the case for the past three decades. Statements by US government officials indicate that Russia reduced its inventory of non-strategic nuclear weapons between 2009 and 2019 by more than one-third.

One thing completely missing from the Compliance Report’s assessment of the PNI issue is that US planned production of a new nuclear sea-launched cruise missile––as recommended by the Nuclear Posture Review––would be in violation of the United States’ own PNI pledge.

The Role of the Compliance Report

Violations of treaties and agreements must be addressed and resolved, which requires a persistent and professional level of engagement with other countries. Because the Trump administration is focused on abandoning treaties and reinvigorating “Great Power Competition” with Russia and China, however, the Compliance Report may increasingly be seen as a means to provide a justification for that agenda.

Even if Russia is cheating on some agreements, that doesn’t mean they will cheat on all of them, or that it is no longer worth it to retain the ones that are working. Russia has a clear interest in limiting US nuclear forces just as the United States and its allies have an interest in limiting Russian forces.

And even though China is slowly increasing its nuclear arsenal, that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily sprinting to parity. Even if the DIA’s projection that China will “at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile” over the next decade were to happen, that would still not bring the inventory anywhere near the size of the US or Russian stockpiles, which are currently estimated at 4,310 and 3,800 warheads, respectively.

Warhead Inventories 2020

There is also an expectation that if China increases its arsenal it will inevitably result in the abandonment of its no-first-use policy. In February, the head of US STRATCOM offered Senate testimony that he “could drive a truck through that no-first-use policy.” But others, such as Gregory Kulacki, have noted that China’s nuclear strategy is more restrained than what the public debate often assumes.

In sum, the annual Compliance Report should function as a way for the United States and its arms control partners to get on the same page about the status of their respective obligations and anticipate where future compliance issues might arise––not as a way to offer justifications for its own misdeeds. Otherwise, its publication may soon contribute to a breakdown in arms control altogether, rather than function as a mechanism to save it. 

Monitoring Nuclear Testing is Getting Easier

The ability to detect a clandestine nuclear explosion in order to verify a ban on nuclear testing and to detect violations has improved dramatically in the past two decades.

There have been “technological and scientific revolutions in the fields of seismology, acoustics, and radionuclide sciences as they relate to nuclear explosion monitoring,” according to a new report published by Los Alamos National Laboratory that describes those developments.

“This document… reviews the accessible literature for four research areas: source physics (understanding signal generation), signal propagation (accounting for changes through physical media), sensors (recording the signals), and signal analysis (processing the signal).”

A “signal” here is a detectable, intelligible change in the seismic, acoustic, radiological or other environment that is attributable to a nuclear explosion.

The new Los Alamos report “is intended to help sustain the international conversation regarding the [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty] and nuclear explosive testing moratoria while simultaneously acknowledging and celebrating research to date.”

“The primary audience for this document is the next generation of research scientists that will further improve nuclear explosion monitoring, and others interested in understanding the technical literature related to the nuclear explosion monitoring mission.”

See Trends in Nuclear Explosion Monitoring Research & Development —  A Physics Perspective, Los Alamos National Laboratory, LA-UR-17-21274, June 2017.

“A ban on all nuclear tests is the oldest item on the nuclear arms control agenda,” the Congressional Research Service noted last year. “Three treaties that entered into force between 1963 and 1990 limit, but do not ban, such tests. In 1996, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which would ban all nuclear explosions. In 1997, President Clinton sent the CTBT to the Senate, which rejected it in October 1999.”

Update on Comprehensive Test Ban, & More from CRS

The Congressional Research Service has prepared an updated account of the status of the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty (CTBT), which would prohibit explosive testing of nuclear weapons.

“As of August 2016, 183 states had signed the CTBT and 164, including Russia, had ratified it. However, entry into force requires ratification by 44 states specified in the treaty, of which 41 had signed the treaty and 36 had ratified.” The U.S. has not ratified it.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing on the CTBT tomorrow, September 7.

See Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty: Background and Current Developments, September 1, 2016.

Other new and updated products from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

Climate Change: Frequently Asked Questions about the 2015 Paris Agreement, September 1, 2016

U.S. Textile Manufacturing and the Proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, September 1, 2016

Comparing DHS Component Funding, FY2017: Fact Sheet, September 2, 2016

OPM Announces Premium Increase in the Federal Long-Term Care Insurance Program, CRS Insight, September 1, 2016

The European Union’s Small Business Act: A Different Approach, September 1, 2016

Zika Response Funding: Request and Congressional Action, updated September 1, 2016

The CTBT: At the Intersection of Science and Politics

Recent high-level meetings in Washington, D.C., the United Nations, California and Utah about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) might lead one to believe that finally action might be taken towards ratification of the treaty. At the meeting in New York, foreign ministers and senior officials from 90 countries met on September 29 to acclaim the treaty and its value—both scientific and political. “This treaty isn’t just a feel-good exercise. It’s in all of our national security interests, and it’s verifiable,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. “In fact, its verification regime is one of the great accomplishments of the modern world.” 1

In Washington, key U.S. officials—Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, NNSA Director Frank Klotz, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Programs Andrew Weber–as well as Executive Secretary of the CTBT Organization Preparatory Commission Lassina Zerbo, held a public meeting on nuclear testing on September 15. “Today we can say with even greater certainty that we can meet the challenges of maintaining our stockpile with continued scientific leadership, not nuclear testing,” said Secretary Moniz. “So again, I repeat that the United States remains committed to ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, along with the monitoring and verification regime. And this administration will continue making the case for U.S. CTBT ratification to build bipartisan support.”2

Referring to the United States supercomputing and other capabilities, Mr. Klotz noted, “Thanks to this effort, today we have a greater understanding of how nuclear weapons actually work than we did when we were carrying out nuclear explosive testing.  This is a remarkable achievement in innovation for our national security, and it is foundational to an effective no-test regime.”3

In addition, the largest scale, on-site inspection (OSI) simulation to date will be launched for a month in November in Jordan, and includes a day of visiting dignitaries, possibly to include the king. An OSI is the final step in the verification regime; it is a complex endeavor that involves enormous amounts of equipment and scientific as well as operational expertise. The simulation will be a significant test of the system.

Politics meets Science

Although the treaty deals with the highly technical and sensitive subject of nuclear test explosions, it has been considered in a political context since the negotiations. Countries possessing nuclear weapons do not want others to know about their facilities or capabilities, so verification provisions of the treaty were exceptionally difficult to negotiate. World-renown scientists worked in their labs and academic institutions, as well as in Geneva, on the intricacies of devising an international monitoring regime. They advised some of the top diplomats negotiating the treaty in Geneva. Even now, those working on the treaty still grapple with scientific questions in a political setting, the CTBTO Preparatory Commission in Vienna, as well as in their labs or government offices. The scientists possess the expertise and deep knowledge of the various verification techniques, and they provided information and counsel to their ambassadors, but the diplomats make the decisions.

Originally the key issues in the treaty revolved around questions such as: who should be included in the negotiations? What was to be the scope of the ban—a few pounds equivalent TNT of explosive yield, hundreds, or zero? (Negotiators decided on zero.) Would the non-nuclear weapon states agree with the nuclear weapon states that this would be a treaty to “ban the bang, not the bomb?” What kinds of monitoring technologies should be included in the treaty verification regime? Where would monitoring stations be placed? How many stations would be installed in the nuclear weapon states? Who would decide to conduct an OSI, and how would it be conducted? How could access to sensitive facilities be managed? And a crucial question: which countries were essential for entry into force? All of these questions, and more, involve complex scientific issues, but are highly political and contentious.

The CTBT prohibits “any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion” anywhere in the world. The verification provisions of the CTBT are more extensive and intrusive than those of other treaties, as they are designed to detect nuclear explosions anywhere on the planet: underground, in the oceans, and in the atmosphere. In order to verify compliance with its provisions, the treaty specifies a global network of 327 monitoring facilities in strategic locations in 89 countries, and allows for on-site inspections of suspicious events. The International Monitoring System (IMS) comprises four complementary or synergistic technologies: seismic, radionuclide, hydroacoustic and infrasound. The 50 primary and 120 auxiliary seismic stations monitor the ground for shockwaves that are caused by nuclear explosions. A radionuclide network encompassing 80 stations uses air samplers to detect radioactive particles released from atmospheric, underground or underwater explosions. Half of these stations will be capable of detecting noble gases upon entry into force of the treaty. In addition, 16 radionuclide laboratories will analyze samples of filters from the stations (evidence of radionuclides is called the “smoking gun” of a nuclear explosion). In addition, there are 11 hydroacoustic stations to detect explosions in the oceans, and 60 infrasound stations designed to detect nuclear explosions in the atmosphere.

The CTBT Organization (CTBTO) Preparatory Commission was established in March 1997 and has been building up the verification regime, which is about 90 percent complete. The IMS has been detecting global activities such as: some 100 earthquakes each day, the nuclear test explosions conducted by North Korea in 2006, 2009, and 2013, in addition to tsunamis, the dispersal of the radioactive plume from Fukushima, and other activities. Data from the IMS stations is transmitted for analysis to the International Data Center of the Preparatory Commission’s Provisional Technical Secretariat.

In November 2014, the Preparatory Commission will embark on its second full-scale on-site inspection (OSI) simulation in Jordan to test the operation and techniques of an OSI in an integrated manner. Although the treaty includes a timeline and specifics of the on-site inspection regime, details of the operational manual and other logistical arrangements were left for the Preparatory Commission to elaborate. The exercise in Jordan will be the most challenging endeavor to date, aimed to test the ability to conduct an on-site inspection under realistic and challenging conditions, and to demonstrate the progress made since the last Integrated Field Exercise in Kazakhstan in 2008 (IFE08). During Integrated Field Exercise 2014 (IFE14), the Preparatory Commission will simulate a CTBT on-site inspection in which 40 inspectors search a designated area of up to 1,000 square kilometers for evidence of a possible nuclear explosion. IFE14 aims to test 15 of the 17 inspection techniques listed in the treaty in an integrated manner, a significant increase in the technologies tested at the previous IFE in Kazakhstan.

There are numerous OSI techniques, from visual observations and over-flights to multi-spectral imaging, airborne gamma spectroscopy, gamma radiation monitoring, environmental sampling, measurement of argon-37 and radioxenon, seismological monitoring of aftershocks, magnetic field mapping, resonance seismometry, and drilling, among others. The IFE14 will not employ drilling (which is extremely expensive), or resonance seismometry. It plans to exercise each phase of an OSI, from the receipt of the request through the launch, pre-inspection and post-inspection activities, reporting preliminary findings, departure, and return of equipment and personnel. The exercise will involve transporting some 150 tons of equipment from Austria to Jordan. According to the PTS website, the IFE14 will also test newly developed operational elements of an OSI such as an enhanced operations support center, an improved in-field communications system and a rapid deployment system for transporting tons of inspection equipment anywhere in the world.4It should be noted that an OSI can only take place once the treaty has entered into force, thus the Preparatory Commission has had time to develop the procedures.

The provisions in the treaty for an OSI are quite demanding. Because some of the effects from a nuclear explosion can be short-lived, the Executive Council will need to decide on the on-site inspection request within 96 hours of its receipt from the requesting state party, and an OSI inspection team and its equipment must be deployed and initiate inspection activities within a six-day period. During the course of the inspection, the inspection team may submit a proposal to extend the inspection to begin drilling, which must be approved by 26 Council members. The inspection may continue for 60 days, but if the inspection team determines that more time is needed to fulfill its mandate, it may be extended by an additional maximum of 70 days, subject to Council approval.

Developments since 1996

Under the terms of the treaty, countries can use data outside of the IMS that is available from thousands of other seismological or radionuclide stations, satellite observations and other national technical means, as well as advanced data analysis in their efforts to monitor the treaty. Countries may submit this additional information as a basis for a request for an OSI. The IMS is performing far better than expected by the negotiators who designed it. Yet since the CTBT was negotiated in 1996, dramatic scientific and technical advances in monitoring and data analysis techniques have occurred. If countries use the data from the IMS, in combination with what is available outside of the IMS, they could enhance their monitoring capability significantly beyond that provided by the treaty, by an order of magnitude. Using this combination of information would also allow a country to focus its monitoring efforts on countries of concern, individually or in cooperation with others. Such “precision monitoring” would be useful to countries of a region that could pool their resources to support the effort.5 In contrast, the Technical Secretariat is not allowed to use information from stations or advanced technologies that are not included in the treaty. Further, the Secretariat must take a global approach; it is not allowed to focus on specific areas. Such precision monitoring capabilities would be of interest to states where verification might be an issue in the ratification process.

By focusing on specific areas of concern, precision monitoring would also increase the ability to accurately locate events. This is key to identifying areas for on-site inspections. A notable feature of the CTBT is that the decision regarding non-compliance or whether to conduct an on-site inspection rests with the States Parties, not the CTBTO Technical Secretariat. This is contrary to the role of the IAEA and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). It is therefore in the interest of the international community to expand the knowledge base on verification technologies in all countries in order to improve their ability to monitor the Treaty. Countries will need to send to Vienna representatives who are well versed in the provisions of the treaty and who have scientific expertise in the technologies it employs. This will increase the likelihood that a vote in the Executive Council (responsible for compliance with the treaty) on an on-site inspection or a decision about non-compliance will be based on scientific facts rather than concentrating on political concerns.  That is especially important, given that the decision to conduct an OSI must be made by 30 of the 51 members of the Executive Council. Critics of the treaty believe that it will likely be impossible to achieve such a number, although the criteria for membership in the Council are such that the nuclear weapon states will always have a seat on the Council. Although the United States and a few other countries have their own technical means to monitor compliance with the treaty, most countries have not yet established their national facilities to efficiently monitor it.

The treaty was opened for signature in September 1996, and has been signed by 183 nations and ratified by 163. The treaty cannot enter into force until it is ratified by 44 “nuclear capable” nations6 specified in the treaty, eight of which have yet to do so (China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United States). India, Pakistan, and North Korea have not signed it. Although many countries in the negotiations wanted to have a numerical provision (e.g., 65 ratifications), the five nuclear-weapon states in particular insisted that each of the five–and other states capable of developing a bomb–be on board for the treaty to enter into force.

After the United States triggered the negotiations on a CTBT in 1993 and committed considerable political will to conclude it in 1996 at the multilateral Conference on Disarmament, the Senate refused to ratify the treaty in 1999. Since then it has been sitting on the back burner of the U.S. Senate and its counterparts in the seven other countries required for entry into force. It is unlikely that the Obama administration will bring it up for a vote in the Senate unless it knows it has the votes.  Only 28 of the senators who voted on the ratification of the treaty in 1999 remain in the Senate (13 of whom voted against), and that figure may decrease in the November elections. A number of the other holdout countries claim to be waiting for the United States to ratify first, which makes entry into force a political exercise waiting to happen. As Dr. Zerbo said in Washington, “We have to be mindful of those who have signed and ratified this treaty long ago, and been waiting for its entry into force.”

China is the only other nuclear-weapon state among the five declared under the NPT that still needs to ratify. “The U.S. pushed for the negotiations and it has tested more than any other nation,” said Sha Zukang, former Ambassador to the negotiations. “I firmly believe that, were the U.S. to ratify the Treaty, China would definitely follow.” He added that the CTBT could be useful in promoting China-U.S. strategic mutual trust and building a “new model of major country relations.” Noting that the United States had conducted 1032 nuclear test explosions and China and the UK just 45 each, he claimed that China and the international community believed that the United States “wanted to ensure the overwhelming superiority of its nuclear arsenal, both in quantity and quality.” He added, “Serious efforts should be made to encourage U.S. law-makers to change the idea of seeking absolute security at the cost of leaving all other countries feeling insecure, and then to support Treaty ratification.”7

In an influential 2009 report on the Strategic Posture of the United States8, conducted by a bipartisan Congressional Commission and chaired by former Secretary of State James Schlesinger, and former Secretary of Defense William Perry, the CTBT was the only issue on which agreement could not be achieved. Opponents contended that the zero yield prohibition of the treaty cannot be verified and that other countries would cheat, thereby gaining a military advantage, while the United States observed the terms of the treaty. They faulted the fact that the treaty does not define a nuclear test, and this could result in different countries having different understandings of prohibitions and restrictions, to include the possibility of conducting tests with hundreds of tons of nuclear yield. In this context, they believe that Russia and possibly China are conducting low yield testing. They also believe that maintaining a safe, reliable stockpile of nuclear weapons will require testing over time.9 A number of senators and decision makers believe these and other aspects of the treaty will not confer benefits and would pose security risks to the United States.10 Proponents contend that the treaty is a strong nonproliferation tool which is verifiable, and that other states could develop and test new or improved weapons without constraints (posing a greater threat to U.S. security), and that the United States can maintain a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear weapons stockpile without additional testing.

A number of studies have been conducted on the scientific and verification capabilities of the treaty, including one by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The Academy released in March 2012 an update of its 2002 report on Technical Issues associated with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The newer study, conducted by eminent scientists in the field, found that the United States “has the technical capabilities to maintain a safe, secure, and reliable stockpile of nuclear weapons into the foreseeable future without nuclear-explosion testing” and “is now better able to maintain a safe and effective nuclear stockpile and to monitor clandestine nuclear-explosion testing than at any time in the past.” The study found that globally, the IMS seismic network provides complete coverage at magnitude 3.8 with about 80 percent of stations operational.11 This is a low magnitude, and the capability has likely improved since the study was conducted, with 90 percent of the stations now operational. As mentioned previously, the IMS detected all three low yield tests conducted by North Korea. “Other States intent on acquiring and deploying modern, two-stage thermonuclear weapons would not be able to have confidence in their performance without multi-kiloton testing,” the report states. “Such tests would likely be detectable (even with evasion measures) by appropriately resourced U.S. national technical means and a completed IMS network.”

Scientific arguments notwithstanding, politics usually get in the way. As former NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks is fond of saying, “The CTBT will not be ratified until there is a Republican president who supports it.” Ambassador Brooks, who was a member of the more recent NAS committee, said that although the report presented positive conclusions about the capabilities of the treaty and was favorably received by both supporters and opponents for its technical accuracy, “I don’t know anyone whose mind it changed.”12

Following the negotiations, member states of the Preparatory Commission in Vienna established a Working Group on Verification to implement the verification regime. They began by considering issues such as what stations to build first, when data from the stations should be transmitted to the International Data Center in Vienna, how to configure the global communications infrastructure, how to authenticate the data, the elaboration of the OSI regime (techniques, equipment, training, operational manual), what the budget should be prior to entry into force, etc. The Working Group breaks down into sub-groups that are quite technical, if not wonkish. Scientific experts from many countries gather to consider topics such as sources of noble gas backgrounds, testing regional seismic travel time, data fusion, autonomous buoys, new optical seismometers, infrasound calibration, and the Bayesian inference approach. Again, the scientists who work in the technical sub-groups advise the diplomats who make decisions in the Working Group on these issues. The CTBTO Provisional Technical Secretariat then carries out these decisions. (In this context, it should be noted that three women participated in the scientific meetings in Geneva, two of whom are the only women participating in Vienna.)

Arguments over the treaty’s benefits and drawbacks have preceded the completion of the current treaty and go back to several earlier attempts decades ago at negotiating a ban. In fact, the negotiators of the Limited Test Ban of 1963 (LTBT) couldn’t agree on the verification provisions of a comprehensive ban, which is why it was limited (i.e. it covered all environments except underground). Article 1 of the CTBT is the same as Article 1 of the LTBT, but expanded to include underground. The LTBT has not been contested over the years, regardless of the fact that it has no verification provisions. Politics have trumped science in a number of instances, and the CTBT is no exception. Secretary Kerry said at the UN in September, “I know some members of the United States Senate still have concerns about this treaty. I believe they can be addressed by science, by facts, through computers and the technology we have today coupled with a legitimate stockpile stewardship program.” It remains to be seen if he can trump politics.

Jenifer Mackby is a Senior Fellow for International Security at FAS. Ms. Mackby has worked on international security, nonproliferation, and arms control issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) Organization, the Conference on Disarmament (CD) and the United Nations. As a Fellow and Adjunct Fellow at CSIS, she has led projects on U.S.-U.K. Nuclear Cooperation, Asian Trilateral Nuclear Dialogues, 21st Century Nuclear Issues, and the CTBT, and has worked on Strengthening the Global Partnership, European Trilateral Nuclear Dialogues, Reduction of U.S. forces in Europe, among others. Previously, she was responsible for the negotiations on the CTBT in the CD, as well as the Group of Scientific Experts that designed the core monitoring system of the treaty. She then served as Secretary of the Working Group on Verification at the CTBTO in Vienna. Ms. Mackby served as Secretary of the Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference, the UN Special Commission on Iraq, the Convention on Environmental Modification Techniques Review Conference, Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference committee, and others. She is a Senior Adviser for the Partnership for a Secure America, and has written extensively about non-proliferation and arms control issues.

Unaccompanied Alien Children, and More from CRS

“The number of unaccompanied alien children arriving in the United States has reached alarming numbers that strain the system put in place over the past decade to handle such cases,” says a new report from the Congressional Research Service. See Unaccompanied Alien Children: An Overview, June 13, 2014.

Other new or newly updated CRS reports that Congress has withheld from online public distribution include the following.

Domestic Federal Law Enforcement Coordination: Through the Lens of the Southwest Border, June 3, 2014

The Evolution of Cooperative Threat Reduction: Issues for Congress, June 13, 2014

Taiwan: Major U.S. Arms Sales Since 1990, June 13, 2014

Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights, June 13, 2014

Proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP): In Brief, June 11, 2014

Foreign Holdings of Federal Debt, June 16, 2014

Access to Broadband Networks: The Net Neutrality Debate, June 12, 2014

Mongolia: Issues for Congress, June 17, 2014


FAS side events at the RevCon

by Alicia Godsberg

Yesterday FAS premiered our documentary Paths To Zero at the NPT RevCon.  The screening was a great success and there was a very engaging conversation afterward between the audience and Ivan Oelrich, who was there to promote the film.  As a result of some suggestions, we are hoping to translate the narration to different languages so the film can be used as an educational tool around the world.  You can see Paths To Zero by following this link – we will also be putting up the individual chapters soon.

This morning I spoke at a side event at the NPT RevCon entitled “Law Versus Doctrine: Assessing US and Russian Nuclear Postures.”  I was asked to give FAS’s perspective on the New START, NPR, and new Russian military doctrine.  Several people asked me for my remarks, so I’m posting them below the jump.   (more…)

CTBT ratification and fact-twisting arguments

By: Alicia Godsberg

On Friday, February 5 the EastWest Institute (EWI) held a seminar at their office in New York to discuss its recently released report on the CTBT, entitled, “The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: New Technology, New Prospects?” Speaking at the event for the pro-CTBT ratification camp was Ambassador Robert T. Grey, Jr. (Director, Bipartisan Security Group and U.S. Representative to the Conference on Disarmament from 1998-2001) and against was Stephen Rademaker (Senior Council, BGR Government Affairs and Assistant Secretary of State from 2002-2006). The seminar also hosted many representatives of the NGO disarmament community as well as several diplomats from UN missions, including from Iran, Egypt, and South Korea.

Mr. Rademaker articulated familiar reasons for opposing U.S. ratification of the CTBT: it won’t ensure entry into force of the Treaty; the Treaty is unverifiable; the U.S. may need to test in the event the nuclear weapon stockpile becomes unreliable; there is no agreed definition of a “zero yield” nuclear test; and Russia (and possibly China) does not conform to the U.S. definition of absolutely zero yield, enabling them to benefit from such tests while the U.S. adheres to a stricter standard and (presumably) falls behind in knowledge. The fact that each of these assertions has been proven untrue does not stop these talking points from surfacing at every turn.   (more…)

From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence: A New Nuclear Policy on the Path Toward Eliminating Nuclear Weapons

Though the nuclear arsenal of the United States is smaller than it was during the Cold War, the day-to-day deployment of forces has changed very little. The United States still has weapons ready to launch at a moment’s notice at all times.

The reason is simple: the mission for nuclear weapons has not changed from the time of the Cold War.

Most Americans would be surprised to discover that the instructions to our nuclear targeteers still include a requirement for a surprise first strike against Russian nuclear forces to destroy them on the ground. It is time to shift the focus from reducing numbers of nuclear weapons to reducing the missions of nuclear weapons.

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