Last Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act that would set aside at least $10 million to “carry out projects related to reducing the time required to execute a nuclear test if necessary.” The amendment was proposed by Senator Cotton (R., Ark.) and was approved along party lines. It comes after revelations that the Trump administration is considering the possibility of restarting nuclear tests as leverage for a trilateral nuclear agreement with China and Russia, which, according to the State Department, may be carrying out low-yield nuclear tests. The amendment has generated some political fireworks, with Democrats sending a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper on May 25 demanding an explanation.
As fears of nuclear testing mount, officials should take care to distinguish two different strategies: using testing as an impetus for negotiations with rival powers versus funding testing readiness. Indeed, the administration’s proposals and Cotton’s amendment could have wildly different implications, and if the Trump administration’s desire to use testing as a political tool is risky, then Cotton’s amendment is a better way to address gaps in military preparedness.
The Trump administration’s suggestions of using a nuclear test to catalyze negotiations with Russia and China sparked concerns about proportionality, utility, and safety. In their letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, House Democrats called nuclear testing “short-sighted and dangerous,” arguing that it would violate the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, which states that the U.S. will not conduct nuclear explosive testing unless the “safety and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal” is in question. The letter’s authors argue further that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has certified the reliability of the nuclear arsenal for twenty-four years, that the U.S. has maintained its nuclear deterrent while upholding a testing moratorium since 1992, and that the notion of using nuclear testing to compel Russia and China to sign an arms-control deal is “baseless and uninformed.”
These letters and statements raise important questions. For one, how would a nuclear test bring China and Russia to the table? What would be the consequences of doing so? Is a test even necessary?
Criticisms of the administration’s proposed strategy are well-founded. Stephen Rademaker, former assistant secretary of the State Department, tells National Review: “The notion that [China or Russia would] respond by becoming more likely to negotiate an arms control treaty, to me, is completely implausible.” What’s more likely, according to Rademaker, is that “we’d open the door to Chinese and Russian testing.”
The U.S. has conducted more nuclear tests and has far more data on its weapons than any other nuclear power. Russia and China would certainly like to have more data on their arsenals, but agreements such as the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban-Treaty (CTBT) have precluded them from conducting full-fledged nuclear tests. Should the U.S. begin testing, shifting internal politics in Russia and China could make tests more likely, Rademaker says: “In every country with nuclear weapons there’s an ongoing debate between scientists and engineers who would like to conduct tests to collect data, and other government officials who have reasons not to test.” So far, the government officials have won out, but that may not hold in the wake of an American escalation.
All in all, Rademaker says, testing is not a useful political tool. So why would the Trump administration consider such a move? The answer lies in the CTBT.
While the treaty was adopted by the U.N. in 1996, eight key countries — including the U.S. and China — never ratified it. All nuclear powers, save for North Korea, have abided by its principles; indeed, aside from North Korea, no nuclear power has tested a nuclear weapon in this century. Why? One of the main issues in dispute is the treaty’s definition of “nuclear testing.” According to the Final Report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States (2009), while the U.S. sees nuclear testing as an event that releases nuclear energy, China and Russia believe that low-yield tests are still in compliance with the CTBT. The study notes: “Apparently Russia and possibly China are conducting low yield tests,” yet they remain in compliance with the CTBT owing to the ambiguity of its provisions on testing.
Were the U.S. to sign onto such a treaty, it would risk constraining itself while permitting rival countries to test their own weapons. Perhaps the Trump administration hopes that a nuclear test will pressure China and Russia into a trilateral agreement that accounts for the CTBT’s ambiguities and holds them accountable for low-yield testing. Yet Rademaker warns that using a nuclear test to hold China and Russia accountable would likely backfire. This could undermine the administration’s rationale.
On the other hand, some concerns over nuclear testing are unfounded. The letter to Esper argues that testing is unnecessary to collect data given the capabilities of the NNSA. But the Cotton amendment does not mandate a test; it merely allocates funding to “projects related to reducing the time required to execute a nuclear test if necessary.”
There is real upside to this move. An aging arsenal has many unknowns, even with models and simulations. “It’s great to have these supercomputers that can use models, but models are based on data input,” says Rademaker, who points out that the U.S. lacks data on “the effects of aging of explosive materials, and other components of our nuclear weapons.” The nuclear infrastructure is also in dire need of repair: In 2017, there was $3.7 billion worth of overdue, essential repairs. What’s more, few of the technicians that manage the U.S. arsenal were actually around when these weapons were last assembled and tested three decades ago. All of these unknowns can lead to a tricky situation should the need for a nuclear test ever arise.
“There are good reasons why we need to be able to conduct nuclear tests,” says Rademaker. However, without the proper funding and preparedness, the U.S. would face major obstacles in achieving a test. Depending on the nuclear weapon, it could take between six and 60 months to restore the weapon to operational status. “Today, should the need for a nuclear test arise, with our atrophied infrastructure and the persistent lack of funding to maintain the capability, it would take us a long time to be able to test a nuclear weapon,” Rademaker says. Clearly, confidence in the NNSA and simulated testing in general is overstated.
The Cotton amendment thus presents a unique opportunity to invest in military readiness without being overtly escalatory. However, as the NDAA amendment moves on to the Democratic-controlled House for approval, the Trump and Cotton plans may be conflated. Outrage over the prospect of the Trump testing plan will be on the minds of House Armed Services Committee members. This is unfortunate: As Rademaker puts it, “It is foolish to contemplate nuclear testing purely to send political signals, but it’s critically important to preserve the ability to test should the need arise for technical reasons, such as ensuring the safety and reliability of our weapons.” The demerits of Trump’s approach should not overshadow the merits of Cotton’s.