Military: The Missile Indefensible Shield





Mr. Lambers is the author of Nuclear Weapons (2001) and a writer for the History News Service.

This past week's successful missile defense test was a victory for George W. Bush, who sees such a system as critical to our national security interests. But buried by the debate over missile defense lies a smaller, less dramatic, but more vital national security measure. It is ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

President Bush's proposed defense system would be designed to shoot down nuclear missiles launched against the United States. It would act as a shield against rogue nations with smaller weapons stockpiles, not against Russia or other nuclear superpowers.

By contrast, the CTBT bans all nuclear test explosions. Rejected in 1999 by the U.S. Senate, this treaty has been signed and ratified by Great Britain, France and Russia. To take effect, 44 nations with a nuclear capacity must join; 31 of those 44 nations have already ratified the treaty, leaving the United States in the missing 13.

The Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations of the 1950s and 1960s each sought a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing. Both President Eisenhower and President Kennedy realized that such a treaty was not, by itself, going to end the threat of nuclear attack or halt nuclear proliferation. However, they understood a test ban's significance toward achieving those ends.

Their negotiations did produce a limited test ban treaty in 1963 with the Soviet Union, banning test explosions in outer space, underwater and in the atmosphere. The Limited Test Ban Treaty came on the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and years of frequent nuclear testing. At that time the nuclear arms race was a runaway train.

Today, the possibility of nuclear warfare between the United States and Russia has diminished. Nuclear weapons stockpiles are reduced from the Cold War days. But now with more nations possessing nuclear weapons and others on the brink, how can the United States defend itself in a world full of danger and uncertainty?

One proposed way, which the Bush administration favors, is to build a missile defense system. Such a system is risky if it jeopardizes progress on nuclear arms reductions with Russia. The building of a missile defense system is in violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty signed with the Soviet Union, Russia's predecessor state. Russia or other nations are likely to advance weapons development in response to a disregard of the ABM treaty. Cooperation with Russia is critical, for it is a key partner in helping to end global nuclear proliferation.

A better way to defend the United States from nuclear attack would be to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Failure to ratify the treaty leaves the United States less able to influence other nations to stop testing or developing nuclear weapons.

Conducting nuclear test explosions escalates world tensions and increases proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. One needs only to look to Asia for an example of this. Three nations -- India, Pakistan and China -- possess nuclear weapons. China's test explosions in the 1960s prompted India's development of nuclear weapons. Rivals India and Pakistan each conducted nuclear test explosions in 1998.

The existing stockpile of nuclear weapons can be maintained without test explosions. Billions of dollars annually are invested in this program, called Stockpile Stewardship. A former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Shalikashvili, commented on the ability to test nuclear weapons under the comprehensive treaty:"Almost all of the approximately 4000-6000 parts of a nuclear weapon . . . are outside of the 'physics package,' -- i.e. the subsystem that creates the nuclear explosion. Under the Test Ban Treaty, these parts can still be thoroughly tested."

But one cannot rely entirely upon military might to defend itself whether it be building nuclear weapons or missile defense systems. To quote President Dwight D. Eisenhower,"Let no one think that the expenditure of vast sums for weapons and systems of defense can guarantee absolute safety for the cities and citizens of any nation. The awful arithmetic of the atomic bomb does not permit any such easy solution."

Good faith can go a long way toward achieving national security. That is why the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is so vital. Is it risk free? No. Could a nation potentially" cheat" and carry out test explosions undetected by the treaty's monitoring system? Perhaps. However, President Kennedy faced risks when signing the Limited Test Ban Treaty. Today, one can look back at that event and say that it was the right thing to do.

It is a serious mistake not to ratify the CTBT. Without it, there can be no hope of ending the terror of nuclear weapons. By ratifying the treaty, the United States can take a step in the right direction toward ending nuclear proliferation and securing peace for future generations.


This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.


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