It has been nearly 30 years since the U.S. last tested a nuclear bomb, but the Trump administration and its allies on Capitol Hill are teasing a return while Russia conducts its own secretive underground experiments and China gives deep concerns to the national security community.
The Senate’s version of the massive annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) being debated in Congress this month includes $10 million to speed up nuclear weapons tests on American soil if the administration determines they are needed. Such language has met stiff resistance from Senate Democrats and is a nonstarter in the House, where lawmakers instead are seeking an outright ban and warn that any resumption of testing could spark the first post-Cold War nuclear arms race.
Top administration officials last week insisted there are no immediate plans to resume nuclear testing but pointedly would not close the door on the issue. They cited intelligence assessments that Russia had violated the terms of a multinational treaty banning such experiments and argued that the U.S. may need to respond in kind at some point.
Some arms control experts say the provision could serve as a useful bargaining chip as the Trump administration seeks to keep tabs on the nuclear arsenals of Russia and, more particularly, China.
Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, echoed the concerns of a number of private China hawks that Beijing was expanding, upgrading and testing its nuclear weaponry without constraint.
“It’s foolish to trust anything the Chinese Communist Party says, especially when it comes to grave matters like nuclear testing,” Mr. Cotton said in a statement as a Senate panel agreed to his amendment on a 14-13 vote this month. “Beijing is modernizing its nuclear arsenal while the United States handcuffs itself with one-sided arms-control restrictions.”
By simply raising the prospect, the White House has made a dramatic break with tradition and conventional geopolitical wisdom that views nuclear testing as a provocative act that by its very nature stokes fear and increases the likelihood of military conflict.
The last U.S. nuclear test was in September 1992, in the final year of the George H.W. Bush administration.
Military analysts say the administration can and should develop new delivery systems for the nation’s nearly 6,200 nuclear warheads, but they caution that there is no scientific justification for restarting tests. They also argue that it’s unlikely such tests would have any major sway over the behavior of Moscow, Beijing or any other likely nuclear adversary.
“I think often people have this kind of arms race in mind: If we do something, then they’ll do something and we’ll be worse off,” said Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. “I think we’ve seen that at times during the Cold War, but I think recently that hasn’t been the case. Russia and China are pushing ahead despite what we do.”
Indeed, skeptics of renewed testing say that fact underscores the U.S. need for funding and development of specific technology, particularly systems able to counter Russian nuclear submarines and China’s rising arsenal of intermediate nuclear-range missiles. Still, they say the U.S. should steer clear of testing new nuclear weapons.
The U.S. and Russia remain by far the world’s top nuclear powers, each with more than 6,000 warheads. China’s quickly modernizing military is estimated to have about 300 nuclear warheads.
Treaties that established some boundaries around the countries’ nuclear stockpiles have ended, leading to fears that nuclear competition could return to Cold War-era levels. The U.S. last year exited the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty after accusing Russia of violating the deal. The White House also argued that the pact was flawed because it didn’t include China’s smaller but growing arsenal.
The U.S. and Russia also are barreling toward the February expiration of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Negotiators met last week in Vienna for the first serious bargaining session.
Arms control advocates mobilized against the idea of renewed nuclear testing after reports of it broke last month. But as the NDAA and its nuclear test provision began to move through Congress, Trump administration officials made clear that the option would remain on the table.
“We maintain and will maintain the ability to conduct nuclear tests if we see any reason to do so, whatever that reason may be,” Marshall Billingslea, the U.S. special presidential envoy for arms control, told reporters in Vienna last week. “But that said, I am unaware of any particular reason to test at this stage. I won’t shut the door on it because why would we? That said, we made clear to the Russians that we were deeply concerned about what they’re doing at their test site.”
Under terms of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Russia agreed “not to carry out any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion.” The U.S. signed the agreement but did not ratify it, though successive administrations have abided by its ban on nuclear testing.
China has not formally ratified the treaty but claims to be abiding by its terms.
This century, North Korea is the only country to have conducted a verified nuclear weapons test, and it has drawn global condemnation for doing so.
But U.S. officials fear that nuclear rivals have found a way to test the reliability of their nuclear weapons while hiding the evidence. Specialists say Russia likely has been conducting tests in huge underground spaces capable of concealing the seismic disturbances of a nuclear blast.
In its annual summary of countries’ compliance with arms treaties, the State Department this year declared that “Russia has conducted nuclear weapons experiments that have created nuclear yield and are not consistent with the U.S. ‘zero-yield’ standard.”
The State Department raised “concerns” that China could be pursuing similar efforts but stopped short of making similar accusations as those lodged against Moscow.
Administration allies seem eager to put the pieces into place to resume nuclear testing. The NDAA amendment offered by Mr. Cotton aims to reduce the amount of time it would take to get nuclear tests up and running.
Administration officials say the time frame already is short and that tests could resume within months if necessary.
House Democrats warn that even considering such a move is too risky.
“It is unfathomable that the administration is considering something so short-sighted and dangerous,” five House Democrats, led by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith of Washington, wrote in a letter this month to military leaders. “The notion that resuming testing would somehow pressure Russia or China into arms control negotiations is baseless and uninformed. Resuming testing would open the door for widespread global testing, which would only serve to benefit our adversaries and make Americans less safe.”