Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

It’s horrifying even to imagine the U.S. finding itself in a position where it must use an atomic bomb against an enemy. However, in the event such a crisis occurs, we must be certain the weapon will work.

Equally important, the main purpose of the U.S. nuclear-weapons program today is to provide a deterrent against potential threats, and that can only be achieved if we are confident in our stockpile and aware of the risks we face around the world.

Fortunately, as a report from the National Academy of Sciences last week helped make clear, there is a way to improve security on both fronts: ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

The CTBT, which bans all tests of nuclear weapons, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1996, and President Bill Clinton was the first world leader to sign it. It was shelved, however, by the Republican-held Senate in 1999, over some legitimate concerns: that computer modeling alone might not ensure the integrity of the U.S. stockpile, and that global monitoring systems were not up to the task of detecting explosions around the globe.

But the world has changed. Seismic science has advanced tremendously -- North Korea’s very low-yield underground tests in 2006 and 2009, for example, were picked up by South Korean, American and other detection systems. The CTBT calls for an international web of 321 monitoring stations and 16 radionuclide laboratories, which is about 75 percent complete.

As for maintaining our arsenal, the U.S. has not seen the need to conduct a test since 1992. Last week’s report stated that the U.S. is “now in a better position than at any time in the past to maintain a safe and effective nuclear weapons stockpile without testing and to monitor clandestine nuclear testing abroad.”

It’s simply hard to see how ratifying the treaty and pushing for its global adoption would harm U.S. interests. And, if it did, the treaty has an opt-out clause in cases of “supreme national interest.”

The more pertinent objection is that it would do little to curb the behavior of rogue states, which are unlikely to join the treaty or to abide by it if they did. (In fact, as written, the pact cannot even go into full force unless Iran and North Korea, among others, ratify it.) Nonetheless, the U.S. signing on would further isolate bad actors in world opinion and engender goodwill for the increasingly promising American effort to curb Iran’s nuclear efforts. Also, China has indicated it will follow the U.S.’s lead on the issue, and Senate ratification might help tame the arms race (and accusations of U.S. hypocrisy) among other budding nuclear powers such as India and Pakistan, neither of which has signed the CTBT.

How could the Barack Obama administration gather the necessary 67 Senate votes? First, by pointing out that such Republican luminaries as former Secretary of State George Shultz, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have all said that approving the treaty now makes sense. Second, it could commit to several crucial recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences report -- improving U.S. global monitoring systems, maintaining a strategic computing capability and pledging to finance nonexplosive testing in hydrodynamics, radiography and fusion technology.

The White House could also make some deals. One option is making military’s new F-35 fighter capable of carrying a nuclear payload. (Although we would like to see the now-scaled-back F-35 program killed for budgetary reasons, if it is to be produced, it should become a factor in our deterrent strategy.) Another is to resume the now-shelved Reliable Replacement Warhead project, which would create a simpler, next-generation warhead without resuming nuclear testing.

Ratifying the CTBT, further diversifying the U.S. nuclear program and developing a more reliable warhead would not just make America more secure, they would be part of a broader strategic goal we have endorsed: shifting our deterrent capacity away from Cold-War-legacy ballistic missiles and toward a smaller, smarter tactical arsenal adapted to the threats we face in the 21st century.

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.

Today’s highlights: The View editors on why the U.S. should ratify the nuclear-test ban and regulate money-market funds. William D. Cohan on the government hiding public information on banks. Albert R. Hunt on murder in New Orleans. Charles Dumas on why the euro should be abandoned, and Charles Wyplosz on why the euro should be kept.

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