Editorial Notes

[Editorial Notes] At the edge of a new nuclear arms race

The treaty, known worldwide by the acronym CTBT, is a central pillar of international efforts to advancing nuclear disarmament.
By IASToppers
April 27, 2020


  • Introduction
  • IT’s Input
    • What is Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty?
  • What does CTBT ban mean?
  • Criticism of CTCB
  • Current Geopolitical conditions
  • Conclusion

At the edge of a new nuclear arms race

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  • In mid-April, a report issued by the US raised concerns that China might be conducting nuclear tests with low yields at its Lop Nur test site, in violation of its Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) undertakings.
  • It also claims that Russia has conducted nuclear weapons experiments that produced a nuclear yield and were inconsistent with ‘zero yield’ understanding underlying the CTBT.
  • Russia and China have rejected the U.S.’s claims, but with growing rivalry among major powers the report is a likely harbinger of a new nuclear arms race.

IT’s Input

What is Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty?

  • It is a legally binding global ban on nuclear explosive testing.

Ratification of the treaty

  • It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 September 1996, but has not entered into force.
  • The treaty will enter into force 180 days after the 44 states listed in Annex 2 of the treaty have ratified it. These “Annex 2 states” are states that participated in the CTBT’s negotiations between 1994 and 1996 and possessed nuclear power reactors or research reactors at that time.
  • Of the 44 listed countries, to date only 36 have ratified the treaty. China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the U.S. have signed but not ratified.
  • North Korea, India and Pakistan are the three who have not signed.
  • The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) Preparatory Commission is based in Vienna. The organization promotes the ratification of the treaty, and implements the verification regime so that it is fully operational when the treaty enters into force.

Features of CTBT:

  • Hinder states that do not have nuclear weapons expertise from advancing their nuclear weapons capabilities, while not affecting the ability of the United States to maintain its own nuclear deterrent force.
  • Countries interested in pursuing a nuclear weapons program or expanding the capabilities of an existing nuclear weapons program would have to either risk deploying weapons without confidence that they will work as designed, or incurring international condemnation.
  • Impedes countries with more established nuclear weapon capabilities from confirming the performance of advanced nuclear weapon designs that they have not tested successfully in the past;
  • Constrains regional arms races in the years and decades to come.


  • The CTBT does not prohibit research on nuclear weapons, including subcritical tests.
  • The treaty already has a network of monitoring stations but does not have power to go on site to inspect for tests until it enters into force.

The International Monitoring System:

  • The CTBT establishes a global system of monitors designed to detect nuclear explosions.
  • The IMS uses four types of monitoring mechanisms to detect possible nuclear explosions globally.
  • The data collected at monitoring stations is sent to the International Data Center at the CTBTO Preparatory Commission headquarters in Vienna.
  • Seismic: detect shockwaves in the earth as well as man-made explosions.
  • Hydroacoustic:  detect sound waves in the oceans from nuclear detonations.
  • Infrasound: Detect nuclear explosions that emit ultra-low frequency sound waves that are inaudible to the human ear.
  • Radionuclide: detect radioactive particles in the atmosphere and some can detect noble gases, which can confirm whether a detonation was nuclear.

What does CTBT ban mean?

CTBT means – Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty
  • For decades, a ban on nuclear testing was seen as the necessary first step towards curbing the nuclear arms race but Cold War politics made it impossible.
  • A Partial Test Ban Treaty was concluded in 1963 banning underwater and atmospheric tests but this only drove testing underground.
  • By the time the CTBT negotiations began in Geneva in 1994, the Cold War had ended and the nuclear arms race was over.
  • In 1991, Russia declared a unilateral moratorium on testing, followed by the U.S. in 1992. By this time, the U.S. and Russia had conducted several nuclear tests.
  • Negotiations were often contentious. France and China continued testing, claiming that they had conducted far fewer tests and needed to validate new designs since the CTBT did not imply an end to nuclear deterrence.
  • France and the U.S. said that CTBT should permit testing at a low threshold, below 500 tonnes of TNT equivalent. Civil society and the non-nuclear weapon states reacted negatively to such an idea and it was dropped.

Criticism of CTCB

Blurred definition

  • U.S. came up with the idea of defining the “comprehensive test ban” as a “zero yield” test ban that would prohibit supercritical hydro-nuclear tests but not sub-critical hydrodynamic nuclear tests. However, US announced a science-based nuclear Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program to keep the nuclear laboratories in business and the US happy.
  • Accordingly, the CTBT prohibits all parties from carrying out “any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion”; these terms are neither defined nor elaborated.

Entry-into-force provisions

  • Another controversy arose regarding the entry-into-force provisions (Article 14) of the treaty.
  • After India’s proposals for anchoring the CTBT in a disarmament framework did not find acceptance, in June 1996, India announced its decision to withdraw from the negotiations.
  • Hence, U.K., China and Pakistan took the lead in revising the entry-into-force provisions. The new provisions listed 44 countries by name whose ratification was necessary for the treaty to enter into force and included India.
  • India protested that this attempt violated a country’s sovereign right to decide if it wanted to join a treaty but was ignored.

Current Geopolitical conditions

  • The key change from the 1990s is that strategic competition among major powers is back. The U.S. now identifies Russia and China as ‘rivals’.
  • Its Nuclear Posture Review asserts that the U.S. faces new nuclear threats because both Russia and China are increasing their reliance on nuclear weapons. Hence, US has embarked on a 30-year nuclear modernisation plan, which could go up over the years.
  • Russia and China have been concerned about the U.S.’s growing technological lead particularly in missile defence and conventional global precision-strike capabilities. Russia has responded by exploring hypersonic delivery systems and theatre systems while China has embarked on a modernisation programme to enhance the survivability of its arsenal.
  • The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) limits U.S. and Russian arsenals but will expire in 2021 and U.S. has already indicated that it does not plan to extend it. Instead, US would like to bring China into some kind of nuclear arms control talks, something China has avoided by pointing to the fact that the U.S. and Russia still account for over 90% of global nuclear arsenals.


US tensions with China are already high with trade and technology disputes, militarisation in the South China Sea and most recently, with the novel coronavirus pandemic. On the other hand, U.S. is preparing the ground for resuming nuclear testing at Nevada.

The Cold War rivalry was already visible when the nuclear arms race began in the 1950s. New rivalries have already emerged. Resumption of nuclear testing may signal the demise of the ill-fated CTBT, marking the beginnings of a new nuclear arms race.

Hence, it is “high time” to bring the treaty into force and countries should take the last steps to finish one of the longest sought international instruments in the area of non-proliferation and disarmament.

Mains 2020 Editorial Notes

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