190. Summary of Conclusions of a Special Coordination Committee and Presidential Review Committee Meeting1

SUBJECT

  • CTB: Stockpile Reliability and Permitted Experiments

PARTICIPANTS

  • State
  • Cyrus Vance
  • Leslie Gelb Director, Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs
  • Defense
  • Harold Brown
  • David McGiffert Asst Sec for International Security Affairs
  • Gerald Johnson
  • Energy
  • Secretary James Schlesinger
  • Donald Kerr Acting Asst Sec for Defense Programs
  • JCS
  • Admiral James Holloway Acting Chairman, JCS
  • Maj Gen Edward Giller JCS Rep CTB
  • CIA
  • Sayer Stevens Dep Dir, National Foreign Assessment Center
  • [name not declassified] Chief, Nuclear Energy Division, OSI
  • White House
  • Zbigniew Brzezinski
  • NSC
  • Reginald Bartholomew
  • Benjamin Huberman
  • OSTP
  • Frank Press
  • John Marcum

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the issue of stockpile reliability and whether some continued testing should be permitted under a CTB. At the opening of the meeting Dr. Brzezinski explained [Page 461]that due to activities connected with the meeting between President Carter and Prime Minister Begin,2 this meeting needed to be terminated at about 6:15 p.m. Consequently, he stated that this meeting would be used to vent the issues and get some sense of the position of the participants, without trying to resolve the issue.

At Dr. Brzezinski’s request, Frank Press reviewed the findings of a distinguished panel of outside experts he had convened to consider this issue. He explained that although they had concurred in the Panel’s report,3 along with the other members, the directors of our nuclear weapons design laboratories had subsequently written him to reinforce their concerns that some testing would be needed eventually to maintain confidence in the reliability of our nuclear weapons stockpile.

On verification, he explained that the Panel felt that verification capabilities using internal seismic stations may be considerably better than originally expected, but he cautioned that these results seem almost “too good to be true” and proposed that they be thoroughly reviewed by an appropriate OSTP panel before being adopted.

Secretary Brown commented that in any event, it was just a matter of time before our capability is that good. Dr. Press agreed, and noted that seismic arrays would be particularly helpful in improving our capability.

Dr. Press then discussed the problem of stockpile reliability. He noted that all Panel members agreed that we could maintain the present level of confidence for five years without testing and that there would be some decline in reliability in the long term, with divergent views as to how rapid the decline would be. He reviewed the Panel’s comments on the three options under consideration by the SCC Working Group4 and noted that it saw considerable value in a more than routine review conference at the end of five years which could consider stockpile reliability along with other problems such as PNEs [Page 462]and testing by other states which affect the future of a CTB. Secretary Vance wondered whether we would know how much degradation had occurred after five years. Secretary Brown responded that this was a new challenge since in the past there had never been a time when new weapons were not under constant development; he felt that the issue was one of confidence and not real decline. Dr. Brzezinski observed that we would not know how rapid the decline would be; Dr. Press agreed, noting there would be some decline but that the rate would be uncertain.

Dr. Press discussed the Panel’s finding that to maintain the present level of confidence in stockpile reliability in the long term, testing at 3 KT would be needed. It was recognized that this would be viewed as a threshold ban rather than a CTB and could undermine our political objectives. The Panel did not think the marginal reduction in political price in reducing the testing threshold from 3 KT to 300 tons would be worth the loss in technical utility of the threshold.

Secretary Brown stated that he differed somewhat from this conclusion noting that we might in time learn how to more effectively utilize testing at a level as low as 100 tons. Secretary Vance inquired whether a 3 KT threshold would permit development of new weapons. Dr. Press responded that a 3 KT threshold would eliminate development of strategic warheads, that some tactical warheads might be developed although this would be of uncertain importance, and that 3 KT might permit development of weapons by current non-nuclear weapons states. In response to a question from Secretary Schlesinger, Dr. Press discussed the difference between our seismic detection and identification thresholds, noting that they occasionally differ by up to a factor of two.

Secretary Brown commented that stockpile reliability would obviously be a key issue in Senate ratification and that possible disparities would also receive a lot of play since there was clearly a verification threshold of the order of a [less than 1 line not declassified] He argued that we should think further about the non-proliferation impact of a less than comprehensive treaty and be prepared in the context of ratification to address how much various kinds of treaties would help our non-proliferation efforts.

Secretary Brown then commented on the three options noting that option A (CTB with self-regulation) would be most helpful for non-proliferation and probably is negotiable, but it could be said that the disparity is greatest in this option. In thinking about option B (review conference), he wondered whether the Soviets had originally expected they could use PNEs to solve the stockpile reliability problem. He noted that PNEs would be a possible way out for us as well, but that the Indians might be able to take advantage of this option. He agreed [Page 463]that there were a number of issues which favored the five year/review conference approach but he was concerned that the political threshold against resuming testing would be high. With regard to option C (provision for continued testing) Secretary Brown noted that it included a possible phase out approach. He again mentioned that testing at 100 tons might be interesting and also suggested also that we might consider contained experiments in laboratory facilities, but expressed concern that this could lead to a containment race. Dr. Press commented that the Panel was very skeptical of the utility of a threshold as low as 100 tons and Secretary Brown agreed that there was considerable uncertainty as to its effectiveness.

Dr. Brzezinski, noting that time was short, asked Paul Warnke for his views. Warnke declined to comment on the technical issues but noted there were strong international as well as Soviet expectations that we were seeking a genuine CTB. He agreed that if we could not afford the risks, we should move to option B. He argued that option C would be perceived internationally as a threshold ban rather than a CTB and would have very little value. Consequently, he believed that we should abandon the negotiations rather than adopt option C. Dr. Brzezinski observed that the President’s commitment to a CTB was very clear and that an absolutely compelling national security argument would be required for him to adopt option C.

Secretary Schlesinger noted that while we were on record as supporting verifiable arms control agreements, the Panel had stated we would be able [less than 1 line not declassified] He was concerned that the lack of verification below this level might be unacceptable to Congress. Secretary Brown and others noted that we had never insisted on absolute verification but have always been careful to speak in terms of its adequacy and of the significance of any possible evasion.

Secretary Schlesinger’s second concern was whether the weapons laboratories would be able to continue certification of performance of our stockpiled weapons; he noted that without testing [less than 1 line not declassified] they might not be able to do so. He commented that this might not be in our security interest and that the reaction could be very severe if we tell Congress that we cannot verify and certify. He argued that the non-proliferation issue could cut both ways—some countries might develop nuclear weapons if they lost confidence in our deterrent.

Dr. Brzezinski noted that stockpile degradation would be troublesome if the Soviets could maintain their confidence by cheating while ours declined; however, if the decline in stockpile reliability was about the same on both sides, there would not be any political problem. Therefore he thought that enhanced verification could be important in this regard and wondered whether we should review possible enhancement measures. After some discussion, Secretary Brown noted [Page 464]that while some improvements were under consideration, it was unlikely that we could push the verification threshold [less than 1 line not declassified]

Secretary Vance then commented briefly on the options, noting that he could support the review conference approach but that he agreed with Paul Warnke that we should get out of the negotiations rather than adopt any provision for continued testing. After some discussion on the degree of redundancy in warheads for our current strategic systems, the meeting adjourned at about 6:20 p.m.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Council, Institutional Files, Box 92, SCC 066, CTB, Stockpile Reliability Experiment: 3/23/78. Secret. The meeting took place in the White House Situation Room.
  2. Begin and Carter met in Washington on March 21 and 22. See Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. VIII, Arab-Israeli Dispute, January 1977–August 1978, Documents 232 and 234.
  3. Not found.
  4. Marcum, Huberman, and Bartholomew summarized the three options in a March 21 memorandum to Brzezinski. Option one “would ban all testing and rely on self-regulation to determine whether some testing at very low levels such as one point safety tests might be permitted.” Option two “would augment this approach with a review conference at the end of a specified period to consider stockpile reliability along with other problems such as testing by France and China, and provide for withdrawal if necessary at a lower cost than invoking the supreme national interest clause.” The third option “would explicitly permit testing under one of a number of sub-options such as delay of entry into force, annual quotas, or a yield ceiling ranging from a few tons to a few kilotons.” (Carter Library, National Security Council, Institutional Files, Box 92, SCC 066, CTB, Stockpile Reliability Experiment: 3/23/78)