Defense Intelligence Agency chief says Russians may be conducting banned low-yield nuclear tests

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Center for Strategic & International Studies / YouTube

At the conservative Hudson Institute Wednesday, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s main in-house intelligence branch, said the United States believes Russia may be conducting low-yield nuclear tests in violation of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Nuclear Tests

Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley said, “They’ve not affirmed the language of zero yield.” Michael R. Gordon at The Wall Street Journal writes:

The assessment marks the first time the U.S. has said the Kremlin has failed to strictly observe its commitments under the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. It comes as the arms-control framework constraining military competition between the U.S. and Russia has begun to crack and the two sides pursue ambitious programs to field new nuclear weapons.

At issue are activities at Novaya Zemlya, a remote archipelago above the Arctic Circle where Russia conducts nuclear tests. There, Russia likely has conducted tests very-low yields as part of its push to develop new nuclear weapons, U.S. intelligence analysts say.

Ashley said the alleged tests could help the Russians design new weapons, “Our understanding of nuclear-weapon development leads us to believe Russia’s testing activities would help it to improve its nuclear-weapons capabilities.” When the treaty was negotiated, several nations wanted to continue the right to conduct low-yield tests, but the Clinton administration won its fight to include the zero yield provision in the agreement.

While the Kremlin itself has not yet responded to Ashley’s assertions, Vladimir Shamanov, chairman of the defense committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament, was quoted by Interfax as saying: “It would be impossible to make a more irresponsible statement. These kinds of statements reveal that the professionalism of the military is systemically falling in America. These words from a U.S. intelligence chief indicate that he is only an accidental person in this profession and he is in the wrong job.”

Ashley did not say exactly how big these alleged low-yield tests might be. Instead of kilotons of TNT equivalent, the yield at issue can be measured in pounds. Yields below four pounds could be used to maintain or improve the safety of stockpiled nuclear weapons, but not assist in designing new weapons, according to Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the government’s Los Alamos National Laboratory cited by The Journal

Although 184 nations, including the U.S., have signed the CTBT, and it has been complied by the major powers, the treaty is unusual in that it requires that all the nuclear technology nations ratify it before it comes into force. That means by eight more nuclear technology states—including Israel, Iran, Egypt, and the U.S.—must ratify it before it becomes binding to all signatories. Russia ratified it in 2000.

Ashley’s assertions come at a time when arms-control treaties are coming under attack by the Trump regime and both the U.S. and Russia are upgrading their nuclear arsenals. Earlier this year, the White House announced it would withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, partly on the grounds that Russia was violating it and that China should be included in any such pact.

A bilateral U.S.-Russia treaty negotiated in 2010, New START, was designed to cut strategic nuclear weapons arsenals in half. It’s slated to expire in 2021 unless the U.S. and Russia agree to extend it for an additional five years. Given Donald Trump’s views that everything from the Iran nuclear accord to NATO to aircraft carrier design are being done all wrong, letting New START expire without a replacement treaty seems quite possible if Trump is still president then.

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