On 20 October 2018, US president Donald Trump announced that the United States intended to abrogate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Treaty, which excludes the development and deployment of missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometres. Now, 30 years later, the Trump administration is prepared to withdraw from this historic but outdated accord. The INF Treaty was drafted towards the end of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union possessed more advanced intermediate-range missiles than any other country.
However, since then, dozens of states, including some potential US adversaries, have deployed INF-range missiles. More generally, world affairs have progressed in the last 30 years and the INF treaty does not hold the same significance it once did. Repeated violations by the Russian Federation, the proliferation of missile capabilities to other countries—some hostile to the US and its allies—and advances in defence technology have made the INF treaty less important. National Security Advisor John Bolton correctly noted that the agreement did not really accord with “a new strategic reality” and was a “bilateral treaty in a multipolar ballistic missile world”.
A Fading Record
The INF agreement represented the first arms-control treaty that prohibited an entire class of nuclear delivery systems. The treaty banned the production, flight-testing and deployment of ground-based missiles—both nuclear and conventional, whether they flew in a ballistic path or cruised like a plane, but not those launched from ships or planes—with ranges of between 500 to 5,500km. Any missile that had the capacity to fly further would be considered an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
The treaty ended the serious crisis that began when the Soviet Union started modernising its SS-20 nuclear-armed missiles in Europe. The Carter and Reagan administrations followed a “dual track” policy of upgrading US Pershing II intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Europe as well as deploying a new ground-launched cruise missile, while simultaneously sustaining bilateral negotiations with the Soviets to limit these systems.
To the surprise of many observers, and even members of the Soviet and US governments, these negotiations led to an agreement that eliminated all intermediate-range systems throughout the world (i.e. beyond Europe). Altogether, the INF treaty resulted in the destruction of about 2,500 Soviet and US missiles and their launchers. When the Soviet Union dissolved at the end of 1991, the Russian Federation—along with the other former Soviet republics that had inherited INF-range systems from the USSR (Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine)—acceded to the Soviet Union’s treaty obligations.
In recent years, however, Russia and the United States have accused each other of violating the INF treaty. Both the Obama and Trump administrations determined that Moscow has designed, developed and deployed a mobile ground-launched cruise missile, termed the Novator 9M729 (designated by NATO the SSC-8), having a range prohibited by the accord. They both tried to bring Russia into compliance through bilateral diplomacy, military countermeasures and other means. The US 2018 Nuclear Posture Review described an integrated strategy for renewing the treaty that included diplomatic measures such as using the treaty’s Special Verification Commission designed to address issues of non-compliance, sanctioning of Russian firms that help build missiles prohibited by the treaty and researching and developing military countermeasures (including options for ground-launched conventional intermediate-range missiles).
Congress has pressed both administrations to take a strong stand against Russian treaty violations. For example, the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act obliges the executive branch to review Russia’s compliance with the treaty and reassess US interests in remaining in it. Since 2014, each issue of the Department of State’s Annual Report on Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Non-Proliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments has cited Russia as failing to meet its INF obligations. In response to Russian violations of the INF treaty, the Commerce Department sanctioned companies participating in the development of the 9M729 missile.
NATO has concurred with US assessments. For example, the communiqué of the Brussels Summit in July 2018 included a lengthy paragraph on the issue, complaining that
A pattern of behaviour and information over many years has led to widespread doubts about Russian compliance. Allies believe that, in the absence of any credible answer from Russia on this new missile, the most plausible assessment would be that Russia is in violation of the Treaty.
Both the Obama and Trump administrations convened sessions of the Special Verification Commission, which Article XIII of the Treaty designates as a mechanism through which the parties can address compliance issues.
After Washington publicly charged Russia with breaking the treaty, Moscow retaliated. The Russian government has charged the United States with non-compliance through its deployment of missile defence systems in Romania and Poland. Though these are equipped with an unarmed version of the US Navy’s Standard Missile 3, supported by a shore-based version of its sophisticated Aegis radar, Moscow has claimed that the US could transform these Aegis Ashore platforms into covert platforms for launching offensive missiles against Russian territory. Russian officials have also expressed concern about how the US has been using intermediate-range missiles as targets for US missile defence interceptors and how some long-range US unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can attack the same kind of targets as intermediate-range systems. (Such attack drones were not widely deployed when the treaty was written.)
The US decision to withdraw, announced by Bolton during his recent visit to Moscow, has not shocked the Russian government into making any new effort to comply with the treaty. Russian officials said they were disturbed by the US decision, which the Russian media also criticised, but they did not cancel Bolton’s meeting with Putin or other senior officials. In the past, Russian experts had attacked the treaty for discriminating against Russia despite its mutually applicable limitations. In particular they noted how, while the US is surrounded by friendly countries, Russia is situated in a considerably less favourable neighbourhood. In addition, they believed that, while the US could meet its military requirements through having a flotilla of missile-launching warships, the Russian military needed the option of deploying missiles on mobile launchers moving around the vast Russian landmass. In any case, the de facto Russian government response to Bolton’s announcement was that Moscow could live without the IMF treaty as long as Washington took the blame for killing it.
Having INF-range missiles offers Russia military benefits such as the ability to attack European and Asian targets without having to worry as much about the adversary’s air and naval defences, or to cover some targets that would otherwise require use of Russia’s limited number of strategic or sea- and air-launched missiles. Moreover, by lowering the threshold for nuclear use, Russian generals might be able to control nuclear escalation dynamics better and de-escalate a conflict that could lead to greater nuclear use. Russia’s “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine, which envisions the use of low-yield nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict, creates a policy dilemma for NATO. The Alliance can choose to respond by matching Russian capabilities by redeploying low-yield nuclear weapons as a theatre deterrent. However, this option could prove vastly unpopular among NATO allies and their European partners, as well as the general public, who would most likely view the development of new nuclear capabilities in a poor light. This was the case during the stationing of INF capabilities by the US in Europe in the early 1980s, which led to massive public protests and unilateral moves towards rapprochement with the USSR by Washington’s allies. Having more mobile missiles could also enhance Russia’s deterrence against NATO since the large number and unknown, changeable location of Russian missiles increases doubts about US strike options.
But the Russian violation of the INF treaty was also probably due to a desire to divide NATO, intimidate allies, weaken NATO and US credibility, shift the onus onto Washington to withdraw from the treaty, gain leverage in negotiations with the West, and other non-military considerations. Russian policymakers probably counted on making some propaganda gains by manoeuvring Washington into exiting from the treaty. Russian media highlight how the Trump administration has been withdrawing from the pillars of the liberal international order, including INF, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, aka the Iran nuclear deal).
The decision was indeed unpopular in other countries and the arms-control community in the United States. Critics of the Trump administration’s decision see the treaty as a pillar of a European arms-control architecture whose foundation is crumbling. Furthermore, they worry that, without the INF treaty, sustaining New START becomes more difficult. For instance, if countries can deploy missiles whose nominal range is 5,500km, this could allow for circumvention by designing launch vehicles whose range can be extended to intercontinental distance through reducing their payload or other measures. They also perceived the White House’s decision as reflecting a general disdain for international agreements, an unwarranted enthusiasm for nuclear weapons and a penchant for unilateral action without adequate attention given to US friends and allies.
Several nuclear experts noted that Russia (having designed, tested and deployed at least one modern INF-range ground-launched missile) was in a significantly better position than the US (whose nuclear force planning and modernisation had presumed the INF treaty’s continuation) to break out of the treaty’s limits. They also cautioned that it would become much harder to induce Iran, North Korea and other countries to abstain from keeping INF-range missiles if there are no international treaties limiting such missiles. Finally, they argue that the US does not need a ground-launched INF missile in Europe given the US ability to hit Russian targets on the continent with other, treaty-compliant systems.
US Options: What to Do?
The Trump administration is studying the option of returning US ground-launched nuclear missiles to European territory, but that presents a basing dilemma. The nations in Western Europe that previously hosted US intermediate-range missiles in the 1980s—Britain, Germany, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands—have thus far evinced little enthusiasm for having them back. Some countries closer to Russia might seek to host such systems due to concerns about Russian military threats, but any US offensive missiles based in a country neighbouring Russia would be highly vulnerable to Russian pre-emptive strikes due to their location and to Russian incentives to attack these weapons before they could be used.
By contrast, US missiles on submarines and aircraft are less vulnerable and destabilising due to their mobility and ease of concealment. The INF treaty does not constrain Russian and US possession of sea and air-launched intermediate-range delivery systems. The United States has had such intermediate-range missiles for decades, while the Russian military has been showing off its new-found capabilities in this domain in Syria, especially by launching missiles from warships patrolling the Caspian Sea. Enhancing missile defences in Europe and Asia, both land- and sea-based, could provide another means of negating Russian military gains from its INF-range missile.
To meet US arms-control concerns, which could become stronger in Congress following the recent election results, the Trump administration could reaffirm that extension of the 2010 New START agreement—whose provisions provide for a five-year prolongation by mutual agreement—remains under consideration. Washington should explore whether Moscow might consent to amend that treaty—which, unlike INF, the United States has affirmed both countries are complying with—to include both INF- and longer-range land-based missiles under a common ceiling. In other words, Russia and the US could each decide to have more or fewer INF-range systems as long as their total number of delivery systems remain below the amended treaty limits. This approach would in effect place constraints on Moscow’s new intermediate-range missile without the Russian government having to formally acknowledge that it has violated the INF treaty.
To alleviate some European concerns about the US decision to withdraw, Washington could also renew NATO pressure on Russia to curtail its large arsenal of short-range (under 500km) nuclear weapons. Russia has considerably more of these so-called “tactical” or “non-strategic” nuclear weapons than NATO. They have never been covered by a formal arms-control agreement but, due to their intended battlefield use, could present a dangerous path to escalation to nuclear war.
Asia’s New Missile Age
Despite the INF treaty’s historical ties to Europe, the main region where some Pentagon planners are considering deploying US ground-launched INF-range missiles is East Asia. Although North Korea is the most immediate military threat in this area, South Korea and the US Army can both hit targets on the Korean Peninsula with shorter-range missiles as well as artillery, planes and other delivery systems. Rather, it is China that is driving US interest in having INF-type weapons in Asia.
Unlike Russia and the US, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has advanced its intermediate missile technologies unfettered. Many of the PLA’s ballistic missiles consist of intermediate-range systems that would have been banned under the original INF treaty. Some of these missiles are aimed at Taiwan, Japan and India, but the PLA has also vastly increased its anti-access/area denial (A2AD) capabilities against the US Navy by deploying ground-based missile launchers on reclaimed islands and disputed territories scattered throughout the South China Sea. Their projected ranges encompass a multitude of US bases and areas of operations.
The US, on the other hand, must rely on missile launch systems that come from naval ships, submarines and aircraft to try to penetrate the PLA’s defences. This task is becoming increasingly difficult due to the Chinese military improving air and sea defences. Lacking long-range land-based strike systems in Asia, the US depends on a small number of multi-purpose warplanes and warships to deliver such weapons. These platforms have limited carrying capacity and many competing missions. By contrast, the US could more easily base more missiles on land, for example with mobile ground forces that could surge to Korea, Japan and other trouble spots. It would also be less expensive per missile to put these weapons on land than on planes and ships. Having a mobile land-based missile force to complement the Pentagon’s air- and sea-based missiles would also complicate Chinese military planning. Chinese planners would not know when and where the additional missile force might appear.
However, land-based forces would also be more vulnerable to attack than mobile platforms. The problem of who would host the systems also reappears. The ASEAN countries of South-east Asia have been striving to avoid siding with the US against China in any war (and vice versa). Popular resistance and concern about arousing China’s wrath would also make it difficult to locate the systems in South Korea. Like Poland, Taiwan might offer to base them simply to reinforce its security ties with Washington. But Beijing might see a US plan to place offensive missiles so close to the Chinese mainland—and, in its view, on PRC territory—as a casus belli. Japan is a more plausible basing area given the existing presence of many advanced US military systems on Japanese territory and Tokyo’s constant quest for strategic reassurance from Washington—which has grown since Trump became president—that the US would defend Japan in a crisis. However, Sino-Japanese relations are on the upswing and, while China is unpopular, resistance to expanding the US military presence in Japan is also strong. In all likelihood, the Pentagon would need to keep any new missile force in Guam or Hawaii, and move it rapidly to another country during a crisis or war, when circumstances might make an initially reluctant foreign host more receptive to securing additional US military support.
The escalating Sino-American rivalry and China’s hefty past investment in intermediate-range nuclear forces make it unlikely that Beijing will consent to join even a modified INF treaty. PRC officials have not commonly shared the Russian and US preoccupation with strategic stability. They have never engaged in formal nuclear arms reduction talks, arguing that Moscow and Washington had to first eliminate their much larger nuclear forces before calling on China to cut its much smaller force. Although Moscow has called for all nuclear-weapons states to be included in future arms-control agreements, the Obama administration also believed that the US and Russia needed to cut both countries’ nuclear forces much further before nuclear reduction treaties could be multilateralised. Although China has made some progress in developing its naval and air power projection, the PLA has made enormous investment in INF-range land-based missile systems. PRC strategists apparently see having a massive missile arsenal as their best way of crippling US military power projection in Asia, as well as threatening potential adversaries. The Chinese government sees proposals to incorporate Beijing in any multilateral INF ban as disproportionately disadvantaging the PLA given its dependence on its systems.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.