How Should America Respond to China’s Deadly Missile Arsenal?

Washington should consider modifying the INF treaty to permit the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Asia while continuing to bar their deployment in Europe—despite the alternatives. 

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How should the United States respond to Russian noncompliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty? For more than twenty-five years, this landmark arms-control agreement has prevented both nations from fielding surface-to-surface ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5500 kilometers, whether they carry conventional or nuclear warheads. In late July, the State Department publicly revealed what the press had been reporting for some time, namely that Russia has violated the treaty by testing a prohibited weapon.

Suspicions of Russian cheating, along with official confirmation of Moscow’s transgression, have led to a flurry of articles outlining what the United States should or should not do in response. For instance, I have suggested that Washington consider modifying the treaty to permit the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Asia, while continuing to bar their deployment in Europe. Unconstrained by INF, China has amassed a large arsenal of missiles that would be captured by the agreement if it were a signatory—missiles that pose a significant threat to U.S. theater bases and forward-operating forces in the Western Pacific. By pursuing similar weapons of its own, the United States could bolster conventional deterrence and enhance crisis stability. In a modern twist on the original “dual track” approach that characterized the deployment of intermediate-range missiles to Europe several decades ago, it might even gain leverage over China to negotiate limits on its offensive forces.

In a recent article here at TNI, Matthew Hallex criticizes this argument. In his view, altering or abandoning the INF Treaty and developing missile forces that are currently proscribed by it would be a bad move for Washington. Not only would these weapons have little utility, but they could also come at the expense of capabilities with greater value.

Would the deployment of intermediate-range missiles help to prevent conflict? According to Hallex, these weapons could be destroyed easily if they were deployed in the first island chain, and therefore are more likely to tempt aggression than deter it. In fact, he argues that they would be just as vulnerable as U.S. aircraft stationed at theater bases in Okinawa. This is a curious claim, because one of the chief virtues of ground-based missiles is their survivability. For instance, even without the cover of active defenses, missile forces can be stored in hardened shelters or silos. Unless they are put in forward-operating locations with no protection at all, it is difficult to believe that they would be as vulnerable as aircraft on the ground, many of which are parked in the open or kept in fragile hangars.

Hallex also disputes the idea that mobility can contribute to survivability, because most potential operating locations in the region are small and crowded. Yet some islands, such as Kyushu and Luzon, are quite large, and although deployments there might seem implausible today, that might not always be the case. Moreover, it only takes minutes to break down and relocate a road-mobile launch platform after it releases its payload, and those minutes can make all the difference, even in relatively confined areas. It is worth noting that Japan has already deployed antiship missile launchers to some of its more remote Southwestern Islands during military exercises. As Toshi Yoshihara has written, these road-mobile platforms are ideal for sea denial, in part because they can “shoot and scoot.”

Intermediate-range missiles—whether they operate from fixed locations or rely on mobility to survive—are not a silver-bullet solution to China’s growing military power. But they can complicate its planning and impose significant costs. Destroying hardened storage facilities would likely require missiles armed with unitary, penetrating warheads, rather than the small submunitions that pose a major threat to unprotected aircraft. That means China would have to deplete more of its own intermediate-range missile inventory to degrade U.S. combat power. In addition, neutralizing mobile targets is extremely difficult, as the United States has discovered in the past. Holding them at risk could require persistent, wide-area surveillance systems; loitering strike platforms or standoff munitions that can be retargeted in flight; and the command-and-control infrastructure to rapidly transmit information between sensors and shooters. Any and all of these capabilities would come with a large price tag. Confronting its own missile threat, China might also have to invest more in expensive defense countermeasures.

Rather than developing new missile forces, Hallex argues that the United States should double-down on undersea warfare and long-range strike. Indeed, these areas are incredibly valuable and should be priorities for U.S. defense investment. They do have their limitations, however.