Since 2013 Washington has issued increasingly specific warning to Moscow of its displeasure that Russia was developing a long-range cruise missile in violation of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Force Treaty, which bans ground-launched missiles with a range between 310 to 3,410 miles
Then on Saturday, October 20, without first informing allies or attempting to negotiate with Russia, the Trump administration declared its intention to withdraw from the treaty.
Now the United States is free to build its own medium-range missiles. That’ll teach the Russians!
Except way back in 2007, Russia had expressed its desire to get out of the INF agreement. Quite simply, the ban on land-based missiles did much more to curb Russian military power than that of the United States. Now Russia can overtly improve its military capabilities while allowing the United States to take the blame for the collapse of the INF Treaty.
The U.S. military mostly relies on airpower and sea-launched cruise missiles to strike targets beyond the frontline. Ships and warplanes can be dispatched across the globe far more easily than ground-based missiles, and the United States can employ stealth aircraft that can penetrate defended airspace.
By contrast, Russia is a land power, and expects to fight conflicts near its border, meaning it can rapidly deploy ground-based systems by rail and road networks. The Red Army doesn’t assume it will benefit from air superiority and the Russian Air Force (the VVS) has only twelve tactical stealth fighters. Therefore, Moscow has invested far more in tactical land-based missiles like the Scud, the Tochka, and most recently, the Iskander to strike targets far behind the frontline. However, the INF treaty limited such ‘tactical’ systems to a maximum of 310 miles range.
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By sweeping away the 1987 agreement negotiated by Reagan and Gorbachev, which resulted in the decommissioning of 2,700 nuclear weapons, the United States has reopened an arms race that will play to Russia’s strengths, cost grotesque sums of money and increase the risk and destructiveness of nuclear war.
Wasn’t Russia Violating the INF Treaty Anyway?
As early as 2008, Russia began testing the 9M729 Novator, a derivative of a submarine-launched cruise missile with a range of 1,000 to 1,500 miles that can be fired from a modified Iskander-K ground-based ballistic-missile system. In 2015 Russia reportedly deployed two battalions with a dozen missiles within range of Western Europe.
A dozen treaty-violating Russian missiles is bad for European security. Much worse is hundreds of such missiles, including even longer-range weapons such as the SS-20s the Soviet Union deployed prior to the INF treaty coming into effect. Withdrawing from the treaty has cleared the field for Russia to rebuild a vast range of nuclear-capable rocketry that could strike European capitals within minutes of launch.
As arms-control expert Jeffrey Lewis told The Guardian, “I doubt very much that the U.S. will deploy much that would have been prohibited by the treaty. Russia, though, will go gangbusters.”
The only good news is that Russia’s economic woes have thinly stretched its military spending, which is already spread across a variety of hypersonic missiles and other new nuclear delivery systems. The bad news is that Russia has many land-based weapons that could easily have their range extended (as was the case with the Iskander), as well as air or sea-launched weapons like the Kalibur cruise missile that can be adapted, all for a lower price than developing new U.S. weapons.
Why Ban Medium-Range Weapons Anyway? Aren’t the Treaty’s Limitations Arbitrary?
The INF treaty banned two different classes of ground-launched weapons with ranges between 310 and 3,410 miles: Short-, Medium- and Intermediate-Range ballistic missiles that arc into space; and slower cruise missiles that skim close to the ground. That ban applies regardless of whether the missiles carry a conventional or nuclear warhead.
However, the INF Treaty did regulate sea- or air-launched missile systems, or longer-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Ground-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles were banned, but the same missile fired from a B-52 or a submarine was not. Thus, both the United States and Russia maintained nuclear-capable cruise and ballistic missiles on air and sea platforms.
However, it’s easier to build hundreds of truck-borne missile launchers than to fit them on aircraft or submarines and warships that cost tens of millions or billions of dollars respectively. IRBMs are likewise cheaper and more mobile than ICBMs, and can streak towards their targets so fast that a government is left with only a few minutes to decide if they are on the receiving end of a nuclear or conventional strike—heightening the chance they may reply with a full-scale nuclear retaliation. As such, large IRBM arsenals were recognized by the United States and Moscow as being destabilizing
A nuclear war “only” using today’s INF-compliant nuclear weapons would still suffice to transform all the major cities and military bases of the respective countries into radioactive ruins. However, adding hundreds of relatively inexpensive nuclear-capable missiles would allow more targets to be hit, increasing the destructiveness of an already apocalyptic scenario.
But Won’t the New START Treaty Limit Most Missiles to Conventional Warheads Anyway?
The New START Treaty signed in 2012 limits the United States and Russia to roughly 1,550 actively deployed strategic warheads, and 700 strategic bombers or nuclear missile tubes (on ground or at sea).
However, the Trump administration, and particularly uber-hawkish National Security Advisor Paul Bolton, has indicated its desire to kill the New START Treaty, or let it expire in 2021. Withdrawal from the New START Treaty will pave the way to reintroduce larger-scale deployment of nuclear weapons.
Won’t the Pentagon Now Be Able Deploy Its Own Land-Based Missile Now?
Yes. The U.S. Army already has plans to dramatically increase the range of its cannon and rocket artillery called ‘Long Range Precision Fire.’ Withdrawal from the INF treaty will remove legal obstacles to its development of hypersonic missiles with a range exceeding 1,000 miles. The Army, Marines and Air Force are all interested in acquiring anti-ship missiles with which to fight China, and now may seek longer-range systems.
However, the Pentagon still needs to develop these systems, while Russia enjoys a head start and has more experience fielding such weapons. Given enough money, the Pentagon could exceed Moscow’s capabilities. The problem is that every service of the U.S. military is pursuing expensive new procurement programs (F-35 stealth fighters! New ballistic-missile submarines! That’s 386 Air Force squadrons! 355 ships in the Navy!) Not only are there not enough defense dollars to pay for it all even during the current windfall, but subsequent defense budgets will almost certainly shrink for predictable economic and political reasons. Reintroducing long-range land-based missiles will be at the expense of projects more central to the Pentagon’s warfighting strategy.
Another issue is that IRBMs on Russian soil can strike all of Moscow’s potential adversaries besides the United States. The United States, however, is flanked by thousands of miles of Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, and at best could only make limited use of IRBMs in Alaska or Pacific Islands.
This means that U.S. medium-range missiles would need to be based in a friendly country, such as when the United States deployed Pershing and Tomahawks missiles to Europe in the 1980s. But that deployment itself was immensely politically controversial, even during Cold War!
Any country hosting U.S. missiles knows it will have a giant bullseye for a possibly nuclear counterstrike. Given the current chilly relationship between the United States and its allies, it’s hard to imagine U.S. offers/requests to base missiles in Western European countries being warmly received, except perhaps in Poland.
But Doesn’t the U.S. Need Ground-Based Missiles to Fight China?
Proponents of withdrawing from the INF treaty argue withdrawal is really about unshackling the Pentagon’s capabilities versus China—particularly regarding nonnuclear missiles.
China (which is not party to the INF Treaty) has a large arsenal of IRBMs and ground-launched cruise missiles, including types which can threaten warships far away at sea. However, China’s nuclear arsenal is a fraction of the size of the arsenal maintained by the United States or Russia.
But where would the Pentagon deploy its land-based medium-range missiles to fight China? Japan, with its anti-war constitution? (Tokyo is not pleased.) South Korea, which only barely accepted hosting U.S. air-defense missiles because of Chinese complaints? The Philippines, which has only just given up flirting with China? There are major political problems with any plausible candidate. Jamming missiles into small islands like Guam is possible—but such missiles would be exposed to attack.