The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty came to an end in August. The United States and Russia no longer are barred from developing and deploying land-based, intermediate-range missiles, and the Pentagon apparently aims to deploy such missiles in Europe and Asia.
The INF Treaty Is Finished
The INF Treaty, signed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, prohibited the United States and Soviet Union (later Russia) from testing or possessing land-based ballistic or cruise missiles with ranges between five hundred and fifty-five hundred kilometers. Unfortunately, Russia violated the treaty by testing and deploying the 9M729, a prohibited land-based, intermediate-range cruise missile.
The United States and its European allies could have done considerably more to try to persuade the Kremlin to return to compliance, but it is now too late. The INF Treaty is dead.
Missiles for Europe
The Pentagon is planning or developing four land-based missile systems that would have contravened the INF Treaty’s limits. Two seem intended mainly for European contingencies, as the Army seeks long-range, precision conventional fires to strike targets such as communication nodes, second-echelon forces and anti-access/area denial capabilities (A2AD) out to a range of one thousand kilometers.
The Precision Strike Missile (PrSM) will replace the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). ATACMS has a range of three hundred kilometers, while the PrSM originally was planned with a range of just less than five hundred kilometers—the INF Treaty’s lower limit. The Army will now likely extend the PrSM’s range; one report has suggested that the range could increase to seven hundred kilometers.
The Pentagon also wants a cruise missile with a range of one thousand kilometers. In August, just days after the INF Treaty’s end, the U.S. military tested a ground-launched, intermediate-range missile. Fired from a makeshift truck-mounted launcher, the missile was a variant of a Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile, which has been part of the U.S. inventory for four decades (the land-based version of the Tomahawk—the BGM-109G Gryphon—was eliminated by the INF Treaty).
Europe appears the likely candidate for deployment of the PrSM and ground-launched cruise missile, particularly given concern about Russian air defense and A2AD capabilities. To the extent those capabilities challenge U.S. and allied air power, the Army wants intrinsic precision fires. Interestingly, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has ruled out nuclear-armed intermediate-range missiles as a response to Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty, but he has carefully left the door open for deployment of conventionally-armed missiles.
These two land-based missiles would seem far less relevant for a China contingency, which the U.S. military would conduct largely with air and naval forces. Presumably, no American president or military commander would want to wage a major ground fight on the Chinese mainland. And with ranges of only seven hundred to one thousand kilometers, the missiles would have little reach into China deployed anywhere other than on Taiwan, a politically problematic location.
Some have suggested development of a ground-launched, anti-ship missile for deployment along the first island chain off China’s coast as a way to bottle up the Chinese navy. But the Army’s first focus will be on a missile system to strike ground targets.
Korea poses another possible scenario. However, if a major conflict broke out and stayed conventional—perhaps not a given with the unpredictable Kim Jong-un—U.S. and South Korean air power would almost immediately assert dominance over the peninsula, wreaking havoc on North Korean ground forces. Land-based missiles would be useful, but nowhere near as important as in the European contingency, where air dominance would prove more difficult to establish and maintain.
Missiles for Asia
The Pentagon also seeks a land-based ballistic missile with a range of three thousand to four thousand kilometers. This is intended for the Asia-Pacific region, as Secretary of Defense Mark Esper indicated during his August trip to the region. However, he apparently asked no ally to consider hosting the missile, likely understanding that this would be problematic for any U.S. partner in Asia.
That makes the suggested upper range of four thousand kilometers particularly relevant. Guam sits three thousand kilometers from the Chinese mainland, so a four-thousand-kilometer range missile based there could hold at risk targets some distance into China proper. Guam likely will end up the default deployment option when Japan, South Korea and other allies prove reluctant to host a U.S. missile that could strike targets in China (and Russia as well).
Seeking to deploy a conventionally-armed ballistic missile with a range of more than three thousand kilometers in Europe would likely be a bridge too far—and U.S. officials undoubtedly understand that. A ballistic missile with three thousand kilometers range, even if based in Britain, could strike Moscow in a matter of minutes. Finding consensus within NATO for such a deployment would require a steep uphill—and almost certainly losing—fight within the Alliance.
Little is publicly known about the fourth missile other than that it will be a medium-range system. This could be a hypersonic development program.
Arms Races in the Offing
Russia has already teed up for an arms race. Immediately after the August test of a U.S. land-based cruise missile, President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia would make a “symmetric response.” That could well mean testing a land-based version of the sea-based Kalibr cruise missile. Asserting that a land-based Kalibr constituted the response to a new U.S. land-based cruise missile would allow Russian officials to cover the fact that their military already deploys a land-based, intermediate-range cruise missile—the 9M729.
The more interesting question is whether Russia will use the coming U.S. missiles to develop and deploy a land-based, intermediate-range ballistic missile, perhaps something like the SS-20 eliminated under the INF Treaty. That would give the Russian military the ability to hold at risk time-urgent targets in Europe (as well as Asia) and would bolster arguments within NATO for a missile defense directed against Russia.
China, which already maintains hundreds of land-based, intermediate-range ballistic missiles, has condemned the U.S. decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty but has not indicated in specifics how it might respond to the deployment of U.S. land-based missiles in the western Pacific. However, Beijing likely will not let those deployments go unchallenged.
The groundwork is being laid for expensive new races in intermediate-range missile systems in Europe and Asia, which will likely decrease stability in the two regions. One wonders how long it will take before the West, Russia and China come to miss the INF Treaty.
Steven Pifer is a William Perry fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.