President Trump’s announcement that he plans to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is worrying news for U.S.-Russian relations and for the prospect of effective arms control moving forward.
The INF Treaty was negotiated by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Each party agreed to eliminate their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 km. It was a quite successful arms control agreement, at least until recently. In the last few years, Moscow has tested and deployed cruise missiles that appear to violate INF limits.
This is the Trump administration’s rationale for terminating the agreement. And the reasoning has a powerful logic. If Russia isn’t going to fully comply with the treaty, why should the United States?
The problem is that simply withdrawing is the most extreme option available and robs us of viable diplomatic solutions while doing nothing to pressure Russia to get back into compliance. Indeed, terminating the agreement is probably the option most likely to generate a new arms race.
It is worth noting that the Russians claim we cheated first by deploying missile defense systems in Europe that, if used offensively, would violate the terms of the INF treaty. It’s a debatable accusation, but this mutual suspicion is resolvable over the negotiating table. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has barely made an effort to discuss it with Moscow.
Instead of pressuring Moscow to bring itself back into compliance with the treaty, Trump’s planned withdrawal – along with not-so-subtle hints that the administration plans to ramp up production of just the type of missiles the INF prohibits − merely gives the greenlight to Russia to expand their own capabilities in this area.
Ironically, the United States doesn’t have much strategic use for intermediate-range missiles of the kind the INF covers. As the Arms Control Association points out, “The United States can already deploy air- and sea-launched systems that can threaten the same Russian targets that ground-launched missiles that are prohibited by INF Treaty would.”
Withdrawing from the INF could also make extending New START more difficult. New START is a treaty that sets limits on American and Russian deployed strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems and will expire in 2021 if it is not extended. The Trump administration, and especially national security advisor John Bolton, have shown little interest in extending New START thus far. While there is still time to negotiate an extension, the death of the INF Treaty does not bode well for the future of arms control under the Trump administration.
The other potential target of American INF-range missiles is China. Since Beijing is not a party to the INF it has produced many cruise and ballistic missiles that are banned by the treaty. Supporters of leaving INF argue that adhering to it ties America’s hands in the military competition with China.
While it is true that U.S. cruise and ballistic missiles in Asia would improve operational flexibility, it wouldn't make a significant enough impact on the military balance with China to warrant the costs of leaving the treaty. The chief military advantage of China’s INF-range missiles is their ability to strike a few large U.S. air and naval bases in the region. American missiles would likely target similar installations in China, but there are many more Chinese bases than American ones. Fielding a U.S. missile force that can threaten enough targets to significantly alter the current balance of power in Asia would be expensive and very time consuming, and China would be able to counter U.S. deployments by growing their own force.
Moreover, there is no guarantee that U.S. allies in Asia will support missile deployments on their territory. In fact, Japan has already cautioned Washington against terminating the treaty. While China is a major source of concern to U.S. allies, their threat perceptions do not neatly line up with the United States'. U.S. allies certainly want to maintain good relations with Washington, but they also want to avoid antagonizing China.
The long and short of it is that the Trump administration is choosing to initiate a competition in nuclear and missile capabilities (i.e., an arms race) for no good reason. The diplomatic options to bring Russia back into full compliance have not been exhausted. And in any case, even under INF restrictions, the United States currently possesses the capability to hit any Russian or Chinese target. The INF Treaty is simply a low cost way to discourage an arms race and maintain a cooperative relationship on such issues with Russia. Terminating it is short-sighted and will come with serious costs.