Point[Counterpoint]: The INF Treaty

Leaving the INF Treaty is a Good Idea, Overdue

By Dave Patterson

NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SMA, Inc.

Treaties are tricky documents. They rely on three factors, primarily, to be of value. First, for a treaty to be of value, there must be trust among the treaty participants. Second, the terms and conditions of the treaty must be clearly verifiable with metrics that all agree to and can be determined. Third, for the treaty to be of any lasting value there must be a persistent verifiability that all parties are holding to the terms and conditions of the treaty. When the third factor reveals that one or more of the treaty participants has failed to live up to or blatantly abrogated the terms and conditions of the treaty, then clearly trust will be lost and to perpetuate the treaty is engaging in a fiction that puts those continuing to hold to the treaty at a disadvantage. So, it is with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

There is a history to the INF Treaty that is worth recounting. In the late 1970s there was an arms race that created a crisis in Europe as the Soviet Union deployed intermediate-range nuclear SS‑20 missiles targeting key European cities. The SS‑20 was an advanced, very accurate missile that could be launched from well inside the Soviet Union with a range of 5,000 km (3,125 miles) just below the threshold of intercontinental range defined in the Strategic Arms Limitations Treat II (SALT II) signed in 1979. The United States had short-range MGM‑52 Lance missiles, road-mobile missiles with a range of between 70 km (45 miles) to 120 km (75 miles), first deployed to Europe in 1972. These missiles were replaced starting in 1986 with the current Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) reaching targets from 165 km (103 miles) for the Block 1, out to 300 km (188 miles) for Block 1A. Realizing that the U.S. troops in Europe, and by extension its NATO and European allies, were at risk from SS‑20s, the West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in a 1977 speech made a strong case for the threat that SS‑20s represented to the NATO because of the significant advantage it gave the Soviets at a time that SALT II was just be concluded. Schmidt called upon the U.S. and Europe to field a counter to the Soviet threat.

President Carter, at the time, was less sensitive to the disparity in intermediate range missiles in Europe and Russia, believing the U.S. advantage in Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles were a deterrent to any use by the Soviet Union of intermediate-range missiles. Despite the Carter Administration’s reluctance to take on developing a counter to the SS‑20, in late 1979 a determination was made that fielding a counter to the SS‑20 was feasible. The Air Force began working on modifying the Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile for a ground launcher on a mobile platform: the ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM). When Ronald Reagan became President, he recognized the threat and began a more energetic program of developing and deploying intermediate-range missiles. The Pershing 1 missile had only an 800 km (500 miles) range, but was modified to have a more accurate guidance system and an 1,800 km (1,125 miles) range. GLCMs were deployed to the United Kingdom, were extremely accurate, and had a range exceeding that of the Pershing II, making them capable of hitting targets deeper in the Soviet Union. So, it was that the United States did not simply meet the Soviet SS‑20 threat with one comparable weapon, but with two very accurate systems. It was against this backdrop that President Reagan entered into negotiations with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986, and “Trust, but verify” became the theme of the talks.[1]

But, that was then. This is now. The strategic environment has changed significantly for the U.S. vis-à-vis the former Soviet Union, now Russia. China has emerged as a near peer competitor with a growing military capability that becomes more formidable daily and China was never a signatory to the INF Treaty. As the recently published National Defense Strategy explains, both Russia and China are considered to be in “long-term strategic competition” with the United States because of the “threats they pose to the U.S. security and prosperity today, and the potential for those threats to increase in the future.” In the face of the emerging strategic threats posed by Russia and China, reliance on the INF Treaty to modify the behavior of Russia is becoming a fool’s errand, since it is clear that the U.S. is the only one of the two signers of the treaty that is in compliance. In a Council on Foreign Relations “Backgrounder” by Ankit Panda titled “The Uncertain Future of the INF Treaty,” the author points out that, “In 2014, the U.S. Department of State said Russia violated its obligation not to ‘possess, produce, or flight-test’ missiles prohibited by the treaty.” Though no details were provided at the time, in December of last year, the State Department revealed more information identifying the specific Russian missile system as the 9M729: a cruise missile that has a range that falls outside the range that is compliant with the INF Treaty and violates the agreement.

Panda goes on to quote General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, NATO’s supreme allied commander who said, “Russia’s fielding of the conventional/nuclear dual-capable system that is prohibited under the INF Treaty creates a mismatch in escalatory options with the West.” His point is that the U.S. and its NATO allies have no such comparable weapon and, therefore, cannot escalate a conflict to gain parity or an advantage. In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in March 2017, General Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff sounded a more ominous note of caution, saying this about Russia’s new ground-based intermediate-range missiles, “The system itself presents a risk to most of our facilities in Europe. We believe that the Russians have deliberately deployed it in order to pose a threat to NATO and to facilities within the NATO area of responsibility.”

Meanwhile. China has not been idle in the development of intermediate range missiles (IRBMs). Although identified in a parade three years ago, in April of this year China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) revealed to the public twenty-two Dong Feng DF‑26 IRBMs. These new missiles are not capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, but definitely hold Guam at risk. In fact, Sebastien Roblin in an article in The National Interest points out that, “Chinese internet users have accorded the new missile a name which concisely spells out what is likely its primary role: ‘Guam Killer.’” In an April 2018 prepared opening statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing, Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, in describing China’s missile capability, said, “The PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) controls the largest and most diverse missile force in the world, with an inventory of more than 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles. This fact is significant because the U.S. has no comparable capability due to our adherence to the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia. (Approximately, 95% of the PLARF’s missiles would violate the INF if China was a signatory.)”

The U.S. has traditionally lived up to its agreements and has rested its national security on the understanding that other participants in such treaties will do likewise. All too often this trust in the good will of others has proved Pollyannish at best and absurdly and dangerously naïve at worst. The INF Treaty was verifiable and we now know that Russia has not lived up to their part of the agreement. President Trump’s desire to pull out of the INF Treaty is simply acknowledging this reality and the right thing to do in recognition of undeniable threats the U.S. faces.

[1] The phrase “trust, but verify” came into common use when President Reagan was getting ready for his negotiations with the Soviet Premier and wanted a Russian proverb or a few words in Russian as that he could use. Suzanne Massie, an advisor on Russian affairs, recommended “Doveryai no proveryai,” – trust, but verify. Reagan was taken with the phrase and tended to annoy Gorbachev by using it at every meeting.

Published on November 13, 2018 by

Dick Eassom, CF APMP Fellow