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Going Rogue on the INF

BGM-109G Gryphon - ID DF-ST-84-09185.JPEG
BGM-109G Gryphon ground launched cruise missile (GLCM). By TSGT ROB MARSHALL – , Public Domain.

So, the Trump administration is now saying that it’s going to pull out of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.  Dan effectively laid out the causes for concern. I’m going to get some pushback for this, but…. I don’t think this is a bad idea. I have a piece at the Diplomat which summarizes the arguments against the INF, with specific links, but here are some additional thoughts…

Briefly, the US and the USSR negotiated the INF because of concerns over the destabilizing effects of nuclear armed medium ranged ballistic and cruise missiles on the balance of forces in Europe.  US ballistic missiles, stationed in Europe, could hit Soviet targets in a matter of minutes, just as Soviet missiles could hit European targets.  Of equally significant concern to the Soviets were ground launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) which the Soviets believed they had no meaningful defense against; they couldn’t detect launches, and wouldn’t know they were under attack until it was all over.  A friend of mine who works at the Pentagon called GLCMs “the weapon that won the Cold War.” Anyway, the INF banned missiles in the 500-5500km range.  It exempted air-launched and sea-launched missiles, which gave the US a big advantage because it had already worked hard at developing the sea-launched TLAM.  The ban covered both conventional and nuclear tipped missiles, because it was impossible to distinguish between the two in flight.

Fast forward thirty years.  The INF Treaty does not prohibit the development of short and medium ranged ballistic and cruise missiles; it just prohibits their development by Russia and the US.  China has developed a wide array of missiles in this range, mostly for the delivery of conventional munitions.  The DF-21 ship-killing ballistic missile is an example of these systems, but hardly the only example.  Missiles that the US is prohibited by the INF from developing are, in essence, the cornerstone of China’s A2/AD system in the Western Pacific.

So, one argument against the INF is that it is no longer compatible with the structure of power and military technology in the international system.  It does not include China, and China is *much* more powerful than Russia in conventional military terms, and *much* more capable of developing new systems within the INF range.  Moreover, the treaty did not envision that the precision of conventional munitions would increase to the degree that they could play a decisive role in a great power conflict.  It’s as if the Washington Naval Treaty simply didn’t include one of the world’s largest naval powers, and didn’t include submarines or aircraft carriers.

The second argument against the INF is that Russia is already in breach.  This is not particularly controversial, although its consequences have been debated.  Essentially, Russia already has land-based cruise and ballistic missiles that can operate in the INF prohibited zone, although it has generally refrained from testing them at these ranges.  For their part the Russians also accuse the US of violations, claiming on the one hand that long-range armed drones should count as cruise missiles, and on the other that anti-ballistic missile interceptors developed by the US could be re-purposed as land-attack cruise.  You can take or leave the former; the latter is certainly possible, although there’s not any indication that the US has tried to do this.

So that’s the state of play; Russia and the US are both arguably not in compliance (the argument for Russian noncompliance is stronger than the argument for US noncompliance, but Both Sides Do It etc.), and China is building a huge array of systems that would not be in compliance if China were part of the treaty, which it’s not.

INF proponents (not unreasonably) argue that blowing up one of the remaining pillars of the arms control architecture of the 1980s is bad, notwithstanding minor Russian violations.   They argue that Russia should be pressured back into compliance (without really explaining how that can be done), and that in any case abrogating the INF is super unpopular with NATO allies.  The latter is definitely true, both because Russian systems in this range will disproportionately target Europe, and because European defense policies are built upon various consensual myths that allow the countries to feel fierce while spending very little on defense.

With respect to the Pacific, INF proponents don’t say much of anything.  The arms control community tends to focus pretty heavily on nuclear weapons relative to conventional munitions, and nuclear armed missiles aren’t really the issue in the Pacific.  The arms control community has been preoccupied, not for bad reasons, with defending the architecture built in the 1980s from the neocon challenge, and hasn’t focused overmuch on how the rise of China has changed the arms control equation.  When pressed, INF advocates will argue that the US has enough air and launched missiles to make up for the lack of ground-launched systems, and moreover that the United States doesn’t at the moment have much in the way of systems that can be usefully deployed in the absence of the INF.  They also suggest that China should be brought into the INF system.

For my part, that’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far.  Regarding the last, it’s effectively impossible to bring China into the INF; these missiles are the cornerstone of its defensive network, and it’s really hard to imagine Beijing giving them up.  It’s true that the US has lots of alternatives to GLCMs, but GLCMs still give the US lots of new options.  Even on a relatively small landmass (like an island) you can hide cruise missiles very effectively, maintain larger magazines than are possible on a ship, etc.  There’s a real military cost to INF compliance, in other words.  And while the US isn’t ready to develop new systems on a dime, there are several existing systems and projects that can be “freed” from the INF constraints and can make more of a contribution.  It’s also extremely difficult in the US procurement system to start developing a capability that’s currently prohibited by treaty; Congress tends to hate it, and the services don’t want to invest effort in it.

Long story short: Arms control agreements are important and consequential, and shouldn’t be tossed at the first sign of a violation.  But arms control agreements also need to take account of basic structural variables, including changes in the distribution of power and the relative impact of technology.  Conventional cruise and ballistic missiles have become vastly more important in the last twenty years, and only one of the world’s two most powerful military-industrial complexes is constrained by the treaty.  And these factors will get worse before they get better. The Trump administration certainly approached the question badly, but it isn’t wrong to think that the INF no longer fits with US security policy.

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