Since Donald Trump took office nuclear hawks have been on a quest to redevelop America’s nuclear arsenal and dismantle non-proliferation efforts. Senators like Tom Cotton have called for scrapping roughly 30 years of nuclear treaties dating back to the Reagan administration in response the Russia’s violation, with possibly the most important treaty on the chopping block being the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).
The INF may be one of the most important treaties enacted in the past decades. The underlying benefit of the treaty rests on the stability it achieved on the European continent. Before the treaty was enacted the United States and the Soviet Union each fielded a variety of intermediate weapons in Europe, the most potent of which were the Soviet SS-20 and the American Pershing II IRBMs.
While ICBMs can take up to 30 minutes to reach their targets, intermediate ballistic missiles are capable striking within 5 to 15 minutes. The Pershing II and SS-20 then, resulted in a compressed timetable, resulting in overwhelming pressure for each side to strike first. If they failed to launch first, there was a good chance that their leadership would be killed before they could order a retaliation. Gorbachev went as far as to describe the Pershing II as a “gun to our head.” This strategic instability proved to much for either power and the INF was the result.
The INF not only banned the Pershing II and SS-20, but any ground launched missile with a range of 500 to 5,500 km. This included shorter range ballistic missiles, as well as cruise missiles like the BGM-109G “Gryphon” and its Soviet counterpart. By 1991 over 2000 missiles had been destroyed. It was hailed as a breakthrough in arms control and was the first treaty in history to eliminate an entire class of weapons.
Issues with INF
While the INF was a landmark in nuclear non-proliferation it was very much a product of its time. China and India were still undeveloped nations without advanced nuclear strike capabilities. As time has progressed these capabilities have proliferated. Now India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea, South Korea, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia all possess some form of intermediate strike capability while the U.S and Russia are prohibited from developing theirs.
The INF also left a few issues unresolved: Is a drone a missile? Does Aegis Ashore violate the treaty because it’s VLS cell is capable of launching TLAMs? What about target missiles like the Hera? Does it violate the treaty even though it’s not for combat use? What about the RS-26? It has the range of the ICBM with a light payload but an IRBM fully loaded. Is it a violation?
The political landscape has also changed. The Russian Federation is not the Soviet Union. It’s conventional strength is dwarfed by NATO in the west, and China and Japan in the east. It’s navy is relatively small, and lacks the same capacity for strike as America’s armada of missile destroyers and aircraft carriers. Now, it’s is Russia which is seeking to offset America’s conventional military advantage instead of the other way around.
Re-Birth of the Intermediate weapon
Over time these issues have festered and relations between the two powers have deteriorated. Fast forward to 2017 and the INF is almost dead. Russia has redeveloped ground launched cruise missiles and is testing the RS-26. American intelligence has assessed that GLCM in question (the SSC-8) has reportedly been deployed to several battalions of the Russian Federation’s ground forces.
The United States is about to respond in kind. A directive embedded in FY 2018’s budget mandates that the military modify the Tomahawk , ATACMS or the SM-6 into ground launched intermediate range missiles. (pg 38 on the link)
Because the SM-6 and ATACMS have ranges of less than 500 km when used against ground targets the directive is essentially to recreate the BGM-109G Gryphon; the TLAM’s land based counterpart that was scrapped after the INF was ratified.
The directive cites two distinct reasons for the reintroduction. On one hand there is the argument that the United States must match Russian and Chinese capabilities. In some circles there is growing concern that as countries like China and India develop ever more advanced intermediate weapons the United States is being left behind.
Such an argument logically follows that the INF is no longer sufficient in a world where intermediate range missiles are rapidly proliferating among near-peer adversaries like China. In this sense I believe that American hawks and Russia’s defense establishment have reached essentially the same conclusion. Of course, Russia’s land borders with other great powers like, China, Japan and the NATO alliance have added impetus to their program.
On the other hand (at least ostensibly) the directive is justified as a way to restart the “Dual-track” approach that lead to the INF in 1987. Although I find this hard to believe given the hawkish tint of the subcommittee. McCain and Cotton aren’t the type who like getting rid of capabilities once in place. In any case, dual-track will not work again.
Why “Duel Track” won’t work again
While dual track was successful in the 1980s such a strategy is unlikely to work today. Presumably, Putin thought through his decision to authorize Russia’s new cruise missile aware of the risk that America would respond in kind. He has therefore accept the risk of American cruise missiles being deployed to Europe.
On a technical level The BGM-109G (or whatever they call this new one) lacks the same capabilities as the Pershing II. With a top speed of only 550 miles per hour the ground based tomahawk would take the more than an hour to reach Moscow from bases in Poland or almost two hours from Germany. It’s actually slower than a F-15E or F-35 making the same trip with a B-61; not exactly a gun to Putin’s head.
The Tomahawk also lacks stealth features that would make them survivable against modern Russian air defense systems. Russia has had decades to prepare for a massive pulse of American TLAMs and they have prepared advanced point and area defense systems for just the occasion.
The INF then, is unlikely to brought back by the re-introduction of American ground launched cruise missiles.
I would not however, attempt to build a “Pershing III.” This is not the 1980s and Russia is not the Soviet Union. Aiming a IRBM at the Kremlin would be destabilizing, development would be costly, and it would escalate tensions unnecessarily. It would also be politically difficult to reintroduce these weapons in Europe.
A better option would be for the U.S to begin accelerating its current programs. Deploying anti-missile systems like THAAD and more Aegis Ashore to Europe would help offset the threat. Accelerating the replacement of the ATACMs with a more advanced conventional missile would also send a clear message and grant NATO some protection without violating the treaty. ( I’ve already discussed this sort of thing here.)
In the nuclear realm deploying Ohio-Class submarines in the Baltic and Black Sea might also be considered. The Trident D-5 has capabilities similar to that of the RS-26 but could be deployed without permission from foreign governments and would not violate the INF. At the same time the U.S could also create a reserve of TLAM-Ns to provide the rest of the fleet with a nuclear strike capability.
Unfortunately Some nuclear counter force elements must be deployed to Europe in order to keep Russia from de-linking us with our allies. America’s navy is a great asset, but cannot counterbalance Russia’s new strategic position alone; we need a credible, ground based deterrent that will force Russia to directly attack American missile forces if they decide to attack our allies.
For this, the tomahawk is probably the best option. It will be survivable enough to threaten Russia, while being slow enough that it won’t create overwelming strategic instability. The ability to reprogram the missile in flight will also give the U.S and Russia some breathing room.
The INF then, is dead: a victim of the new multi-polar world where deep-strike weapons are rapidly proliferating. America must respond to the violation and protect our allies from Russia’s new capabilities. The United States should not expect such deployments to bring Russia to the negotiating table and should not attempt to put a gun to Putin’s head.
Russia and the United States both clearly see value in intermediate weapons. Rather then attempt to force Russia back into compliance, it would be better initiate dialogue on the issue. If neither side believes the INF is viable anymore then they should engage each other to find a replacement, or at least to prevent an arms race.