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How the INF Treaty Could Die in East Asia

Sep 30 , 2014

On December 8, 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. This treaty required the United States and the Soviet Union to permanently eliminate from their arsenals all land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. By 1991, the two countries had implemented the treaty by destroying a combined 2,692 land-based missiles.

Russia and the United States are still bound by the INF treaty. Concerns about the future of the treaty arose in July 2014 when the U.S. State Department formally accused Russia of violating the treaty by testing a cruise missile with a range prohibited by the treaty. Russian officials have denied the accusation, leading some policymakers and analysts in Washington to wonder whether Russia may be planning a “soft abrogation” of the treaty by quietly fielding prohibited missiles without formally exiting the treaty.

In spite of this development, the greater risk to the future of the INF treaty lies in East Asia. China is not bound by the treaty and has centered its two-decade military modernization program on the deployment of many types of highly accurate missiles. Well over a thousand of these missiles are land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, missiles that are still prohibited to Russia and the United States.

U.S. policymakers and military planners have not expressed concerns over the INF treaty’s constraints. They have reasoned that U.S. air and naval power, outside the bounds of the treaty, will provide sufficient military power to compensate for land-based missile capabilities the U.S. forfeited with the INF treaty.

However, the growing strength of China’s naval power, air defenses, and the capacity of China’s own missile forces to successfully attack U.S. air and naval bases and surface warships (including aircraft carriers) in the Western Pacific has now called into question the assumptions long taken for granted by U.S. policymakers and military planners. Over the past few years, numerous studies prepared by analysts in the U.S. defense community have concluded that by next decade China’s growing aerospace, naval, and missile power will put at risk the air and naval forces U.S. commanders have relied on as a substitute for the land-based missile forces banned by the INF treaty. The INF treaty’s future may depend on whether the United States will be able to maintain the relevance of its air and naval power in the Asia-Pacific region at a reasonable cost in the face of China’s rising military power.

In spite of a restrained outlook for U.S. defense spending, the United States is beginning or continuing several programs designed to modernize its air and naval forces. The goal of these programs is to keep these forces effective in spite of the more threatening missile environment they will face in the future. These programs include the F-35 stealthy Joint Strike Fighter, the Virginia-class attack submarine (armed with both anti-ship and land-attack weapons), more robust air and missile defenses for aircraft carriers and surface warships, and a new long-range bomber aircraft.

The United States has long relied on these types of systems instead of the theater-range land-based missiles now prohibited to it by the INF treaty. But looking to the future, it is by no means certain that these programs will be effective and affordable, thus delivering the military capabilities U.S. policymakers and planners are counting on. There are numerous obstacles that might thwart current U.S. modernization plans.

First, budget pressures faced by the U.S. government may continue to constrain overall defense spending. Budget “sequestration” (across-the-board cuts) is scheduled to return in 2016 and policymakers in Washington have not yet devised a legislative solution. The return of sequestration could imperil U.S. defense modernization.

Second, engineering difficulties and program management challenges could cause program costs to escalate well beyond current assumptions. Indeed, this has been the usual result with most recent U.S. weapon programs, with the large cost overruns of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program representing perhaps the most notorious case. Wide-ranging cost overruns could threaten the arrival of capabilities U.S. planners are counting on.

Land-based theater-range missiles, mounted on mobile transporter-erector-launchers, would provide U.S. military planners an effective, less vulnerable, and much cheaper alternative to the aircraft, submarines, and aircraft carriers that currently constitute the U.S. defense modernization plan. For the price of a new submarine, destroyer, or flight of new bombers, the Pentagon could instead acquire hundreds of truck-mounted precision missiles (thousands in exchange for a new aircraft carrier). Should budget strains in Washington tighten and program costs run out of control, the pressure to consider the cheaper, land-based missile alternative – an alternative requiring the abrogation of the INF treaty – would surely grow.

U.S. allies in East Asia such as Japan and the Philippines – the prospective hosts of such missiles – might welcome this development. These allies view U.S. forces there as America’s commitment to the region and a deterrent to an attack. Mobile missiles able to disperse and hide would greatly complicate a potential attacker’s calculations and do so to a much greater extent than increasingly vulnerable fixed U.S. bases in the region. The missile option may thus be more stabilizing than the status quo.

The end of the INF treaty would not be happy news for Europe. The treaty’s arrival in 1987 brought an end to the Soviet nuclear missile threat to the continent. Without the treaty, Europe would then have to wonder what Russia might do next.

Two paradoxes now loom over the treaty. It is developments in East Asia, far from the treaty’s origin, that may now determine whether the treaty will survive. And the more U.S. defense spending is constrained, the more likely it is that the U.S. will opt for cheaper land-based missiles, thus killing the treaty.

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