What We Are Getting Into By Getting Out of INF
By Henry Sokolski
October 26, 2018
After one gets past German, Russian and U.S. pundits’ recriminations of President Donald Trump’s announced withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), there is the reality of his decision and its military, financial, alliance and diplomatic ramifications. These implications are far broader and more significant than what has yet been discussed.
First, freed from the INF Treaty’s ground-launched-missile range restrictions of 310-3,417 mi. (499-5,499 km), the U.S. could field hundreds of Tomahawk ground-launched cruise missiles to deal with China. But the Pentagon will not stop there. In October, the U.S. Army announced it is developing cannon-launched rocket-assisted projectiles, some with ranges potentially exceeding 1,000 mi. Also, the hypersonic weapons our military is developing, which could be ground-launched, have no treaty-range limits.
More important, the logic of targeting Chinese command posts, air-defense radars and missile launchers with precise conventional missiles and of forcing Beijing to target difficult-to-locate U.S. and allied land-based missile launchers is hardly range-bound. If it makes sense for the U.S. to aim against these targets with conventional missiles from 310-3,417 mi, it surely makes sense to do so beyond the reach of most Chinese missiles—i.e., at intercontinental ranges. How this might be dealt with in any extension of the New START (due to expire in 2021) or other forms of arms control remains to be seen. Initially, though, the missile competition is unlikely to be limited.
Second, and related, is the question of cost. Trump says the U.S. has plenty of money to build as many missiles as it wants. The truth is that in addition to buying new conventional missiles, Congress must bankroll the modernization of nuclear strategic forces, command-and-control systems, space satellite systems and cyberdefenses. Congress must also restructure the military to deal with state-on-state competitions (instead of counterinsurgencies) and enlarge the Navy. Something will likely have to give. With the delay of the release of the Pentagon’s missile defense review, one possibility is reducing spending on expensive, “deployable” missile defenses, including those our allies e.g., South Korea and Japan—might want.
Which brings us to the third issue: Where will America’s new ground-launched missiles be based? The most logical spots would be American bases and territories in the Western Pacific: Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Next would be at larger American bases in Japan, which might helpfully delay any Japanese decision to develop long-range, deep-strike land-based conventional missiles of their own. South Korea might follow, or not—but would the U.S. want to help Seoul extend the range of its existing long-range missiles? How much should Washington depend on Seoul to threaten not just North Korea, but China? Further afield are the Philippines, Vietnam, India, and Australia. Politically, none seems ripe for basing, but in time this may change. In Europe, the British, who backed Trump’s withdrawal and are exiting the European Union’s orbit, might be game, as might the eager Polish. It is less clear how attempting such deployments might play or be opposed within NATO, though.
The good news is that initially the coming missile competition will be at least as stressful for the U.S. as it will be for Russia, which is broke, and for China, which already is building as many missiles as it can. Over time, the costs and risks associated with an unbounded missile competition are sure to rise for all parties. Perhaps this explains Trump’s comment that “we are going to have develop these missiles, unless China and Russia come to us and they all come to us and say, ‘Let’s really get smart, and let’s none of us develop these weapons.’ I would be extremely happy with that.”
It would be wise not to just hope this meeting of the minds will happen but to plan for it. That means determining now how our “first track” of competing against China and Russia with missiles might support a “second” diplomatic track to channel, cap or eliminate the competition. The INF Treaty did that 31 years ago. Then, the problem was nuclear-armed, first-strike ground-launched nuclear missiles in Europe. Now, it is precise, conventional, ground-launched missiles not just in Europe, but also in Asia. The challenge is larger, but it is not that different.