At the moment, Russia’s march on Crimea tops the United States’ list of issues with its onetime foe. But it is hardly the whole list. Rather, as The New York Times reported in January, Washington apparently believes that Moscow has also been busy violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a pact between the two banning the use of both nuclear and conventionally armed ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles within a certain range. This is no minor matter. When the treaty was signed in 1987, it was taken as a signal that the Cold War was finally thawing and, since then, it has been a been a defining element in U.S.-Russian relations, the United States and NATO’s deterrent posture, and the broader architecture of global arms control.
Despite this legacy, Russia has apparently developed a cruise missile designed to operate in the treaty’s prohibited range of 500 to 5,550 kilometers and has reportedly developed an RS-26 ballistic missile that also appears to have been designed for intermediate ranges; the latter missile has just barely reached beyond 5,500 kilometers with a minimal payload in testing. With much of the data about these issues withheld, it is impossible to make a final judgment about whether Moscow has broken the INF pact. But it does seem fairly clear that Moscow is determined to do end-run on INF, something backed up by the many reports, for instance in former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ recent memoirs, that Moscow -- and particularly its military -- has been keen to escape the INF straightjacket for years. Indeed, there are some indications that the country is just waiting for the United States to do it the favor of terminating INF.
In the wake of the tests, some observers, including at the Heritage Foundation, have been calling for the United States to do just that. And terminating the INF would certainly send a strong message. But, at this stage, it would be rash and ill-advised.
That is because the United States still benefits from the treaty. Despite Moscow’s apparent recent bad-faith activities, the agreement nonetheless constrains Russia. The pact, after all, prohibits one of the world’s largest land powers from deploying land-based missiles that could reach key American allies in Europe and East Asia, as well as a host of other countries in the band between 500 and 5,500 kilometers from Russia’s borders. This is an onerous restraint for a country that has become increasingly reliant on missiles for its military striking power. The United States, in contrast, has traditionally relied much more on aerial and naval power for its strike capabilities, and was content in the 1980s to give up its ground-based INF-range missiles. In fact, the “zero option” that eventually became INF was originally proposed as a poisoned pill to kill any arms control pact because it was thought to be totally unacceptable to Moscow.
Thus, thanks to INF, for the past quarter century the United States has not had to deal with Russian INF-accountable systems -- a great boon to the United States and its allies. But, of course, this benefit has come because Russia has mostly complied with the treaty. If Russia has started ignoring it, it won’t do the United States much good.
So these are the benefits. But what are the costs to the United States of INF? If it meaningfully and painfully constrains the United States, this should make Washington more skeptical about sticking with it in the face of Russian violations. Unfortunately, it is impossible to derive a full picture of the costs, in large part because the Defense Department does not make its analysis of this point public. Nevertheless, we do know a few things that bear on the question. On the one hand, INF does not endanger the United States’ current military effectiveness; U.S. forces can launch accurate strikes from air and sea and can operate drones as needed. On the other hand, INF does prohibit the United States from exploiting at least some attractive options to fill holes in its military posture. Some experts, including Jim Thomas, the vice president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, argue that such systems would fill a rather large gap in the United States’ ability to strike quickly with accurate and effective conventional weapons. Likewise, the Department of Defense has reportedly identified a number of major unmet requirements in the prompt conventional strike mission that at least some in DOD think could best be met through INF-prohibited systems.
This argument has special force because U.S. conventional strike capabilities -- and thus the United States’ ability to project power writ large -- are under increasing strain. At the broadest level, this stems from the fact that the world is witnessing the unveiling of daunting anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) networks by China and Russia and, increasingly, North Korea and Iran. These networks are designed to blunt American military power and include highly sophisticated air and missile defense systems tailored to block the United States’ preferred ways of operating and striking. These networks will create increasingly, and in some cases dramatically, more challenging environments for U.S. forces.
At the same time that the defensive challenge to U.S. strike capabilities is growing, however, the U.S. conventional strike arsenal is shrinking and aging. For instance, a number of the key weapons and systems that underpin U.S. military supremacy are set to retire, and it is uncertain what will replace them. For example, the United States will soon phase out its Ohio-class SSGNs, which are the stealthy ballistic missile submarines converted to carry and launch conventional cruise missiles. The United States depends heavily on these submarines, each of which carries well over 100 cruise missiles. Yet they are scheduled to be gone by the end of the next decade, and have no clear replacement.
Together, these two trends will put a high premium for the United States on weapons that can strike effectively, precisely, and quickly into territory defended by adversaries’ A2/AD networks. INF-prohibited ballistic and cruise missiles fall squarely into this category.
There are thus both benefits and costs to Washington to sticking with INF, and neither clearly outweighs the other. Fortunately, there is a way to thread the needle of restraining the growth of Russia’s missile arsenal (or forcing Russia to bear the costs of withdrawing from the treaty) while also exploring the military benefits of INF-banned systems. This is because INF bans testing and deployment of banned systems but not their research and development. Since any banned systems that the United States might actually want to deploy would likely require a significant amount of research and development, there is no reason not to start now.
So this leaves a clear path forward. The Department of Defense should start by carefully studying the utility of INF-banned systems for potential use by United States, especially in light of the growing A2/AD challenges to U.S. power projection capabilities. Congress could encourage such an effort by including in the National Defense Authorization Act or other appropriate legislation a requirement that such a study be undertaken. This research should help establish whether the United States does need or would substantially benefit from INF-barred systems. Even if the United States determines that it does not need such systems now, it should repeat the exercise on a regular basis to make sure such assessments are current. Next, the Department of Defense should, based on this study, fund and support serious research into and development of potentially attractive INF-banned systems with an eye toward possible deployment in case Russia decides to terminate or flout the treaty or if the United States determines that withdrawal is necessary.
In addition, if the substance of what The New York Times has reported is true -- that Russia is deploying a cruise missile that is barred by INF and circumventing the treaty with one of its new ballistic missiles -- then the U.S. government should clearly declare that to be the case. And Moscow should suffer penalties for subverting an important arms control agreement. At the very least, the State Department should definitively outline Russia’s flouting of the pact in its annual Arms Control Compliance Report. More broadly, Washington should maintain stern and, where appropriate, public pressure on Moscow regarding compliance matters.
Meanwhile, the intelligence community should continue to closely monitor Russian compliance with INF. If Russia decides to effectively withdraw from the treaty without actually going through the appropriate motions, then the benefits to the United States of continued adherence to the treaty will be nullified. In that case, the United States should declare Moscow in material breach of the pact, placing the responsibility for effectively terminating it squarely on Russia’s shoulders.
At the same time, Washington should closely consult with allies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East to better understand their perspectives on INF and concerns about Russia’s behavior. The United States should solicit allies’ perspectives on U.S. intermediate-range ground-based missile systems for deterrence and assurance, especially as some may find such systems valuable and of interest, particularly if they are jointly developed.
Meanwhile, the United States should prepare strategically sound options for amending INF should the Russians seriously propose withdrawing. For instance, Washington could propose to replace INF’s outright bans on its accountable systems with ceilings and to reinstate provisions for transparency and data exchange on such weapons, an approach usefully employed in the New START Treaty. After all, some good arms control is better than none and a serious “second best” proposal would at least increase the political costs to Russia of fully withdrawing from the treaty, since Moscow would look especially malign if it rejected such a reasonable accommodation.