The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Future of the Indo-Pacific Military Balance


Thirty years ago, the United States and Soviet Union successfully completed an extended round of negotiations that culminated in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987.

Despite persistent calls from the Soviet Union during the negotiation that the treaty only limit ground-based intermediate-range cruise and ballistic missiles in Europe, American negotiators insisted that the treaty be global in scope after strong lobbying from their Japanese allies who worried that Europe’s missile dilemma would only be shifted to Asia if the systems were not globally eliminated. The final treaty prohibited the United States and Russia from the possession, production, and flight-testing of ground-launched ballistic (GLBM) and cruise missiles (GLCM) with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, as well as their associated launchers and support infrastructure. After seven years of negotiations, the treaty ushered in a new level of strategic stability in the European theater and beyond that, despite recent Russian actions, has remained intact to this day.

Despite the Eurocentric nature of the treaty and the positive impact it continues to have in Europe, the debilitating impact it is having on U.S. policy beyond Europe can no longer be ignored.

China is not a party to the treaty. For two decades, it has heavily invested in a conventional missile-based anti-access/area-denial strategy. According to testimony from Adm. Harry Harris, approximately 95 percent of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force missiles fall in the 500 to 5,500-kilometer range. Given China’s advantageous geographic position in Asia, this capability provides Beijing a relatively inexpensive conventional means to hold U.S. bases and ships at risk across the Western Pacific from the bastion of the Chinese mainland. As a result, America’s military superiority in the Indo-Pacific has come under considerable strain.

While the INF Treaty has enduring merit in Europe and the United States should pursue an aggressive effort to get Russia back into compliance, the same cannot be said for Asia. This presents an inconvenient dilemma for Washington’s policy making towards NATO. But if, as the Trump administration holds, great power competition with both Russia and China should be the central organizing principles for U.S. foreign policy, the strategic and operational limitations the treaty levies on U.S. deterrence planning in the Indo-Pacific can no longer be ignored by the Department of Defense. To be clear, I am not advocating for the introduction of U.S. intermediate-range nuclear missiles into the Asia-Pacific, but this treaty imposes limits on all intermediate-missiles, even conventional missiles. This limitation comes at too high a cost in Asia. And a conversation needs to begin about what the treaty means for America’s interests in Asia and what options exist for policymakers going forward.

Indeed, absent a serious reassessment of the treaty and its application by the Trump administration, in the coming decade the growing conventional military imbalance could well mean that the United States will not be able to uphold its security commitments to allies or reassure partners in the Indo-Pacific in the face of an increasingly assertive China.

Consider the military benefits, if the United States was able to deploy conventional ground-launched intermediate-range missiles in the Western Pacific.

First, the U.S. military would have a relatively affordable option to bolster already insufficient offensive conventional fires in the Pacific Command theater. Today the U.S. military can only project power at long-range by fighter, bomber, or sea-based platforms, relegating the U.S. military to the highest end of the cost curve for this mission. For instance, an Arleigh Burke-class (DDG-51) destroyer costs approximately $1.8 billion, but it only has 96 Vertical Launching System cells of which only a portion are loaded to contain Tomahawk cruise missiles to leave room for defensive weapons like the Standard Missile. Ground-launched systems with an intermediate-range in, for example, Guam, Japan, and Northern Australia, would provide planners with a means to augment air and maritime strike platforms with new land component capabilities at a fraction of the cost. In addition, it would free high-demand air and maritime forces to prioritize other missions such as anti-surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, and the anti-air mission. This is all the more important as the Pentagon continues to feel the pressure of sequestration and China doubles down on its quantitative military advantages.

Second, other than expensive penetrating platforms like the B-2 bomber, the treaty limits the U.S. military’s ability to hold China’s interior geography at risk and thereby gives Beijing a pass to avoid investing in costly defensive systems to protect the various military facilities and systems it deliberately bases inland. If the United States could deploy conventional ground-launched systems that could hold China’s interior at risk it would potentially force greater Chinese investment in missile defense systems to protect this military infrastructure. In short, every dollar spent on a defensive system is a dollar Beijing cannot devote to offensive systems along its coast or in its maritime and aerospace forces. That is the sort of competitive strategy American planners should be eager to exploit.

Third, deploying these systems would complicate China’s military planning by presenting an offensive capability that can be deployed at locations across the first-island chain (including in the territory of allies like Japan and even the Philippines) and beyond (a ballistic missile could be deployed to Guam or Northern Australia and still hold most of mainland China at risk, just as bombers deployed to those locations do today). Instead of accounting for American and allied facilities in single locations like Kadena, Yokosuka, and Guam, this capability would ensure China’s military planners would have to devote limited reconnaissance-strike resources and worry about the potential deployment of these systems across the first-island chain and beyond.

Finally, this type of capability would offer new opportunities for cooperation with allies and partners. Whether through the joint development of systems, Foreign military sales, or bilateral exercises, there are numerous opportunities the United States could exploit in this space to work with like-minded allies and partners in the region, including Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, and Vietnam.

When challenged, U.S. officials have insisted that the INF Treaty does not restrict the Pentagon’s ability to project power in Asia in ways that threaten American interests. In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee last year, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Paul Selva, argued that because under the treaty “we are not restricted from fielding ballistic missile or cruise missile systems that can be launched from ships or airplanes” the U.S. military can still hold targets in China at risk. These air and maritime platforms are in the U.S. arsenal and at the disposal of the commander of Pacific Command, but, as previously mentioned, Pacific Command has competing missions, limited magazine depth, and must project power over the vast distances of the Pacific Ocean. A mobile, ground-launched missile capability would only augment these forces while creating new options for enhancing deterrence and warfighting.

Some argue that deploying intermediate range missiles would make the United States appear like the aggressor in Asia, further contributing to militarization and potential arms racing in the region. Given China’s huge investment in cruise and ballistic missile systems, it is hard to imagine such a criticism carrying much weight. Furthermore, while the deployment of these systems to the region would be a new development, there is no valid military distinction between a fight squadron or long-range cruise missile battery deployed to Kadena Air Base or a B-52 bomber squadron or conventional ballistic missile battery positioned in Guam.

The benefits from a military planning and competitive strategy perspective in the Pacific are clear. But how should Washington proceed? While still a party to the treaty, the Pentagon can take steps today to increase the firing rates, capacity, and INF-compliant range of existing missile systems. Under the treaty, it can also commence research and development into non-compliant systems, including modifying existing and emerging air and sea-launched cruise missiles to ground-launched configuration; extend the range of existing ground-launch systems or develop new systems; and modify defensive interceptors to function in offensive mode, similar to the effort to allow the sea-launched SM-6 to function in an offensive mode in recent years. There are also innovative, treaty-compliant ways that the Pentagon could develop and deploy systems that have a boost range that is compliant with INF restrictions but a glide range that can substantially increase the weapons range. This is, perhaps, the most promising method to remain compliant with the treaty while also deploying longer-range systems.

Short of full abrogation of the treaty, other diplomatic options exist to address the way forward. They range from the far-fetched — seeking China’s compliance with the treaty — to the less likely — renegotiating a new treaty with a geographic limitation in Europe that would allow limited or even unlimited INF system deployments outside of Europe or just in East Asia.

How U.S. policy proceeds on the INF Treaty is a critical topic, but for too long consideration about this treaty has only occurred in the context of the European theater and our NATO allies. If the Trump administration is serious about the military competition with both Russia and China, then it must consider the uncomfortable questions related to INF restrictions and Asia. Given that the pace and scope of China’s military modernization shows no signs of slowing down, the U.S. military may have to soon choose between addressing the treaty’s debilitating impact on the military balance in Asia or, absent a major buildup of conventional forces that appears unlikely in the near future, allowing the credibility of American security commitments to erode away.


Eric Sayers is an Adjunct Fellow for Asian Security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He previously worked as a Professional Staff Member on the Senate Armed Services Committee and as a consultant to U.S. Pacific Command where he worked as Special Assistant to the Commander. The author is indebted to the previous work on this topic by Jim Thomas and Dr. Evan Montgomery.

Image: USPACOM/Byron C. Linder