war on the rocks

The Dual-Track Approach: A Long-Term Strategy for a Post-INF Treaty World

April 10, 2019

“The Ministers have decided to pursue these two parallel and complementary approaches in order to avert an arms race in Europe caused by the Soviet [intermediate-range missile] build-up, yet preserve the viability of NATO’s strategy of deterrence and defense…”

– Special Meeting of NATO Foreign and Defense Ministers, Dec. 12, 1979


In December 1979, the United States and its NATO allies adopted a long-term strategy to remove the threat posed by new Soviet intermediate-range missiles. The Dual Track Decision was built on “two parallel and complementary approaches.” First, the United States agreed to deploy intermediate-range missiles of its own to Europe. Second, it would leverage these new missiles in an arms control negotiation with Moscow with the aim of convincing the Soviets to dismantle their weapons. The resulting negotiations were long and hard, but in the end NATO’s Dual Track strategy was vindicated. In 1987, the United States and the Soviet Union concluded the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, in which both superpowers agreed to dismantle all land-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km.

Thirty years later, the United States and its allies find themselves in a similar situation.  Faced with Russian cheating on the INF Treaty and China’s rapidly expanding missile force, the Trump administration recently announced its intention to withdraw from the treaty. Critics have argued that withdrawing would be harmful to the larger project of nuclear arms control, triggering arms races and furthering the proliferation of dangerous nuclear weapons. Other analysts have suggested that given Russia’s continued noncompliance and China’s large unrestrained arsenal, U.S. withdrawal from the treaty might be the least bad choice.

Lost in most of the debate over exiting the INF Treaty is any consideration of a longer-term strategy for arms control. As the example of the Dual Track strategy demonstrates, the United States has used arms control effectively in the past to neutralize threats to its security.  Whatever the shortcomings of the current agreement, some kind of limitation on land-based medium- and intermediate-range missiles remains a core U.S. national security interest. Adversaries deploy accurate, long-range missiles to complicate America’s efforts to defend its allies in Europe and Asia, undermine U.S. alliance commitments, and frustrate American military planning. Arms control arrangements that dismantle long-range land-based missiles therefore benefit the United States disproportionately.

The Trump administration’s mistake is not the act of withdrawal itself, but rather the failure to articulate a clear plan for getting a new agreement in the future. In the face of current Chinese and Russian missile deployments, the United States needs a new and better INF Treaty, one that the Russians will abide by and that also includes China. Moreover, U.S. policymakers should remember that they have leverage over both rivals when it comes to arms control because both Russia and China have a strong incentive to see the United States agree to limitations on land-based missiles. The Trump administration has acknowledged the danger posed by Chinese and Russian missile proliferation. Future arms control to limit this proliferation remains the best policy for managing the threat.

How the INF Treaty Preserves U.S. Advantage

The United States benefits from the limitation on land-based medium- and intermediate-range weapons because rivals’ missiles effectively counter American strengths. America’s security depends on its large network of alliances and the ability of the United States to defend those allies against attack. The United States is separated from many of its allies by large oceans; as a result, it depends on naval and aerial forces to project power across the world and reach the allies it hopes to defend. Because of its longstanding reliance on its Navy and Air Force, the United States enjoys many durable advantages in the aerial and naval domains, which adversaries find difficult to replicate: advanced technologies and precision manufacturing, ready access to oceans and forward bases, and human, organizational, and cultural advantages honed by decades of forward deployment and considerable combat experience.

This combination of factors has made it difficult for rivals to compete with the United States. Even when adversaries like the Soviet Union were able to match American technical capabilities in certain areas of naval competition, they still could not approach American advantages in geography, human capital, logistical reach, and force maintenance. As a result, Soviet naval and aerial forces consistently operated at lower tempo and with less readiness than their American counterparts.

Faced with these American advantages, adversaries have used cheaper and simpler technologies to complicate American efforts to project power. Rather than fight American forces head-on, adversaries adopt an “anti-access strategy” to prevent the United States from reaching the fight at all. The Soviet missiles that provoked NATO’s original Dual Track policy were one such technology, designed to destroy Western European ports and airfields in the event of war and prevent the United States from sending combat forces to the theater. More recently, China has taken the lead in anti-access efforts, procuring a massive force of missiles designed to hold at risk American ships and air bases inside of the Western Pacific’s “First Island Chain.” Other regional rivals, including Iran and North Korea, have pursued similar programs, designed to make it harder for the United States to reach them in a conflict. The proliferation of land-based medium- and intermediate-range missiles makes it much harder for the United States to defend its allies. Because they are much cheaper than complex ships and manned aircraft, these missiles also allow adversaries to compete with the United States on a cost-effective basis, “offsetting” American aerial and naval advantages with cheaper weapons.

Given the advantages of land-based intermediate-range missiles, some have argued that the United States should abandon arms control and deploy land-based missiles of its own.  According to this logic, American missiles deployed on the territory of allies would reassure those allies of America’s continued commitment to them while deterring adversaries from aggression. But while land-based intermediate-range missiles confer some benefits, their continued proliferation will further reduce the importance of American naval and aerial advantages. The United States cannot have both its traditional naval and aerial dominance and a large arsenal of missiles, because a world in which land-based missiles are permitted is one where adversaries will use that same type of missile to diminish American naval and aerial power. Given the choice, America should prefer its Navy and Air Force, for several reasons.  First, naval and aerial forces provide greater flexibility to redeploy and concentrate power around the world as needed, especially important when the United States faces adversaries in multiple regions. Second, competing with adversaries at sea plays to America’s aforementioned advantages in naval and aerial warfare. Third, shifting competition to sea reduces the likelihood of U.S. missile attacks on adversaries’ homelands, which in turn makes adversaries less likely to strike first. Finally, naval and aerial cooperation generates positive political benefits for American alliances, including important connections between American allies, strengthening alliance cooperation in ways that missile deployments will not.

Because naval and aerial forces provide so much value to American security, the United States should take every opportunity to use arms control to dismantle land-based missile forces. This approach solidifies U.S. alliance commitments and compels adversaries to compete directly with American strengths. The INF Treaty advanced these goals in the 1980s, requiring the Soviets to dismantle their SS-20s while requiring no concessions by the United States regarding its tactical aircraft, strategic bombers, or naval forces.

Is a New INF Treaty Possible?

Of course, even if the United States wants limitations on intermediate-range missiles, it may not be able to get them. The Chinese certainly have expressed no interest in such an agreement, while Russian cheating and obfuscation remain obstacles to arms control dialogue.  Many commentators have concluded that arms control’s chances in the near future are dim and that American long-term planning should assume a world without meaningful limitation of intermediate-range weapons. Yet pessimism about arms control’s future, while understandable, fails to take into account the significant leverage the United States would bring to future arms control talks with Russia and China. The United States can compel both countries to engage in arms control dialogue as long as it is ready to pursue a holistic competitive strategy, just as it did in the 1980s. America’s arms control leverage over China and Russia comes from one source: its vast network of allies. In a world with no arms control restrictions, the United States would enjoy a tremendous advantage in an intermediate-range missile arms race because it could deploy these missiles on its allies’ territory, while rivals like China and Russia are largely limited to deploying missiles on their own territory. As a result, any American deployment of intermediate-range missiles generates a lopsided security threat to American rivals. Adversaries can pose a serious anti-access threat that interferes with American power projection capabilities, but comparable American forces deployed on allied territory can pose a direct threat to the adversary’s homeland — a bad trade for Russia or China. In the face of this disadvantage, adversaries will have strong incentives to negotiate limits on intermediate-range missiles.

This same dynamic underpinned NATO’s Dual Track strategy in the 1980s, when the United States compelled the Soviet Union to enter the INF Treaty. The United States and its European allies lobbied the Soviets intensively to dismantle their SS-20 missiles, but the Soviets refused. In response, the United States deployed a new generation of land-based intermediate-range missiles, capable of striking Soviet territory. The two “tracks” worked in tandem: By deploying intermediate-range missiles that could threaten the Soviet homeland directly, NATO hoped to induce the Soviets to dismantle their own SS-20s as part of an arms control arrangement. The threat posed by American missiles played an important role in convincing Soviet leaders that dismantling ground-based intermediate-range nuclear forces was in their interest, rather than perpetuating an arms race with the United States that disproportionately threatened Soviet security.

The Soviet reversal was dramatic. When American missiles deployed in the fall of 1983, the prospects for arms control seemed very poor. Just five years later, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the INF Treaty. By pursuing a well-defined competitive strategy, the United States created opportunities for arms control dialogue with the Soviets, and concluded an agreement that significantly enhanced American power and security.

The United States could leverage the same basic asymmetry today as part of a new Dual Track strategy. Russia and China see intermediate-range missiles as an area of advantage so long as the United States does not compete with them. When the United States does not compete, Chinese and Russian leaders see no reason to engage their American counterparts in arms control dialogue. If the United States were to threaten its rivals with intermediate-range missiles, this security logic would change quickly. A new Dual Track strategy could leverage American advantages in technology and alliance partnerships to bring Russia and China to the bargaining table.



But What is the Strategy, Exactly?

Although a new Dual Track policy would advance American security through arms control, to date the Trump administration has expressed little interest in such an approach. Administration officials have outlined the reasons for leaving the treaty, and discussed the possibility of deploying new missiles once the United States withdraws, but to date the administration has not linked the deployment of new missiles to a long-term strategy to bring Russia and China into a new INF Treaty, as the 1979 Dual Track Decision did explicitly with the Soviet Union. Similarly, while many U.S. allies support the decision to abrogate the treaty, they have remained circumspect about the deployment of new military capabilities. The United States needs to decide exactly what capabilities it will deploy, where it will deploy them (and whether allies will agree), and how those deployments will lead to a better arms control regime in the future. Rather than hiding in vague generalities, the Trump administration ought to annunciate a clear Dual-Track strategy, one that can provide a guiding framework for America and its allies in the years to come.

The United States could articulate a new dual-track strategy in three general ways. First, it could bypass the option of building land-based missiles to counter Russia and China and instead double down on its advantages in sea- and air-based missiles. As discussed earlier, the United States enjoys its greatest leads in aerial and naval forces, so emphasizing these forces plays to American strengths. From a technical perspective, an air-and-naval strategy could be implemented quickly, since it would plug into existing American platforms and capabilities. To these could be added additional intermediate-range capabilities, perhaps including new hypersonic or electromagnetic weapons, which when forward-deployed on ships and aircraft would pose significant threats to rivals. Furthermore, the United States would pay the fewest political costs in convincing allies to support its strategy, much of which could be implemented under existing alliance agreements. In theory, the new forces — which would serve as the first “track” — would incentivize Russia and China to start negotiating limits on land-based missiles — the second “track.”

The air-and-naval approach has downsides, however. Naval and aerial forces are more expensive and complicated than land-based intermediate-range missiles — the very reason the United States should want to limit those missiles. Furthermore, the fact that naval and aerial forces work well to reassure allies means they are not especially effective as a bargaining chip for arms control. The United States historically has resisted calls to include these forces in arms control bargains out of fears that limiting naval and aerial resources could make allies nervous about U.S. commitments.

Second, the United States could encourage allies to pursue their own intermediate-range forces as a counterweight to rival capabilities. As Michael Beckley, as well as Sugio Takahashi and Eric Sayers, have written, this approach would have numerous advantages. It would allow the United States to pass the costs of balancing against rivals’ missile arsenals to local allies, it would ease credibility concerns associated with American extended deterrence, and it would allow the United States to continue specializing in aerial and naval forces while also enjoying the benefits of threatening rivals with land-based capabilities. The United States could expand its missile partnership with the United Kingdom to include other allies like Australia, Norway, Japan, Poland, or South Korea, or it could support further development of comparable indigenous missile options.

Of course, this strategy also has its shortcomings. First, it would require the greatest political buy-in from allies, since they would need to commit to expensive and potentially provocative military capabilities, increasing the chances of domestic opposition. Second, such a strategy might also fail on technical grounds, since few American allies have proven track records in developing long-range missile technology. More broadly, allied missile programs may not help the United States much in future arms control negotiations. Every ally that develops its own missile capabilities will ultimately be another party that the United States must convince to give up their weapons in an eventual arms control agreement with Russia and/or China.

Third, the United States could develop and deploy its own intermediate-range missiles to pressure its rivals directly. This is the option that most resembles the original Dual-Track policy.  As Matthew Kroenig and Scott Cuomo have argued, this direct approach would have significant benefits, allowing the United States to “beat China at its own game.” While implementing this sort of deployment would take longer than bolstering existing naval and aerial forces, it could probably be implemented more quickly than waiting for allies to develop their own capabilities: Existing missiles (like the sea-based Tomahawk) could be repurposed for land-based deployment. Directly deploying American intermediate-range weapons would arguably place the United States in the best long-term bargaining position. Land-based deployments would, in theory, eventually allow the United States and its rivals to make symmetrical reductions of equivalent land-based missiles without requiring compromising air or naval forces or convincing allies to dismantle their own forces.

But deploying new land-based intermediate-range capabilities would also carry significant costs and risks. New deployments would have to be authorized by allies that would have to bear the brunt of both domestic opposition and escalatory threats from American rivals. Getting American missiles deployed in Europe in 1983 was a near-run thing. Although conventionally armed missiles ought to provoke less opposition, there is no guarantee that allied governments would hold firm on deployments. Moreover, deploying new missile forces would require committing resources to brand-new capabilities at a time when defense spending faces significant constraints. In the long run, such deployments might pay dividends if they can convince Russia and China to dismantle their land-based intermediate-range weapons, but in the short term, even relatively cheap new weapons will make it harder to fund the aircraft carriers, bombers, and submarines that form the core of the American military.

A Policy In Search of A Strategy

These three Dual-Track strategies are not mutually exclusive. For example, the United States could modernize and intensify its aerial and naval intermediate-range forces, including some redeployment of nuclear forces, while also promoting the procurement and deployment of local allies’ land-based conventional forces. This approach would aim for a deal with Russia and China that would place some restrictions on American aerial and naval forces (for example, denuclearization of American surface ships and tactical aircraft) in exchange for a broad intermediate-range nuclear forces bargain eliminating land-based medium- and intermediate-range missiles. Alternatively, the United States could slow its aerial and naval modernization, focusing instead on deploying its own land-based intermediate-range capabilities, in hopes of provoking a faster and narrower drawdown of American, Russian, and Chinese land-based missiles.

Any strategy or combination of strategies will have strengths and weaknesses. Of real concern, however, is that the Trump administration is withdrawing from the Treaty without a clearly articulated plan for how to move forward. Russian noncompliance or Chinese missiles might be excuses for withdrawing from the Treaty, but they are not an excuse to avoid outlining a strategy for managing the withdrawal. The United States retains major advantages over its rivals, but it can only realize those advantages if it adopts an effective long-term strategy — the centerpiece of which should be an arms control agreement modeled on the original INF Treaty.

Too many observers today view arms control as a simple cooperative exercise, one with which they can agree or disagree depending on their political proclivities. But, historically, arms control has served a variety of purposes, including promoting America’s competitive military advantages. The INF Treaty is a case in point: By limiting Soviet missile deployments, the agreement enhanced America’s power projection capabilities and reassured its allies. Today, with the United States and its allies facing a similar threat and the INF Treaty being moribund, a new Dual Track approach holds the best chance of building a new, better agreement to limit intermediate-range missiles, playing to U.S. strengths, and advancing American security in the 21st century.



John D. Maurer is the Henry A. Kissinger postdoctoral fellow at International Security Studies and the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. His writing on American nuclear strategy and arms control policy has appeared in Diplomatic History, the Texas National Security Review, RealClearDefense, and the National Interest.


Image: U.S. Army photo by Ryan Keith