Countering Missiles with Missiles: U.S. Military Posture After the INF Treaty


Thirty-one years ago, the Senate approved the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, banning American and Soviet land-based missiles with ranges from 500 to 5,500 kilometers. Passed by a 93-5 vote, the INF Treaty promoted restraint after decades of Cold War competition. Although it survived the Soviet Union’s end, the agreement started showing signs of age by the mid-2000s. Meant to govern land-based nuclear delivery systems, its provisions also prevented the United States from pursuing conventional precision strike systems for land attack or maritime strike. With both Russia and the United States leaving the treaty, it is effectively a dead letter. Many have discussed why this is the case, but the time is ripe to look closely at what the U.S. armed services can and should do next now that America is unshackled by the treaty’s restrictions.

I experienced the treaty’s shortcomings firsthand while serving as a deputy assistant secretary of defense under Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates. Since China was not party to the agreement, it was not required to follow the treaty’s rules. As a result, it was unconstrained in pursuing not only theater nuclear capabilities but also land-based conventional precision strike systems. Today, China possesses up to 2,650 land-based missiles of types that would be banned if it was party to the INF. These weapons, most of which are non-nuclear, pose a threat to U.S. and allied air bases in the Western Pacific as well as U.S. and allied naval forces, principally U.S. aircraft carriers. Meanwhile, Russia has developed systems that violate the agreement, including the Novator 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile.

As Eric Sayers and Scott Cuomo have previously argued, the treaty’s terms are increasingly out of step with today’s security environment. The treaty’s prohibition on land-based missiles of all kinds has put the United States and its allies at a disadvantage relative to China by allowing Beijing to field relatively cheap land-based missiles to hold U.S. and allied forces at risk while compelling the United States and its allies to expend considerable resources to defend themselves against those missiles. This has contributed to what those of us who served on the congressionally mandated National Defense Strategy Commission characterized as an eroding military balance in the Western Pacific.

It is time to turn the tables. As my colleagues and I have argued in a recent report for the Center of Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the United States should field new ground units armed with intermediate-range land-based missiles on U.S. and allied territory along the Western Pacific archipelagos. Deploying these missiles will help prevent the nightmares that keep Pentagon officials up at night. Such weapons, capable of denying China the use of littoral waters, would be a powerful deterrent to Chinese aggression. In the event of war, these units should be able to disrupt and delay a Chinese attack long enough for air and naval forces to arrive and stymie the assault. By demonstrating the ability to halt aggression, these forces would deter Chinese leaders from attempting it in the first place.

Whereas previous studies have discussed the advantages of a land-based missile strategy in general terms, we lay out a road map to implement it. Specifically, we argue that the Department of Defense should weave together the disparate efforts of the Army and Marine Corps to craft a joint operational concept for land-based sea denial. In parallel, the Army and Marine Corps should conduct a robust program of experimentation with units dedicated to the joint mission. Wherever possible, they should do so with America’s close allies, such as Japan and Australia. The U.S. armed services also should accelerate greatly the fielding of mobile, land-based, and long-range missile capabilities so they have the weapons they need in quantities that would be operationally meaningful in a future conflict. In addition, because netting together and logistically supporting dispersed forces is challenging, the military services need to build a resilient, multi-domain C4ISR (command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) architecture, develop and field counter-C4ISR capabilities, and develop sustainment concepts to support dispersed ground and air forces. The Navy can play a vital role in this approach as well by bolstering its stock of long-range anti-ship munitions. Similarly, the Air Force can support sea denial by integrating all its bomber aircraft, including the B-2, and in the future the B-21, with payloads for offensive maritime missions.

A missile strategy will require the military services to embrace new roles (or re-embrace old roles) such as Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force units striking enemy ships at sea. Change does not come easy to military organizations. To spur innovation, American political leaders should fund a robust experimentation and demonstration program so military leaders can assess what works before putting troops in harm’s way. Recent activities hint at what is possible. For example, last week U.S. and Australian forces demonstrated the ability to rapidly deploy, fire, and redeploy long-range high-mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS) rockets as part of the Talisman Sabre exercise and is remaining in Australia.

Congress can also play an important role in fostering innovation by promoting the development of new doctrine and organizations; supporting cooperation with America’s close allies; and providing funds for the procurement of larger stockpiles of missiles, a resilient C4ISR architecture, and more robust sustainment for dispersed forces. By raising the profile of these activities, Congress can help overcome some of the most persistent bureaucratic impediments to action that are among the most persistent.

Chinese and Russian land-based missiles undercut American strengths. Trucks can relocate some of these missiles so they evade aircraft and satellite detection. The missiles cost relatively little, making them easy to procure in large numbers. A salvo of missiles costing millions of dollars could disable an aircraft carrier costing billions of dollars. That lopsided ratio explains why a large U.S. defense budget provides less security than Americans might hope.

It is time to move forward with a land-based missile strategy because it is technically and budgetarily feasible. The required technologies already exist, so it’s unlikely that new programs would have to be started. The Pentagon could field ground-launch variants of existing missiles, including the proven Tomahawk and the cutting-edge Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM). We found that implementing a missile strategy in the Western Pacific would cost $8 billion to $13 billion through 2024. That price tag is big but affordable, especially if the Department of Defense trims in other areas.

Whereas the main barriers to creating land-based missile forces are bureaucratic, the most prominent obstacles to implementing a missile strategy are political. First, there is a danger that China and Russia will seek to conflate the deployment of land-based intermediate-range missiles with the deployment of nuclear weapons. Indeed, it is in their interest to muddy these waters. Because land-based conventional missile forces are likely to be powerful deterrents, we should expect Beijing and Moscow to employ their formidable political warfare capabilities to forestall their deployment. Although U.S. allies such as Japan are procuring land-based maritime strike missiles of their own , parts of allied publics might fret hosting U.S. forces will drag their countries into a superpower arms race. American leaders should assuage these fears by emphasizing the missiles’ deterrent role as well as their defensive role in halting aggression. The presence of low-cost missiles would increase superpower stability by reducing the incentive to strike first in a crisis. Moreover, there are powerful incentives for the United States to work closely with its allies to implement such a strategy. Japan, for example, has long fielded land-based anti-ship missiles , and there is much the U.S. armed forces can learn from working closely with Japanese counterparts. Similarly, Congress should maintain a clear distinction between the need to deploy intermediate-range conventional strike systems and the possibility of developing land-based theater nuclear systems. Discussion and debate over the latter should not impede action on the former.

Third, states beyond America’s close allies face political and economic circumstances that could constrain their ability to support a missile strategy. Regional partners can support such a concept in other ways, such as by procuring and deploying capable but inexpensive unmanned air systems like the MQ-9 Reaper for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support.

In 1988, the INF Treaty reflected relaxing Cold War tensions. Today, however, amidst the return of great power competition, the United States is fighting with one arm tied behind its back. Washington should capitalize on the INF Treaty’s end to field conventionally armed, land-based maritime strike- and land-attack missiles that saddle America’s great power competitors with the same dilemmas they have imposed on the United States for years.


Thomas G. Mahnken is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) and a Senior Research Professor at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS. He is the author, with Travis Sharp, Billy Fabian, and Peter Kouretsos, of Tightening the Chain: Implementing a Strategy of Maritime Pressure in the Western Pacific. From 2006 to 2009, he served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for policy planning.


Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Kaleb Martin