Intermediate-Range Missiles Are the Wrong Weapon for Today’s Security Challenges


On Aug. 2, the United States formally withdrew from the landmark 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, heralding the end of an era and the beginning of a new, potentially more perilous one.

Russia’s breach of the INF Treaty is unacceptable, and the United States and NATO should ensure Russia doesn’t gain any military advantage from its violation. The Trump administration’s decision to terminate the agreement and plan to develop new ground-launched intermediate-range missiles may be justifiable as a response to Russia’s violation. But “justifiable” is not the same as “smart.” The costs and risks of building new missiles would outweigh the benefits. Without the treaty, there needs to be a more serious arms control plan to avoid a new missile race in Europe.

Negotiated by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the INF Treaty required the two sides to “eliminate and permanently forswear all of their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.”

Unfortunately, the treaty went on life support in 2014, when the United States first accused Russia of violating the agreement by acquiring the nuclear-capable “9M729” ground-launched cruise missile. Since then Russia is believed to have deployed four battalions of the missile.

With the treaty gone, attention has turned to how the United States and NATO should approach a world without the agreement. The Defense Department has announced plans to test, beginning later this month, two types of mobile, conventionally armed, ground-launched missiles with ranges that exceed the treaty’s limits. The department requested nearly $100 million in its fiscal year 2020 budget to develop intermediate-range missile systems.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters that he would like to see the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Asia, ideally as soon as possible, and that the end of the INF Treaty would allow “proactive measures to develop the capability that we need for” Europe as well.

Other administration officials have stated that any deployments are likely years away. Eric Sayers, a leading advocate of leaving the INF Treaty, told Politico Pro, “I think Esper got a little ahead of his skis in saying he wants to get things out there quickly, in months if it was up to him. This will take a few years to consider options, concepts of operation and to do the testing and integration.”

Regardless, supporters of pursuing the missiles argue that the weapons would provide the United States with additional military options against Russia and especially China, which is not a party to the treaty and has deployed large numbers of missiles with ranges that Washington and Moscow were long prohibited from deploying. As one recent study published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments puts it, such missiles “could arrest, if not reverse, the erosion of longstanding American military advantages, enhance warfighting, shore up the U.S. competitive position, and ultimately strengthen deterrence, the cornerstone of U.S. global strategy.”

But the push for new missiles has been controversial in Congress. The Democratic-led House versions of the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and defense appropriations bill eliminated the Pentagon’s funding request for the missiles. Given the Republican-led Senate’s support for developing the weapons, the issue is likely to be a contentious one when the two chambers try to reconcile their versions of the defense authorization and appropriations bill in the coming weeks.

Where’s the Strategy?

The Trump administration has yet to answer repeated congressional calls for information on its decision to withdraw from the treaty or a strategy to prevent Russia from deploying additional and new types of prohibited missiles in the absence of the agreement. The Defense Department’s budget request for new intermediate-range missiles lacks key details about the types of missiles the Pentagon plans to develop, justification of the need for the missiles, or plan to base them.

Indeed, the House version of the NDAA would require the Pentagon to do some important things before providing funding for these missiles: present a detailed arms control proposal to replace the INF Treaty; demonstrate what military requirements will be met by new intermediate-range missiles; and identify a country in Europe or Asia willing to host the missiles (and in the case of Europe, the legislation requires that any deployment has the support of NATO). The bill also requires the Pentagon to conduct an analysis of alternatives that considers other ballistic or cruise missile systems, including sea- and air-launched missiles, that could meet current capability gaps due to the restrictions formerly imposed by the INF Treaty.

Without such information, it’s hard to see how accelerating development of these missiles would deny Russia the offensive military advantage it seeks. New ground-launched, intermediate-range weapons would need to be deployed on the territory of NATO members to be of meaningful military value against Russia. Russia would undoubtedly see any U.S. intermediate-range missile deployments, particularly in eastern Europe, as a provocative threat. NATO’s eastward expansion in theory allows these weapons to be placed on Moscow’s doorstep, where they could hit key targets deep inside Russia within minutes. Russia has warned that it will respond to U.S. deployments by deploying more intermediate-range missiles, possibly including ballistic missiles, pointed toward Europe. If all this comes to pass, Europe will be less secure and the risk of a military incident or miscommunication leading to military conflict with Russia will increase.

Perhaps, then, we should not be surprised that no country has said that it would be willing to host such missiles. Several countries, including Poland, have made it clear that any deployment of the missiles in Europe would have to be approved by all NATO members. A unilateral U.S. attempt to force the alliance to accept them would be a significant source of division within NATO, one Russia would be eager to exploit.

NATO defense ministers met in Brussels on June 26 to discuss defense and deterrence measures “to ensure the security of the alliance” if Russia fails to resolve U.S. allegations of treaty noncompliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance is considering several military options, including additional exercises, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, air and missile defenses, and conventional capabilities. Stoltenberg has repeatedly stated that NATO does not intend to deploy new nuclear missiles in Europe, but he has been silent on whether the alliance is considering the deployment of conventional variants. NATO is likely to decide on which options to pursue during the next head-of-state summit scheduled for early December.

Fortunately, there is no military need for the United States to develop a new and costly intermediate-range missile for deployment in Europe. Even some proponents of the administration’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty admit as much. The United States can already deploy air- and sea-launched systems, which were not covered by the INF Treaty, that can threaten the same Russian targets that new ground-launched missiles could. If additional military measures are required, such as additional deployments of land-based missiles with a range up to 500 kilometers, air- and sea-launched cruise missiles, and cruise missile defenses, these can be pursued with less controversy and risk than the deployment of longer-range ground-based missiles.

The China Angle

While Russia was the administration’s primary rationale for withdrawing from the treaty, proponents of developing ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles see the greatest utility for them in Asia. They insist that China, which is not a party to the treaty, is gaining a military advantage in East Asia by deploying large numbers of the missiles, which can easily target U.S. and allied military bases in the region. Fielding similar U.S. missiles in the region along the first island chain capable of hitting high-value targets in China, and in the South and East China Seas, they claim, would help to reverse the growing regional imbalance and make a Chinese effort to overrun vulnerable U.S. allies in the region more difficult.

But it remains to be seen whether the Pentagon could find a place to base intermediate-range missiles in East Asia outside the U.S. territory of Guam. Despite concerns about China’s growing military power and more assertive behavior in the region, allies such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines aren’t exactly rushing to host them. Following Esper’s comments, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated that basing intermediate-range missiles has “not been asked of us,” is “not being considered,” and has “not been put to us.” “I think I can rule a line under that,” he added. And a South Korean defense ministry spokesperson said, “We have not internally reviewed the issue [of basing U.S. intermediate-range missiles] and have no plan to do so.”

Efforts to base the missiles in the region would face significant opposition domestically and from China. Following the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty, Fu Cong, director general of the arms control department at China’s foreign ministry, warned China’s “neighbors to exercise prudence and not to allow the U.S. deployment of intermediate-range missiles on their territory.” Securing basing agreements would require a major investment of political capital from Washington at a time when the Trump administration has done significant damage to several of these alliance relationships.

Meanwhile, Guam, unlike the Pacific Ocean around it and the air above it, is small and more than 3,000 kilometers from the Chinese coast. Land-based missiles on Guam, even if mobile, would be vulnerable to Chinese attack, thereby increasing crisis instability. Moreover, deploying INF Treaty-range missiles in East Asia would likely increase China’s threat perceptions. Fu said that “If the U.S. deploys [intermediate-range] missiles in this part of the world, at the doorstep of China, China will be forced to take countermeasures.” Esper maintained that China “should be unsurprised” by talk of possible U.S. intermediate-range missile deployments. Clearly the United States and its allies shouldn’t demur from taking actions to confront China simply because China objects to them. But if U.S. deployments prompt China to accelerate its own deployments over its vast land area, U.S. security and the security of its allies would suffer.

It is also unclear why new intermediate-range missiles are essential, in the words of Elbridge Colby and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI), to help to deny China’s “ability to quickly overrun America’s most vulnerable allies.” For example, land-based missiles with a range of 499 kilometers, such as the Army’s Precision Strike Missile, currently under development, would be able to strike some disputed and Chinese-held islands in the East China and South China seas from bases in Japan and the Philippines. But such missiles would not be able to strike targets inside of China. Longer-range air- and sea-based missiles that were never restricted by the treaty could hit the Chinese mainland, though doing so in a limited conflict (for example, one designed to deny China the ability to overrun Taiwan or disputed territory such as the Senkaku Islands) would be escalatory.

Mindful of the basing challenge, some analysts argue that intermediate-range missiles need not be permanently deployed on the territory of allies and instead could be rapidly deployed from the United States during a crisis. But this too would be problematic. In fact, allies are likely to be even more skittish about accepting missiles during a crisis than in peacetime, since doing so could escalate the crisis.

Finally, purchasing INF Treaty-range missiles, especially longer-range ballistic missiles, would not be cheap, and every dollar spent on them is a dollar that can’t be spent on more flexible air and sea alternatives. As former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller has noted, “For the Asia-Pacific theater, there’s a great advantage to both undersea where U.S. has dominance … and to airborne systems. …Particularly long-range stealthy systems that can deliver munitions and provide a more capable and credible counter to Chinese capabilities.”

Options to augment U.S. air and sea power in the region include: increasing the number of attack submarines; pursuing more agile, resilient, and distributed airpower capabilities; and strengthening the survivability of naval strike systems through unmanned surface and subsurface systems and long-range unmanned aerial platforms.

An Arms Control Approach

Could developing land-based intermediate-range missiles in Europe convince Russia to return to the negotiating table to discuss new arms control approaches in the same way that the U.S. deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe during the early 1980s convinced Moscow to agree to the INF Treaty? Such an approach is unlikely to be successful for a number of reasons.

Unlike during the Cold War, when several NATO leaders urged the United States to deploy the missiles despite strong public opposition, and the Soviet military threat was much greater, it is far from clear that NATO would agree to such deployments today. And then there is the fact that Donald Trump is not Ronald Reagan and Vladimir Putin is not Mikhail Gorbachev.

Fanning the flames of a missile race with Russia and China will not enhance U.S. security or the security of allies. The maintenance of appropriate military readiness must be paired with dialogue and regional confidence-building and arms control measures.

Rather than spur Russia to deploy more missiles by deploying missiles America and its allies do not need, the United States and NATO should more aggressively pursue arms control options to mitigate the risks of the collapse of the treaty. One option would be for NATO to declare as a bloc that no alliance members will field any intermediate-range missiles in Europe so long as Russia does not deploy them where they could hit NATO member territory. Moscow has said that it won’t deploy such missiles so long as NATO members do not.

But this proposal would require Russia to dismantle or move at least some currently deployed 9M929 missiles, namely those believed to be deployed within range of NATO member-state territory. As the United States and Russia dispute the range of that missile, they could agree to bar deployments west of the Ural Mountains. The agreement could take the form of an executive agreement and be verified through national technical means of intelligence, monitoring mechanisms available through the Open Skies Treaty and Vienna Document, and new on-site inspection arrangements as necessary.

This approach should allay Russian concerns that the United States could place offensive missiles in the Mk-41 missile-defense interceptor launchers currently deployed in Romania and that will soon be deployed in Poland as part of the European Phased Adaptative Approach. If additional assurances are required, the United States and NATO could agree to modify the Mk-41 missile-defense launchers that Russia believes could be used for offensive purposes in a way that allows Russia to clearly distinguish them from launchers that fire offensive Tomahawk missiles from U.S. Navy ships, or agree to other transparency measures to allay Russian suspicions that the launchers contain offensive missiles.

Another possible option would be to negotiate a new agreement, perhaps as part of a follow-on to the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), that verifiably prohibits ground-launched, intermediate-range ballistic or cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads.

As bad as the collapse of the INF Treaty is for European security and the future of arms control, the situation could get even worse. Following the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty, New START, which is slated to expire in February 2021, will be the only remaining bilateral agreement constraining the size of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals. If New START disappears, there would be no legally binding limits on the two countries’ nuclear arsenals for the first time in nearly half a century.

The treaty can be extended by up to five years until 2026 if both Trump and Putin agree. But the administration has shunned talks on an extension, raising concerns that New START could soon go the way of the INF Treaty and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, both of which have been discarded without a viable plan to replace them.

Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty is a serious matter. But the U.S. pursuit of new ground-launched intermediate-range missiles is militarily unnecessary, would divide NATO, and would lead Russia to increase the number and type of intermediate-range missiles aimed against NATO targets. Congress would be wise to withhold its support for a new Euromissile race.


Tom Countryman is chairman of the board of directors at the Arms Control Association and a former acting undersecretary for arms control and international security with the State Department and former assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation. Kingston Reif is director of disarmament and threat-reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.

Image: Chinese People’s Liberation Army