On Saturday, President Donald Trump announced to the world that the United States would be pulling out of a Cold War era missile treaty first established between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1987. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty had a specific aim: to ban the development and deployment of conventional or nuclear missiles with an operational range of between 310 to 3,420 miles.
The United States government has made it clear for years that the Russian military has not been adhering to the treaty, as they continued to develop a missile platform (dubbed the 9M729 within Russia) that boasts capabilities specifically banned by the agreement.
Inside the fortified trenches of American politics, pundits on either side debated this decision within the framework of that original agreement themselves, with Trump critics lamenting the president’s decision as a step away from peace and stability — believing the treaty offered leverage by which the nation may force Russia back into adhering to it. Those who supported Trump’s decision, on the other hand, pointed out that years of pressure from within both the Trump and Obama administrations have thus far produced no appreciable results, begging the question: Why is America honoring an agreement Russia is not?
However, in terms of conventional military power, the threat Russia poses to American security and interests abroad pales in comparison to that of China’s rapidly growing military — and it’s important to note that China has never been a signatory of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, meaning their missile programs have never been hampered by the politicking of world leaders.
According to the estimates of Adm. Harry Harris, former commander of the Pacific Command and current U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, China’s military has the “largest and most diverse missile force in the world, with an inventory of more than 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles.”
Harris went on to specify that “95%” of those missiles would be in direct violation of the INF Treaty, had China ever been a signatory member. Instead, China has continued to develop and improve upon short to intermediate range missile technology for better than three decades, all while the United States sat on the bench regarding this facet of missile technology in favor of keeping Russia from developing a stockpile of their own.
Now, with it apparent that Russia has continued to develop these weapons in direct violation of the treaty, America’s INF honor code has apparently left it in the unenviable position of playing catch-up in yet another realm of national defense and defense technology. The United States is already notably behind both Russia and China in the development of hypersonic missile platforms, the operational range of artillery assets, offensive orbital platforms, and anti-ship missiles, all as a result of America’s diverted focus on anti-terrorism and counter-insurgency warfare for the better part of two decades.
As the U.S. fought wars in the Arab world, Russia and China observed and allocated funding to weapons development where they believed they found weak points in America’s defense apparatus. Now, the U.S. finds itself throwing large buckets of money at new defense technology, hoping the nation’s deep pockets can buy its way out of these growing capability gaps.
The United States still boasts, the largest and most capable military in the world by a wide margin. These specific areas of defense technology that America finds itself behind in aren’t enough to offset that global norm, but they are more than sufficient to pose strategic threats, to be used as leverage in tense negotiations, and of course, to serve as a basis for continued military development. China, in particular, sees itself as usurping the United States as the dominant military and diplomatic power on the planet by the end of the century. That understanding alone may well have informed President Trump’s decision to pull out of the INF treaty.
The United States got caught with its pants down regarding hypersonic missile technology, but when it comes to these conventional and nuclear platforms, America has chosen to keep its hands tied in good faith. At least, until now.