The Trump administration announced plans last week to formally leave the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The Soviet-era agreement bars both Russia and the U.S. from building nuclear or conventional ground-launched missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. The decision follows years of violations by the Russian armed forces (likely dating back to 2008) and has even garnered the direct support of NATO leaders, including Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who tweeted in support of the decision late last week. It has also, however, brought a great deal of criticism, particularly among Trump’s political rivals who, it could be argued, see an opportunity to discredit the controversial president while using the sorts of words that are sure to generate headlines when talking Trump, “nuclear” and “Putin” chief among them.
Regardless of your opinion about the sitting president, the decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty has more far-reaching implications than the repeated threats of a “nuclear arms race” you keep seeing in headlines. The truth is, Russia still maintains the largest nuclear arsenal on the planet, still possesses the ability to strike targets anywhere in Europe or the United States with it, and even used France and Texas as examples of how much territory it could destroy with a single launch of its newest ICBM, the RS-28 Sarmat. Put simply, Europe’s most potent nuclear deterrent remains the threat of retaliatory nuclear strikes, not a treaty Russia has already been wantonly violating.
There is, however, some truth to the concept that the United States could continue to place diplomatic pressure on Russia (as it has since 2008) to discontinue this effort–though Russia has made it clear it has no intention of acknowledging its own violations, let alone addressing them. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may have called on President Trump to exhaust every diplomatic effort to maintain the treaty, but opponents of Pelosi’s position would certainly counter that the United States has been wagging its finger at Russia regarding this treaty for 13 years. It seems unlikely the next six months will change the stance, but from the outside looking in, there seems little reason to jump through those diplomatic hoops when being free from the treaty allows the United States to better prepare for an actual military threat–posed by China.
Despite being the bogeyman in the American media, Russia’s military apparatus isn’t nearly as dire a threat to American security as it’s often presented. From its advanced fifth-generation fighter (that’s practically dead in the water) to its doomsday weapon programs, Russia is more focused on headlines than in developing real combat capabilities, eager to position itself as an arms exporter for the nations on America’s naughty list. In truth, Russia’s submarine force may pose the most direct threat to American security of any part of the nation’s military–but it pays to remember the Russian economy couldn’t sustain a prolonged war with the United States and its allies. Budgets constraints, not missile treaties, remain Russia’s most significant hurdle if it were really interested in a war on the European or North American continents.
While Russia isn’t the looming threat it’s made out to be, China has rapidly become a dominant force in the Pacific–thanks in no small part to its development of ballistic missiles that would have been in direct violation of the INF treaty, had China ever signed it. China’s hypersonic anti-ship missiles that have forced a laundry list of changes into the Navy’s combat strategies and prodded America into taking a hard look at its missile defense capabilities possess the range and capabilities of the missiles the INF treaty bars the United States from producing. It would seem that maintaining the treaty has prevented the United States from developing weapons of this sort, while Russia and China went ahead and built their own. No wonder China came out against America’s decision to back out of a treaty of which China wasn’t even a part. In fact, estimates say about 95% of China’s missiles would be in violation of the INF treaty.
“The sheer number of Chinese missiles and the speed with which they could be fired constitutes a critical Chinese military advantage that would prove difficult for a regional ally or partner to manage absent intervention by the United States,” a recent Congressional report states.
China now possesses one of, if not the largest missile stockpile of any nation on earth. Many of those missiles, it pays to note, have capabilities the United States has been barred from matching under the stipulations of the INF Treaty. Assuming the targeting apparatus for China’s anti-ship missiles is as mature as the Chinese claim, that nation has used those missiles to create what is effectively an area denial bubble around Chinese shores, preventing U.S. carriers from coming close enough to launch any sort of air strike.
However, without the INF treaty, the United States could build and position ground-based ballistic missiles inside nearby allied territory, offering America the option to launch missile strikes against Chinese anti-ship assets in advance of approaching carriers.
“In the Indo-Pacific, the absence of the INF Treaty would provide additional options to counter China’s existing missile capabilities, complicate adversary decision making, and impose costs by forcing adversaries to spend money on expensive missile defense systems,” Adm. Philip Davidson, commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, said last April.
“I believe the INF Treaty today unfairly puts the United States at a disadvantage and places our forces at risk because China is not a signatory,” the admiral added.
These missile launchers would also dramatically increase the number of targets China would need to try to mitigate. A greater number of targets means China would have to devote far more ordnance to neutering an American offensive, limiting its success rate (as it often takes multiple launches per hit), and forcing a shift in focus away from specifically engaging American naval forces. It would also create a more pressing need for missile defenses in China, which would force the state to allocate resources away from offensive capabilities and toward defensive ones.
In effect, maintaining the INF Treaty, despite Russia’s clear willingness to violate it, hinders America’s ability to develop a well-rounded offensive or defensive position in the Pacific. Concerns about nuclear expansion in Europe may not be entirely unwarranted, but the longstanding deterrents put in place to prevent nuclear war remain intact. China’s ability to use conventional weapons to exert its will on heavily-trafficked waterways like the South China Sea, however, represents a legitimate threat to American interests and security–one many would contend is worth addressing at the expense of Russian diplomacy.