After the INF Treaty: whither arms control?
29 Oct 2018|

Rod Lyon’s recent analysis on the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia concludes with a sober warning of more intense nuclear competition on the horizon. So what might that future look like?

The decision to pull out was made in response to clear violations of the treaty by Russia. From 2008, Russia has been developing, and then from December 2016, deploying, the 9M729 ground-launch cruise missile (NATO designation SSC-8), which has a range of 482 to 5,471 kilometres—well within the range of 500 to 5,500 kilometres proscribed by the INF Treaty.

There are also concerns about Russia’s RS-26 ICBM, which was tested in 2012 and 2013 to ranges below 5,500 kilometres. Although there’s disagreement over whether the RS-26 is INF compliant or not, the fact that it has been tested to ranges beyond 5,500 kilometres would imply that it’s an ICBM, and thus not countable under the INF Treaty (though it would be countable under New START). The type of payload may also contribute to different flight profiles; tests of multiple warheads or a payload to evade missile defences are possibilities.

This uncertainty has led the US to conclude that the RS-26 doesn’t violate the INF Treaty, but the missile presents a dilemma. It may be an ICBM, tested to different ranges depending on the payload carried, but more disturbing is the prospect that Russia could develop an undeclared IRBM force, in violation of the INF Treaty, while passing the missile off as an ICBM.

Once the US gives formal notice of its withdrawal from the treaty, it will take six months to come into effect. Washington would have that window of opportunity to try a diplomatic approach to bring Russia back into compliance, while at the same time making a strong case to its allies that Russian non-compliance with the treaty is the key reason for the US withdrawal.

The argument must be made that Russia’s recent operational deployment of systems prohibited by the INF Treaty demands that the US act to protect its national security and that of its allies, particularly given these weapons will likely target NATO states. The US should also use this period to make the case that the treaty does nothing to address the growing threat posed by China’s force of short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear weapons. The US can’t afford to ignore those growing capabilities within the PLA Rocket Forces.

Right at the moment, the overwhelming weight of opinion in the arms control community is that this is a very dumb move by Trump, clearly influenced by his hawkish US national security adviser, John Bolton, that will undermine a key foundation of arms control norms leading towards the goal of eventual abolition of nuclear weapons. The outrage from the US arms control community is clear on social media. The broad theme seems to be that the Russian violations don’t justify the US withdrawal and that, in doing so, Trump is inadvertently supporting Putin’s desired outcome—freedom to deploy large numbers of intermediate-range nuclear forces in order to threaten NATO, while the US takes the blame for everything.

The US withdrawal from the INF Treaty also reinforces the community’s fears that New START will not be extended in 2021. Trump implicitly alluded to the prospect of ending New START and expanding the US nuclear forces in recent comments, stating: ‘Until people come to their senses we will build it up … we have more money than anybody else by far. We’ll build it up … Until they get smart, there will be nobody that’s going to be even close to us.’

The vision, then, is a future of nuclear taboos coming unstuck as arms control falls apart. Given increasing tension between the US and China, as well as with Russia, the prospect of a rapid return to a nuclear arms race is the spectre in everyone’s minds.

Yet as Rod Lyon notes, arms control that is based on illusion—as he describes it, ‘on a diet of wilful blindness’—is not arms control at all. There’s a risk that maintaining a fiction of arms control with agreements that our adversaries then wilfully violate would leave the US, NATO and its Asian allies, including Australia, more vulnerable to nuclear coercion in the future.

Russia’s deployment of intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles, and the prospect of undeclared Russian IRBMs—absent any US response or similar capability—raises the prospect of increasingly unstable deterrence in a crisis and could encourage Russia to rattle nuclear sabres as part of a doctrine of pre-emptive de-escalation to force NATO to back down on its Article V commitment. How should the US respond to this threat, if the INF Treaty is, in fact, terminated?

Certainly the US does have the option even now to develop non-nuclear intermediate-range forces launched from air and naval platforms rather than return to ground-launched nuclear-armed intermediate-range weapons. Even arms control proponents who are critical of the Trump INF decision point out that the treaty doesn’t prohibit such dual-role intermediate-range air- and sea-based forces.

Yet those same opponents have campaigned vigorously against the Trump administration’s decision to proceed with eventual re-introduction of nuclear-armed SLCMs on US Navy submarines as announced in the 2018 nuclear posture review. They have also strongly attacked the proposed US Air Force acquisition of the long-range standoff weapon to replace ageing air-launched cruise missiles. So, on balance, they’d rather see the US without any intermediate-range nuclear forces at all—even if the Russians and Chinese have them—rather than upend an established arms control norm or retard progress towards nuclear abolition.

The rationale for their stance is a disdain for deterrence. That perspective conveniently ignores the evolving strategic outlook. Arms control cannot be allowed to supplant nuclear deterrence and nuclear strategy in managing major-power relations. The post–Cold War days of seeing nuclear weapons purely through the prism of achieving nuclear disarmament and ‘global zero’ have now come to an end. In a more dangerous strategic future, dominated by major-power competition, arms control must evolve and be employed when and where appropriate to strengthen the credibility of US nuclear deterrence and extended nuclear deterrence towards NATO and US allies in Asia.

That demands an honest appraisal of an adversary’s nuclear forces and strategic intentions. At times, that may clash with the sanctity of arms control agreements and demand their reconsideration or even termination—they should not be sacrosanct and inviolable.

The US under the INF Treaty does have the right to withdraw from the agreement. It shouldn’t be required to remain in the treaty even if Russia is blatantly violating it and if the treaty itself is increasingly outdated against a rapidly worsening security outlook dominated by a rising and assertive China.