According to POLITICO, the US administration is considering the possibility of withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty). The INF Treaty is a bedrock arms control agreement banning an entire class of nuclear missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. It has removed thousands of nuclear weapons from the European continent and marked the first time the superpowers agreed to actually eliminate nuclear weapons and utilize extensive on-site inspections for verification. Now the landmark Treaty is teetering on the brink.
Russia and the US have exchanged accusations of violating the Treaty recently. The Trump administration is under pressure from some Republicans trying to compel President Trump to take steps to develop new missiles in response.
Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, who chairs a key oversight panel on nuclear weapons, told POLITICO he thinks it is «irresponsible for us to continue to adhere to a treaty when the only other participant has long moved on from it».
Indeed, many lawmakers and pundits are wondering if the US should abandon the landmark agreement altogether. Mark Gunzinger of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) believes that walking away is an option. According to him, future ground-based strike systems could help the US suppress Russia’s advanced integrated air defense systems and freedom of action in the event of a conflict. The same weapons could also help the Pentagon overcome some of the military roadblocks put up by China and North Korea in the Western Pacific. «Perhaps the time is right for a serious debate over the US withdrawing from the INF Treaty», Gunzinger says.
Michaela Dodge of the Heritage Foundation says that after 30 years, the Treaty is no longer strategically relevant, and the US should withdraw. In February, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), along with Senators Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida), introduced the Intermediate-Range Forces Treaty (INF) Preservation Act to declare Russia in material breach of the Treaty — the first step to withdrawing. The legislation would also authorize transferring intermediate-range systems to allied countries, establish a new program for ground-launched missiles within the banned ranges, and provide $500 million to fund countervailing-strike options. Congressmen Ted Poe (R-Texas) and Mike Rogers (R-Alabama) introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives.
The discussions on INF take place at a time the future for US-Russian arms control looks dim at best.
The extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) due to expire in February 2021 is in question. There are still no talks on the issue but when the treaty reaches its end date there will no strategic nuclear arms agreement at all for the first time since SALT I Treaty was signed in 1972. The two sides are not currently engaged in talks on further strategic nuclear reductions beyond New START. Negotiations of arms control have never been stalled since the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty.
Does the idea to tear up the Treaty really meet the interests of the United States? The only reason to warrant such a decision is development and deployment of a new intermediate range missile in Europe. Will it be a popular move at the time the US DoD budget is already stretched in an effort to meet many competing demands? Would Europeans agree to have nuclear weapons on their soil? It makes the 1983 protests leap to memory.,
From the point of view of military superiority, the US will not make great gains if it withdraws. It does not have intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and developing a Pershing III system will take time and effort, while land-based cruise missiles would not tip the balance into US and NATO favor because they are too slow to effectively knock out critical infrastructure sites in a first unexpected strike. At present, only ballistic missiles with short flight times and hair-trigger alert can deliver a decapitating attack.
If Europe-based cruise missiles are fired, Russia will have enough time for a launch-upon-attack against those European states which host the weapons and the United States. With the INF Treaty effective no more, Russia will be free to deploy intermediate-range missiles without restriction. In theory, its Iskander-M systems could be armed with ballistic and cruise missiles with extended range, while the American military has nothing to respond with.
The US move would not be a great setback for Russia. From Moscow’s perspective, the development by the United States of air- and sea-based, long-range precision strike capabilities has reduced the value it derived from the INF Treaty. With other countries developing their own INF arsenals, there are no prospects for globalization of the Treaty to greatly reduce its value. This is a potential threat for Russia due to its geographic position. America is under no threat from intermediate-range missiles of any other state in the world, while Russia is within range of such missiles of all states that possess them. Moreover, Russia may need ground-based intermediate weapons to counter the US ballistic defense sites in Europe and Asia.
The US and Russia have not used opportunities to discuss all the INF-related the problems within the Special Verification Commission (SVC) – the implementing body of the Treaty. There are technical issues giving rise to controversy that could be tackled at the experts’ level. The potential of NATO-Russia Council has not been exhausted. It’s a pity that the attempt to launch arms control talks proposed by the German Foreign Minister Steinmeier in 2016 has made little progress. If talks to discuss the proposal were launched, the agenda could be extended to include intermediate-range nuclear weapons.
There are only two options. One is to apply efforts to save the arms control and non-proliferation regime that served the two countries so well during so many years and which is disintegrating at present. The other is to do what some US lawmakers and pundits are calling for – to walk away from the INF Treaty. It will make impossible achieving progress on the New START and ultimately leave the sides without any arms control agreement in force at all. Whatever has been achieved during all these years as a result of the hard efforts will go down the drain to push the world to the brink of nuclear abyss. That’s what is actually being debated in the United States. President Trump has to make his choice.