The US has just pulled out of the Iran deal. The INF Treaty is next. The campaign to render defunct yet another major arms-control agreement is already gaining momentum. On May 10, the House Armed Services Committee endorsed a measure authorizing President Donald Trump to decide the fate of the INF Treaty with Russia. This addition to a draft defense bill states that the agreement is no longer binding. The bill includes funds for developing a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM), which, if tested, will violate the treaty terms.
The US has accused Russia of noncompliance but has never publicly provided any evidence to back up its claim. The alleged violations are used to justify the hawks’ newest favorite thing — low–yield nuclear munitions installed on SLBMs and sea-based long-range cruise missiles. And this isn’t just an empty wish or fantasy but an actual recommendation from the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. Actually, the idea to abandon the treaty is not new; that’s something that’s been floated for some time, pushing that landmark agreement toward the brink of oblivion.
The plan for a nuclear-tipped cruise missile is another example of how the US is chipping away at the arms-control regime — the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNI). These initiatives are not agreements, but rather commitments that have done much to deter the potential threat of sea-based tactical nuclear weapons, including intermediate-range cruise missiles. The initiatives have been more efficient and more important than any of the agreements that have been approved or ratified by parliaments. Once they have been unraveled, the genie will be out of the bottle, triggering an unprecedented arms race.
It won’t exactly make the US safer if Russia puts nuclear warheads on its technologically advanced Kalibr naval missiles. So why provoke it? The PNIs have been a success story, a good example of what can be achieved if both sides want it. But no, Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, “strongly agrees” that the Pentagon should procure the above-mentioned weapons, including the sea-based cruise missile.
A low-yield warhead on an SLBM may not be strategic but since there is no way to know, any launch would probably trigger a response from the entire Russian nuclear arsenal, sending them hurtling toward US shores. Such a warhead would be a very destabilizing weapon, especially given the overall superiority of US and NATO conventional forces. There is no reasonable explanation why the US would need non-strategic munitions installed on strategic delivery vehicles, when it has air-based tactical nuclear weapons already in its Air Force inventory? It has “mothers” and “fathers” of all bombs, bunker busters, and other conventional weapons that are able to work wonders, so why should it use a nuclear weapon, low-yield or high-yield, when the same missions can be carried out without any nukes at all?
Another angle worth mentioning here is that the desire for low-yield weapons reflects the US readiness to use nukes against non-nuclear adversaries. Just imagine how irresistibly tempting it might be to strike Iran’s key infrastructure sites with low-yield munitions! And what if N. Korea becomes a problem again?
According to Gen. Robert Brown, commander of the US Army Pacific, the American military needs ground-based missiles with a range of over 500 km, the range prohibited by the bilateral agreement. “I know there’s the INF Treaty … but we need to push beyond that,” he says. “The INF Treaty today unfairly puts the United States at a disadvantage and places our forces at risk because China is not a signatory," claims Admiral Phil Davidson, the incoming commander of Pacific Command. “Deploying conventionally-armed ground-launched intermediate-range missiles may be key to reasserting US military superiority in East Asia,” emphasizes Eric Sayers, a CSIS expert.
The Army is working on long-range artillery rockets that can exceed the 500 km range. This weapon could be easily stationed in Europe. There would be no way to know whether or not it is nuclear or the extent of its operational range. If a projectile does not fall into the category of intermediate missiles, it is not covered by any treaty, but the effect is the same as if a medium-range missile were fired.
Actually, the INF Treaty is being violated right now in broad daylight. There is no need to declassify any hush-hush information to prove it. The Aegis Ashore Mk-41 launchers, which have already been installed in Romania and are soon to be deployed in Poland (2020), are also being used by the Navy to fire intermediate-range weapons as well as air-to-surface interceptors. This is an undeniable fact. The discussions that have been held under the auspices of the INF Treaty’s Special Verification Commission have not led anywhere.
If the INF Treaty is no longer binding, Russia would be free to deploy intermediate-range missiles to compensate for the West’s superiority in other weapons. The Iskander-M launchers can be used for firing intermediate-range missiles. This will include targets in Europe, although the US will be out of their range. This could lead to another rift among the allies at a time when that relationship is at a nadir because of trade wars and the rift over the Iran deal.
Finally, the unraveling of the INF Treaty will greatly complicate if not eliminate, any prospects, for the New START. And without the latter, there will be no agreement to curb the arms race at all. Arms control will be dead. We’ll be back to where we were in the late 1950s-early 60s. And if a spark should kindle a fire, we’ll all find ourselves back in the Stone Age.