Russian military officers stand by as the 9M729, center, its launcher, left, and the 9M728, right, land-based cruise missiles are displayed in Kubinka outside Moscow, Russia.

Russian military officers stand by as the 9M729, center, its launcher, left, and the 9M728, right, land-based cruise missiles are displayed in Kubinka outside Moscow, Russia. AP / Pavel Golovkin

Building Post-INF Missiles Would Be a Waste, or Worse

New U.S. intermediate-range ground-launched missiles would deliver more undesirable effects than tactical utility.

In an op-ed published last month in Defense One, Rebeccah Heinrichs, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and Tim Morrison, a former top official on arms control and Russia on the National Security Council, call for accelerating development of conventional missiles formerly banned by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. They also recommend sharing the development burden with allies. 

Morrison and Heinrichs claim these systems are an essential response to Russia’s fielding of the 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile that violated the INF Treaty, and to the growing military prowess of China, which was never a party to the treaty. In addition, they assert that the missiles would strengthen the U.S. ability to strike new arms control agreements.

But their arguments are unconvincing.

First, it’s telling that Heinrichs and Morrison don’t bother to explain why new missiles are necessary to respond to Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty. In reality, there is no military need for them in Europe. Even some proponents of the administration’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty admit as much

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Moscow has warned that it would respond to any U.S. deployments by deploying more intermediate-range missiles of its own, possibly including ballistic missiles. A new missile race would make Europe less secure.

Proponents of new ground-launched missiles see the greatest utility for them in Asia, where the tyranny of distance is more punishing than it is in the European theater. Heinrichs and Morrison write that these capabilities would hold Chinese targets at risk and “help U.S. forces, mainly from the sea and air, operate in areas increasingly covered by PLA missiles.”

It is true that ground-launched cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 1,000 kilometers could augment the ability of the United States and its allies to counter a possible Chinese attack on Taiwan or disputed islands along the first island chain. 

But acquiring this capability hardly justifies abandoning the INF Treaty. As one recent analysis of the military balance in Asia noted, “if the U.S. military deploys ground-launched ASCMs [anti-ship cruise missiles] with the INF-imposed maximum of 500 kilometers range from three sites in Japan...the United States will be capable of targeting Chinese warships operating in much of the East China Sea.” 

Longer-range ground-launched missiles, such as the 3,000-to-4,000-kilometer ballistic missile the Pentagon is developing, could promptly strike fixed targets on the Chinese mainland from locations further away from China’s potent anti-access/area denial capabilities. Deploying such missiles, however, would likely increase China’s threat perceptions and lead Beijing to take countermeasures. Actually using them, particularly to threaten China’s nuclear forces, would be deeply escalatory. 

Further, a ballistic missile with that range based in Guam would be capable of hitting Pyongyang in 20 minutes. As noted by Ankit Panda, such a deployment could exacerbate North Korean fears in Pyongyang about a leadership decapitation strike, thereby increasing the likelihood of nuclear escalation.

Meanwhile, purchasing formerly prohibited missiles, especially longer-range ballistic missiles, would not be cheap, and every dollar spent on them is a dollar that can’t be spent on more flexible air and sea alternatives.

Morrison and Heinrichs argue that questions about where to base the missiles are a “red herring.” In reality, no country has said that it would be willing to host them. Poland, often cited by missile advocates as a potential European host, has made it clear that any deployment in Europe would have to be approved by all NATO members. Australia, Japan, and South Korea have said that they have not been asked to nor are they considering serving as hosts. Securing basing agreements, especially for missiles that can strike deep into China and Russia in a matter of minutes, would require a major investment of political capital from Washington at a time when the Trump administration has damaged several of these alliance relationships.

The United States could base new missiles in Guam, a U.S. territory. But the island, unlike the Pacific Ocean around it and the air above it, is small and more than 3,000 kilometers from the Chinese coast. Land-based missiles on Guam, even if mobile, would be vulnerable to Chinese attack, thereby increasing crisis instability. 

Morrison and Heinrichs claim that co-developing and co-financing new missiles with allies, as the United States is doing with Japan in building the SM-3 IIA missile defense interceptor, would “sidestep” sensitive basing negotiations. But co-developing long-range offensive missiles is likely to be far more controversial in allied capitals than the development of missile defense interceptors. 

Given the questionable rationale for and risks of new ground-launched missiles, the Trump administration’s push to develop them was controversial in Congress last year. The final defense authorization and appropriations bills allow development to go forward but prohibit the use of fiscal year 2020 funds to buy or field the missiles and require the Pentagon to address the rationale and strategy for procuring, basing, and operating them. 

In absence of a thorough assessment of these issues, it is hard to see how accelerating development makes sense. 

Finally, could intermediate-range ground-launched missiles in Europe and Asia convince Russia and China to come to the negotiating table to discuss new arms control approaches? 

Such an approach is unlikely to be successful for a number of reasons. Unlike during the Cold War, when several NATO leaders urged the United States to deploy the missiles despite strong public opposition, and the Soviet military threat was much greater, it is far from clear that NATO would agree to such deployments today. Then there is the fact that Donald Trump is not Ronald Reagan and Vladimir Putin is not Mikhail Gorbachev. And China has never engaged in formal arms control talks with the United States and is unlikely to make changes to its military posture unless Washington and its allies reduce their current regional military footprint. 

Instead of fanning the flames of a new missile race with Russia and China, the administration should pair the maintenance of appropriate military readiness with dialogue and pragmatic confidence-building and arms control proposals. The first step should be to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which after the collapse of the INF Treaty is the only remaining arms control agreement limiting at least a portion of the size of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. 

The end of the INF Treaty has opened the door to a more dangerous phase of conventional great power military competition. The end of New START would open the door to an even more dangerous era of great power nuclear competition.