In February of this year, the United States announced its withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and began the six month departure process. Announced on February 2 by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the withdrawal was a reaction to Russia’s violation of the treaty by developing a ground-launched cruise missile that is capable of striking targets at a range prohibited by the Treaty. As a result of the withdrawal, in August, the United States will no longer be bound by the restrictions of the treaty. Already, efforts are underway in the United States to plan for an INF-free future.
The treaty—signed as a bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia in 1987— eliminated the two nations’ land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km. It was the first agreement to enforce the dismantlement of an entire class of weapons in a superpowers nuclear arsenal, removing almost 2,700 missiles and preventing further developments in this weapons class. While the Treaty’s short-form name references missiles of a specific range-class, it is chiefly concerned with basing modes: the United States and the Soviet Union retained all their air and sea-launched missiles within INF range limits, for example.
The significance of the end of the treaty should not be understated. Outside of the potential for a new U.S.-Russia arms race within this newly available class of weapons, much of the U.S. decision to withdraw was also informed by years of growing concern about China, which possesses a cruise and ballistic missile arsenal that is overwhelmingly composed of INF-range systems.
There are now less than five months left before the U.S. plans to test an intermediate range weapon. Additionally, there are already budget requests from the Trump administration that ask for nearly $100 million in fiscal year 2020 for the development of three new INF-range missiles.
Without a concrete global plan in place on how to deal with a post-INF world, it’s possible the United States will rush into intermediate range missile production without much-needed debate and analysis on where these systems might go, their military utility, and how their placement would affect selected allies and regional stability. In particular, Asia’s geography and allied landscape presents particular challenges for the deployment of ground-launched systems that were not present, for example, in Western Europe in the 1980s.
The immediate reasoning behind the rush to test however, may have little to do with Russia. Of all nations, China holds the largest amount of what would be INF-violating missiles, with 95 percent of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Forces’ inventory falling into what would be banned were Beijing ever party to the treaty. As China rose, it wasn’t just the United States that saw a concerning development in Beijing’s missile arsenal; in 2007, Russia raised the prospect of multilateralizing the treaty, concerned of China’s buildup itself.
Today, with the Trump administration openly acknowledging that it is in a moment of “great power competition” with China, many U.S. officials and politicians are urging the quick production of new conventional missiles with intention of offsetting a perceived imbalance with China, which they believe has given China a tremendous advantage. In a December 2018 statement made at NATO Headquarters, Mike Pompeo emphasized the freedom nations like China have and said “this leaves them free to build all the intermediate range missiles that they would like.” He continued that ”there is no reason the United States should continue to cede this crucial military advantage to revisionist powers like China, in particular when these weapons are being used to threaten and coerce the United States and its allies in Asia.” He also mentioned that the U.S. would be working closely with “allies throughout the world who are also threatened by these missile systems,” but as of reporting from March, no U.S. allies – in Europe or in Asia – have been consulted about placing these systems on their territory.
Meanwhile, China has demonstrated disinterest in joining an INF-type agreement, ignoring recent invitations from leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel to join Russia and the U.S. in further negotiation and help prevent a new arms control race. “China develops its capabilities strictly according to its defensive needs and doesn’t pose a threat to anybody else. So we are opposed to the multilateralization of the INF,” said Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi at the Munich Security Conference earlier this year.
Joining this type of an arrangement is understandably not appealing to China as it would undermine one of its principal advantages: a large, primarily conventional missile force that enables an extensive anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy within the first island chain. Systems like China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles, land-attack cruise missiles, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles would attempt to deny its adversaries freedom of maneuver in the Pacific. Many advanced Chinese ballistic and cruise missiles are concentrated in areas that threaten U.S. bases in Japan, South Korea, and rotational bases in the Philippines; even mobile assets like aircraft carriers that would inhibit naval abilities during war would be held vulnerable by systems like the DF-21D.
The United States has never taken the threat posed by Chinese missiles lightly; acute incidents like the first Taiwan Strait crisis underscored the very real challenge posed by these weapons. With the asymmetric imbalance as is in Asia and with plans already in works on how to offset the issue with the development of new post-INF capabilities, U.S. planners need to seriously think through where these missiles would be based. In order to deter and defend against China with missiles capable of hitting key targets, the U.S. has only a few options for allied missile basing in Asia.
There is Guam, which is already a heavily a militarized island and host to a major U.S. air base; it has the advantage of being a U.S. territory. Apart from Guam, any other basing would require deliberations with treaty allies, including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Australia. Each of these countries would have a different reaction to acquiescing to the hosting of conventional U.S. missiles, with Japan and Australia probably being the most receptive candidates. But even in the case of Tokyo and Canberra, serious challenges would present themselves. In any case, Washington would need to work closely with allies to manage probable new missile deployments.
Before rushing into new system production then, it is extremely important to consider their placement with adequate consultation from allies. Advocates appear unconcerned with basing, preferring instead to move ahead with the development of new capabilities first and think about where these weapons would go next. For instance, when asked about post-INF options during a December 2018 panel discussion in Washington D.C., Senator Tom Cotton said he “would rapidly develop the kind of missiles that we need to maintain the stable balance in Europe and also offset China’s missile build-up,” but that “basing questions can obviously be controversial but that would be a decision to be made for the future.” Cotton is right. There would be an obvious controversy to navigate here in coordination with allies; the sooner this begins, the better.
The United States needs to be careful not to neglect the political challenges it would face when assessing geographic basing of new intermediate-range systems, especially after many U.S. allies in this region vocalized disagreement with the decision to abandon the INF Treaty. It is important to go through and carefully weigh the likelihood each of the aforementioned nations agreeing to missile placement within their borders and the possible conditionality of such deployments. In several cases, national sovereignty concerns and local politics within allied countries would be an important consideration. Assuming that if the missiles are built, allies will come around is the wrong approach.
Kelsae Adame is a 2019 fellow at the NNSA Graduate Fellowship Program. She recently completed a master’s degree in Nuclear Engineering at UC Berkeley. Ankit Panda is a senior editor at The Diplomat and an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. Follow him on Twitter at @nktpnd.