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INF Treaty: A Cold War Relic Unsuited to Today’s Strategic Reality

By Joe Varner 

Despite the hysteria from arms control advocates, the Trump Administration’s announced planned withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) is long overdue and simply responds to the new strategic reality of an increasingly multi-polar world. 

The year 1987 is long past, there are no Ronald Reagans and Mikhail Gorbachevs on the world stage. The bi-polar world of the Cold War (1947-1991) is gone, the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union are dead and buried, and unlikely to return, no matter how hard Russian President Vladimir Putin tries to revive them.  

 

In 1987, the INF Treaty was a landmark accomplishment between the United States and Soviet Union that eliminated the possession, production and flight-testing of ground-launched ballistic or cruise missiles with ranges of 500-5,500 kilometers.[i] Both nuclear-armed superpowers quickly moved to ease Cold War tensions and destroyed their stocks of these short, medium and intermediate-range, ground-based systems. Sadly, in July of 2013 Russian cheating and non-compliance turned from suspicion to fact of life with the United States State Department report pointing out Russia’s violation of the terms of the treaty and that the American concerns had been brushed aside by the Russians several times.[ii]  

At the heart of the United States’ claim was that Russia had begun flight-testing a ground launched cruise-missile variant code-named R-500 in May of 2007.[iii] The Trump administration and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have identified that missile today as the Novator 9M729 SSC-8 ‘Screwdriver’ with an estimated range of between 500 and 2,500 kilometers.[iv]  

Russia fielding the 9M729 SSC-8 ‘Screwdriver’ against NATO will not change strategic deterrence between the United States, NATO and Russia or even redress in Vladimir Putin’s favor Western military superiority on the conventional level. But it does give the successor to the Soviet Union the ability to threaten and coerce the Atlantic Alliance’s most vulnerable members. Russia’s limited war-fighting nuclear doctrine geared to ‘nuclear warning shots’ to escalate a conflict, to then de-escalate a fight over a country like Lithuania has only served to heighten concern.[v]   

 

A treaty is only good if both sides are willing to abide by its terms, and Russia is not interested in doing so. Vladimir Putin has wanted out of the INF Treaty since 2005 over what Russia saw as threats from other states such as China armed with the same ground-based short, medium and intermediate-range nuclear weapons that both Russian and the United States were prohibited from possessing. [vi]     

Not surprisingly, Russia has deployed two Iskander-K brigades to the Russian Far East as a quiet reminder to both China and North Korea.[vii]  According to Ghoshal, (2016) Jane’s Strategic Weapons Systems 2013–2014 assess China’s INF-category missiles holdings to include some seven dual purpose weapons systems and their variants including: DF-3, DF-4, DF-15 (A, B), DF-16, DF-21 (A, B, C, D), DF-25 missiles and the DH-10 cruise missile. China has said that it will not enter an INF-style arms control treaty with Russia and the United States.[viii]  

 

There is similarly upsetting but much shorter list of North Korean and Iranian INF-category ground-based, dual purpose, short, medium, and intermediate-range missiles geared to wreak havoc on their neighbors and potentially limit an American regional response without similar nuclear weapon systems. One can only imagine, based on past and current bad behavior, a willingness to abide by any arms control treaty let alone a multi-lateral INF-type arrangement given their strategic interests.  

In the end, while Russia has poisoned the landmark arms control arrangement, the bitter truth is that the INF treaty is a relic of the bi-polar Cold War world that no longer addresses the strategic reality of the United States, NATO, or Russia in 2019. Today, the United States faces threats from a variety of great powers, regional rogue states, and sophisticated terrorist organizations unknown during the Cold War-era. Simply put, American interests are threatened in Europe by Russia, the Pacific by China and North Korea, and in the Middle East by Russia and Iran to say the least. What is more, all these states possess INF-category weapons that the United States needs to deter on a level lower than full-on strategic nuclear strike.  

 

While it is true the Americans still have air-launched nuclear weapons deployable from nuclear-capable bombers, the United States unilaterally abandoned the capability in nuclear-tipped sea launched cruise missiles of the Tomahawk series and perhaps the time has come to rethink that bold decision. As the United States looks to future INF-category missiles and low-yield nuclear warheads, the tried, tested and true, Tomahawk land attack cruise missile with a nuclear-warhead coupled with the inherit flexibility that sea power might be the capability need to deter want to be peer strategic competitors and rogue states.♦     

 

Previously named one of the “Top 80 Most Influential People in Canadian Foreign Policy” by Embassy Magazine, Joseph Varner has extensive experience in the fields of intelligence, international security, and diplomacy as a trusted advisor to the highest levels of the Canadian government.

REFERENCES    [i] Jane’s Intelligence Review, “Treaty troubles: The State of US-Russia arms control.” (2014).  

[ii] Ibid.  

[iii] Ibid.    

[iv] Weitz, R, “US withdrawal from INF Treaty brings risks and opportunities. Jane’s Intelligence Review,” (2018); and Missile Defence Project, “SSC-8 (Novator 9M729) Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies,” https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/ssc-8-novator-9m729/    

[v] B. Tertrais, “Russia’s Nuclear Policy: Worrying for the Wrong Reasons,” Survival 60, 2 (2018), DOI: 10.1080/00396338.2018.1448560    

[vi] Strategic Comments, “The demise of the INF Treaty. Strategic Comments,” 24, 9 (2018), iii-v, Retrieved from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13567888.2018.1557842?journalCode=tstc20 [vii] Ibid.  

  [viii] D. Goshal, “China and the INF Treaty. Comparative Strategy,” 35, 5 (2016), 363-370, Retrieved from:   https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01495933.2016.1240982?scroll=top&needAccess=true&journalCode=ucst20       

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