When the Soviet Union and the United States signed the INF treaty, it effectively ended a destabilizing buildup of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with short to intermediate ranges, defined as 500-5,500 kilometers (311-3,418 miles). Since then, nearly 3,000 missiles have been eliminated — most of which would have been deployed on the European continent — making the INF a foundational arms control agreement credited with slowing the arms race between Russia and the United States. Outright withdrawal from the treaty by either government would severely hamper future arms control efforts and accelerate an already-intensifying arms race focused on nuclear modernization
The Treaty Hampers Russia More
For all the problems that would arise with the treaty's demise, Russian and U.S. defense planners have some reasons to look forward to its end. For example, a buildup of land-based intermediate-range missiles would enhance Russian defenses against an increasingly powerful Chinese military on the China-Russia border. It would also give Russia options in the event that the United States expands its already substantial advantage in the development of hypersonic weapons, which travel at least five times the speed of sound. Perhaps most important, boosting its arsenal of short- to intermediate-range missiles based on land could help Russia redress its considerable airpower disadvantage relative to the United States and NATO.
Indeed, the INF has hampered Russia's long-range conventional strike capabilities more than the United States'. This is because Washington has built up a sizable arsenal of long-range land-attack missiles over the past decades. These air- and sea-launched missiles, when combined with the U.S. stealth bomber and fighter advantages, give Washington a much greater capability to conduct long-range strikes, including deep inside Russian territory. Development of land-based intermediate-range missiles would help Russia narrow this imbalance. For example, given the range and punching power of the missiles, Russia could threaten NATO air bases across Europe — just as China's missile program has given it the ability to strike U.S. bases in the Western Pacific.
Withdrawal from the INF would also boost Russia's nuclear deterrence capabilities. Ever since Washington withdrew from the U.S.-Russia Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, Moscow has become increasingly concerned about U.S. missile defense development. Building an arsenal of nuclear-tipped intermediate-range missiles would allow the Russians to retarget practically all their intercontinental ballistic missiles — which are limited in number by New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty
) — against the continental United States. This would help guarantee Russia's ability to respond in the event of a nuclear strike.
However, any surge in Russian and U.S. development of land-based intermediate range missiles would be accompanied by greater investment in missile defense. With an eye on potential threats from countries such as Iran and North Korea, the United States has already been pouring substantial resources into the development of systems including the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic missile system (THAAD)
and various variants of the SM-3 interceptor missiles. This would intensify if Russia began a rapid buildup of short- and intermediate-range missiles — especially since ballistic missile defenses are significantly more effective against shorter-range weapons.
The U.S. Eyes the Western Pacific
Though the INF treaty limits Russia more than the United States
, Washington has its own problems with the pact — particularly in the Western Pacific. Long-range land-attack cruise and ballistic missiles are critical to any U.S. war-fighting scenario in East Asia, particularly given the vast distances that would be involved in regional operations. While the INF treaty has limited the United States to fielding air- and sea-launched missiles of short to intermediate range, the Chinese have been free to build up a vast arsenal of land-based versions
of the missiles. From launching points across the Chinese mainland, Beijing could concentrate crippling strikes on the sparse number of available U.S. airfields in the region — an asymmetric advantage the Chinese have focused heavily on exploiting over the past decades to make up for U.S. superiority in other areas. If the INF treaty were to be abandoned, the United States would likely move quickly to build up its own land-based missile batteries to redress this disadvantage.
The fate of the INF treaty has not yet been sealed. In fact, the United States and Russia could leverage the arms control portfolio to further talks on other issues, as they have done with arms control talks in the past. But the factors threatening the treaty have been gaining strength in both countries for decades.
Today, Washington is unlikely to seriously consider halting its ballistic missile development, and the U.S. Congress will not easily agree to curtail ongoing nuclear modernization programs
— two areas where continued U.S. progress will heighten Moscow's interest in abandoning the INF treaty. Meanwhile, the rise of China has similarly complicated the fate of a treaty, which was designed with a bipolar Cold War framework in mind. Beijing will be exceedingly reluctant to limit development of its own land-based short- and intermediate-range missiles, given its heavy reliance on the arsenal.
Thus, at minimum, the INF treaty will be violated more frequently, but its demise is a very real possibility
. The consequences would be vast, affecting everything from future arms control efforts to technological investments and weapons buildups.