Editor's Note: On Aug. 2, the United States officially leaves the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, 32 years after U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the agreement to ban nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 500-5,500 kilometers (310-3,410 miles). As the end of the INF Treaty threatens to accelerate and intensify an ongoing arms race, we look back on some of our key assessments charting the fall of that agreement, as well as the status of other key arms control deals.
The Decline and Fall of the INF
March 14, 2014: On the matter of the INF, it is important to remember that the agreement limits the deployment of all land-based intermediate-range missiles, whether deployed with a conventional or nuclear warhead. This has put both Russia and the United States at a serious disadvantage when it comes to China and its large and growing supply of intermediate-range missiles. Citing that threat, in 2007 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposed terminating the INF treaty; the United States refused.
Sept. 28, 2015: Russia and the United States are each hesitant to be the first to withdraw from the INF pact, but it is clear that the treaty as a whole is weakening as time passes. Threats of withdrawal from the treaty, especially from Moscow, are becoming more common, and it may be just a matter of time until the treaty is effectively terminated or heavily revised. The demise of the foundational arms control treaty may give both sides more military options, but it will undoubtedly exacerbate an already tense relationship between Moscow and Washington.
Feb. 27, 2017: 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.
Russia and the United States are each hesitant to be the first to withdraw from the INF pact, but it is clear that the treaty as a whole is weakening as time passes.
Feb. 20, 2018: Alarmed by the United States' growing investment in missile defense and super-fuze technology, Russia and China will try to enhance their offensive capabilities in kind. The resulting arms race would probably drive the last nail into the INF's coffin and perhaps even jeopardize the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
Oct. 22, 2018: Once unshackled from the INF treaty, the United States will undoubtedly bolster its capabilities in its face-off with China. However, the demise of such a landmark arms control agreement will cause serious global repercussions. In the Pacific, China is likely to further improve and grow its armed forces to challenge the new U.S. missile deployments. And Russia will no longer just violate the treaty with select development and deployment of weaponry; it will likely refocus its resources on the buildup of a land-based arsenal of short- and intermediate-range missiles. The cost-effective nature of such weapons is a boon for Russia's increasingly resource-constrained military modernization program, which struggles to fund alternatives such as squadrons of long-range bombers.
The Finish to a New START?
March 20, 2019: The bilateral arms control agreement New START is beginning to face some significant headwinds, with the United States and Russia in disagreement over the scope of the treaty amid emerging new weapons technologies. As relations between the two great powers worsen, and a February 2021 deadline to extend the treaty closes in, there is increasingly less time — and less room — for compromise on a new start for New START.
Toward a New Arms Race
March 10, 2016: Russia is concerned by the possibility that the United States will undermine its nuclear deterrence. The United States is in the midst of an estimated $350 billion nuclear modernization program and is simultaneously pursuing anti-ballistic missile technology. Moscow fears that these efforts have the potential to break the nuclear balance between the countries, reducing its deterrence capabilities. … It is hardly surprising, then, that Russia is determinedly modernizing its nuclear weapons program while simultaneously reminding the world of its capability.
Hypersonic missiles, which are both accurate and extremely fast, stand to change the face of modern warfare by rendering the current generation of missile defense systems ineffective.
March 21, 2016: A new arms race is unfolding between the world's great powers. Hypersonic missiles, which are both accurate and extremely fast, stand to change the face of modern warfare by rendering the current generation of missile defense systems ineffective. As competition heats up among Russia, China and the United States to be the first to deploy hypersonic missiles, each will become more vulnerable to attack by the others. If tensions rise, so will the risk of pre-emptive strikes among the longtime rivals.
March 28, 2017: Arms control can be broad or focused, regional or global — it can even be unilateral. Arms control, however, always reflects the power-balance order under which it exists. The highly charged bilateral framework of the Cold War heavily drove arms control efforts, but naturally they remained largely fixated between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, even directly between the United States and the Soviet Union. With the end of the Cold War and a rapidly evolving multifaceted world, it has become increasingly difficult to successfully enact comprehensive high-end arms control agreements.
Feb. 6, 2019: Despite the technological advancements since the United States abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, developing and fielding a missile defense network that could counter other great powers remains a tall order. Funding key projects identified in the Missile Defense Review — such as installing an advanced sensor network in space, developing mature laser technology, equipping the stealth F-35 fighter with a weapon that can destroy an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and, potentially, deploying interceptors in space — will prove to be a major challenge, especially as all these aims will be competing for financial support with other major defense items in the years ahead.
The Rise of China
Sept. 5, 2015: China, unlike the United States and Russia, is not a party to the INF Treaty. Thus, unlike the Russians and Americans, the Chinese have been able to invest heavily in developing and modernizing their intermediate-range cruise and ballistic missile inventory — an important part of China's preparation for potential conflicts in its near seas. Ballistic and cruise missiles, especially those in the very long-range categories, are a crucial part of Beijing's nuclear deterrence doctrine.
May 14, 2019: Beijing has no wish to limit itself through a new treaty or a New START extension, only for that agreement to prove temporary amid wider disagreements over ballistic missile defense and other issues ... In the end, China would face a cost in joining a treaty even in the best of cases, as it would have to submit to a certain degree of inspections and monitoring.