The Sun Sets on an Arms Control Treaty

7 MINS READAug 2, 2019 | 09:30 GMT
The United States detonates an atomic bomb nicknamed

The United States detonates an atomic bomb nicknamed "Smokey" as part of Operation PLUMBBOB in the Nevada desert in 1957. As the U.S. leaves the INF Treaty, missile proliferation will only increase.

(CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

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

Russia Threatens to Withdraw From Arms Treaties

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.

This image shows Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev sign the INF Treaty in the White House in 1987.

(Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

A U.S.-Russian Arms Treaty Could Be in Trouble

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.

Farewell to an Arms Treaty

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.

An Arms Race Toward Global Instability

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. 

The U.S. Withdrawal From the INF Treaty Is the Next Step in a Global Arms Race

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.

This photo shows a close view of the Russian 9M729 missile

Russia shows off its 9M729 missile on Jan. 23, 2019, as part of an effort to show that the missile is not -- as claimed by the United States -- in violation of the INF Treaty.

(SERGEI BOBYLEV/TASS via Getty Images)

The Finish to a New START?

The Window to Extend New START Is Closing, and Fast

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

The Nuclear Arms Race Is Alive and Well

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.

What the Next Arms Race Will Look Like

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.

A Changing Rulebook to Tame the New Global Arms Race

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.

This graphic charts the history of international arms control treaties.

A Missile Defense Review to Intensify an Arms Race

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

China Flaunts Its Missile Arsenal

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.

This chart shows the buildup of the Russian, U.S. and Chinese nuclear warhead and intermediate-range missile arsenals

Why China Will Steer Clear of a New START on Arms Control

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.

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