President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty raising complex security concerns with ramifications that could upset an already fractious global nuclear weapons environment.
Despite the 1987 Treaty making a considerable amount of progress, it was not insulated from the mutual trust deficit that emblematised the Cold War era, which continues to this day. The first claims of non-compliance arose under President Obama, with the US alleging in its July 2014 Compliance Report that Russia was in violation of its INF Treaty obligations “not to possess, produce, or flight-test” a ground-launched cruise missile with a range of 500 to 5,500 km or “to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.” In March 2017, a top US official confirmed press reports that Russia had begun deploying the non-compliant missile. On 20 October 2018, President Trump announced his intention to “terminate” the INF Treaty, citing Russian non-compliance and concerns about China’s intermediate-range missile arsenal. On 2 February 2 2019, the Trump administration finally declared a suspension of US obligations under the INF Treaty and formally announced its intention to withdraw in six months.
This move by the US has led to Russia officially announcing the suspension of its treaty obligations.
The abrogation of the INF Treaty by both the US and Russia legitimises the deployment of intermediate range missiles. It also brings into question the future of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which is to expire soon.
According to the 2018 US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), Beijing is steaming forward with the expansion of its cruise missile arsenal, potentially neutralising the capability of US warships that could seek to approach the Chinese coastline during a standoff. The US pullout from the INF will allow it the opportunity to balance China’s nuclear capability by re-enforcing its missile capability in the Pacific region. China is currently equipped with sophisticated cruise missiles that can be launched from land, air, sea, and sub-surface platforms. Returning to intermediate range systems will equip US forces with the ability to strike targets that are highly difficult to penetrate for conventional weapons. This will inevitably lead to the strengthening of a global arms race.
There are very clear implications for Europe as well, which faces an immediate threat with the disavowal of the INF. The Treaty required the former Soviet Union to renounce hundreds of missiles directed towards Western Europe. With its termination, Russia is no longer bound by this condition. Of particular relevance is the 9M728 (SSC-7) cruise missile, a part of the Russian Iskander-M tactical missile system. Iskander-M missiles were recently deployed to Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave, within clear reach of parts of NATO members, which is likely only to exacerbate tensions further. The SSC-8 and SSC-7 both use ballistic and cruise systems and with slight adjustment to the flight trajectory, can strike targets in most of Europe.
Russia, for its part, has expressed concerns about the US missile defence system in eastern Europe that can also be used to fire cruise missiles, using targets for missile defence tests with similar characteristics to INF Treaty-prohibited intermediate range missiles, and making armed drones that are equivalent to ground-launched cruise missiles.
To sum up, the dissolution of the INF Treaty by the US and Russia will only contribute to the strengthening of Cold War hostilities. The US will face a litmus test as a security provider, whether it is in Asia or Europe. Russia, China and the US will further resort to the vertical proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and the stockpiling of missiles by each of these countries will be to gain a sense of one-upmanship, rather than deterrence, which has traditionally been the norm. Symbolically, this withdrawal from the INF casts the US in a new light – as that of an irresponsible nuclear weapons state, which is at odds with the narrative that has existed until now, that is its role as a responsible actor in the global nuclear environment.