Military-geopolitical calculus behind INF debates

US military-industrial complex’s post-INF trajectory would be a good indicator highlighting the underlying strategic calculus behind the Trump administration’s withdrawal decision

Military-geopolitical calculus behind INF debates

In early Dec. 2018, NATO Foreign Ministers released a joint statement about Russia’s reported violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The declaration openly pointed out the 9M729 missile (SSC-8 in NATO designation) as the primary asset that is believed to contravene the INF requirements. The allies called on Moscow to “return urgently to full and verifiable compliance” with its commitments amidst Washington’s decision to unilaterally withdraw if the Russians are not to honor the requirements of the treaty.

Briefly, the INF was a bilateral treaty between the US and the Soviet Union signed back in 1987. It bans all land-based, ground-attack cruise and ballistic missiles with a range between 500 km to 5,500 km. It is estimated that the treaty dismantled nearly 2,700 missiles as well as their launch systems. The underlying military rationale behind the treaty was to reduce the risk of a spiraling armed conflict in Europe. Missile strikes are extremely swift. They dictate an overwhelming operational tempo that drastically increases strategic surprise, and leave little reaction time to the adversary. Besides, distinguishing the exact payload of the incoming missile warhead (WMDs or conventional) is demanding. Thus, if the two antagonistic parties are nuclear-capable actors, the political-military leaders and defense intelligence personnel involved would have a very limited opportunity to ponder a sober response in the face of a missile attack. Overall, a missile-driven arms race could lead to catastrophic results, and the INF was a product of these concerns.

In fact, NATO hinted at its strict stance about the reported INF violations before. The 2018 Brussels Summit declaration underlined that the treaty has been crucial to Euro-Atlantic security, and drew attention to the violation allegations. Besides, the summit declaration also highlighted the allied nations’ concerns about the 9M729 missile. Interestingly, Moscow, on its part, also alleged that the US has violated the treaty by deploying the Aegis Ashore systems in Europe. However, in response to the Russian allegations, the US Department of State’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance released a comprehensive note on Dec. 8, 2017, and rejected all the claims underlining that the referred system can only launch defensive interceptor missiles that do not fall under the INF restrictions.

In March 2017, General Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the US Congress about the reported Russian INF incompliances. General Selva said that the systems fielded by the Russian military could present a serious risk to the NATO facilities in Europe.   

On a final note, it would be also misleading to assume that Washington’s tough stance regarding Russia’s INF incompliance started with the Trump administration. Back in 2014, for example, then-President Barack Obama sent a letter to his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, accusing Russia of serious violations.

- Prospects of a Missiles-Driven Arms Race and the China Factor

The SSC-8 -- or Novator 9M729 -- is a ground-launched cruise missile. Available writings about the missile indicate that it was first test-fired in 2014. According to the US sources, the missile can reach targets at some 2,500 km, which clearly exceeds the INF limits. Even more problematically, some reports claim that the missile was tested from an Iskander-M launcher before, putting the entire Iskander systems under suspicion with respect to the INF compliance.

In the event Washington carries through the planned unilateral withdrawal, Moscow could respond by raising the bet. Russia could then officially declare some of its systems’ ranges as around 2,000 km, and deploy them in the vicinity of NATO’s eastern flank. This perceived escalatory trend, coupled with the existing problems in the transatlantic ties, has already triggered a German-led reaction to the Trump administration’s INF stance.  

While traditional arms control circles in the West criticized the Trump administration’s decision, some analysts concluded that the treaty had a negative impact on the US’ abilities to pursue the great power competition against both the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China. According to this approach, the INF was useless not only because Moscow was violating it, but also it hampered Washington’s abilities to extend its nuclear deterrent in Europe and Indo-Pacific. Now, this school argues, it would be up to the Russian and Chinese leaderships to decide if they would enter into an arms race, or come up with a feasible arms control agreement that they will honor. At this point, the Pacific emphasis remains crucial. Some open-source military studies conclude that 95 percent of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) missiles fall between 500 km to 5,500 km. Overall, the anti-INF circles advocate that this Russo – American disarmament treaty, which has not been fully honored by Moscow, was in fact favoring Beijing. Indeed, the PLA Rocket Forces have shown a significant military modernization effort in recent years, while the US could not field the systems in kind due to the INF requirements.

Without a doubt, some arms control advocates would seek to bring China into (probably an updated version of) the INF Treaty to produce a new, trilateral ground for preventing a new arms race. However, given the very fact that Beijing expressed no interest in joining such a diplomatic exercise -- and taking the burgeoning Chinese missile capabilities into consideration -- the chances for securing a reloaded, trilateral INF are slim.

- Military-geopolitical guidance

Different geopolitical characteristics of the US – Russia and US – China strategic balances of power would be analytical references to understand the underlying reason of the INF withdrawal, if the US really wants to carry on with its decision. Simply put, the Asia-Pacific theatre is predominantly shaped by naval battle parameters, while Europe witnesses the Russian Western Military District’s local superiority over the NATO ground forces in the eastern flank -- a grim force-on-force balance for NATO, even worsened by Russia’s anti-access / area denial (A2/AD) capabilities. In other words, in the event of an armed conflict in Europe, Russia would enjoy robust means to deny the NATO aircraft access to the area of operations, while launching a massive combined-arms incursion into NATO’s eastern flank.

In the pacific war game scenarios, however, protecting the US airbases across Japan and South Korea from the Chinese missile forces, and tackling the PLA Navy would be the utmost priorities. The two scenarios necessitate a different set of missile capabilities. Thus, the American military-industrial complex’s post-INF trajectory would be a good indicator highlighting the underlying strategic calculus behind the Trump administration’s withdrawal decision.