The White House appears to have a broader strategy to wind over 50 years of agreements to control and limit nuclear weapons.
The decision by the Trump administration to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Force Agreement (INF) appears to be part of a broader strategy aimed at unwinding over 50 years of agreements to control and limit nuclear weapons, returning to an era characterized by the unbridled development of weapons of mass destruction.
Terminating the INF treaty -- which bans land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of between 300 and 3,400 miles -- is not, in and of itself, a fatal blow to the network of treaties and agreements dating back to the 1963 treaty that ended atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.
But coupled with other actions -- George W. Bush's decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 2002 and the Obama administration's program to upgrade the nuclear weapons infrastructure -- the tapestry of agreements that has, at least in part, limited these terrifying creations, is looking increasingly frayed.
"Leaving the INF," says Sergey Rogov of the Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies, "could bring the whole structure of arms control crashing down."
Lynn Rusten, the former senior director for arms control in the National Security Agency Council warns, "This is opening the door to an all-out arms race."
Throwing Off Constraints
Washington's rationale for exiting the INF Treaty is that the Russians deployed the 9M729 cruise missile, which the U.S. claims violates the agreement, although Moscow denies it and the evidence hasn't been made public. Russia counter-charges that the U.S. ABM system -- Aegis Ashore -- deployed in Romania and planned for Poland could be used to launch similar medium range missiles.
If this were a disagreement over weapon capability, inspections would settle the matter. But the White House -- in particular National Security Adviser John Bolton -- is less concerned with inspections than extracting the U.S. from agreements that in any way restrain the use of American power, be it military or economic.
Thus, Trump dumped the Iran nuclear agreement, not because Iran is building nuclear weapons or violating the agreement in any way, but because the administration wants to use economic sanctions to pursue regime change in Tehran.
In some ways, the INF agreement is low hanging fruit. The 1987 treaty banned only land-based medium range missiles, not those launched by sea or air -- where the Americans hold a strong edge -- and it only covered the U.S. and Russia. Other nuclear-armed countries -- particularly China, India, North Korea, Israel, and Pakistan -- have deployed a number of medium range nuclear-armed missiles. One of the arguments Bolton makes for exiting the INF is that it would allow the U.S. to counter China's medium range missiles.
But if the concern were controlling intermediate range missiles, the obvious path would be to expand the treaty to other nations and include air and sea launched weapons. Not that that would be easy. China has lots of intermediate range missiles, because most of its potential antagonists, like Japan or U.S. bases in Asia, are within the range of such missiles. The same goes for Pakistan, India, and Israel.
Intermediate range weapons -- sometimes called "theater" missiles -- don't threaten the U.S. mainland the way that similar U.S. missiles threaten China and Russia. Beijing and Moscow can be destroyed by long-range intercontinental missiles, but also by theater missiles launched from ships or aircraft. One of the reasons that Europeans are so opposed to withdrawing from the INF is that, in the advent of nuclear war, medium-range missiles on their soil will make them a target.
But supposed violations of the treaty aren't why Bolton and the people around him oppose the agreement. Bolton called for withdrawing from the INF Treaty three years before the Obama administration charged the Russians with cheating.