Nuclear Arms: The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty

September 22, 2019

The U.S. recently pulled out of a Cold War-era treaty that bans intermediate-range missiles. How will it impact national security?

Last month, the U.S. announced that it had tested its first intermediate-range missile since pulling out of a Cold War-era accord with Russia that had banned the use of these weapons. The White House and some nuclear experts said that because Russia was ignoring the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), an agreement did not truly exist and the U.S. was unreasonably putting itself at a military disadvantage. Other experts argue that we are worse off without it.

The discussion about the INF has important implications for control of nuclear arms. It also raises questions about the ways we interact with our allies and our adversaries.

What Is the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty?
President Ronald Regan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev negotiated the agreement in 1987, when both nations were ramping up their nuclear capabilities. Land-based intermediate-range missiles – those traveling between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (310 and 3,400 miles) – were especially worrisome because they could reach a target so quickly that both nations felt forced to immediately respond to a perceived attack.

The New York Times explains that Russia, worried about an attack by the U.S., “developed a ‘dead hand’ trigger to fire its arsenal at the United States without an order from the leadership, based on computers interpreting radiation and seismic sensors.” Both nations feared that a misunderstanding or even a computer error could quickly escalate to a full-scale nuclear war. The INF Treaty made this event less likely.

Why Did the U.S. Leave the Treaty?
The State Department asserted that the U.S. was pulling out of the INF Treaty because Russia had been violating it for years. While not everyone favored a formal withdrawal, experts from across the political spectrum did generally agree that Russia was long out of compliance. U.S. officials say that Russia has been testing cruise missiles since 2008, and the Obama administration formally notified Russia in 2014 that one of its tests had violated the treaty.

Furthermore, many experts point to a real threat from China, which was never party to the INF Treaty and has been manufacturing intermediate-range missiles in large numbers. Admiral Harry Harris, former commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that China “controls the largest and most diverse missile force in the world, with an inventory of more than 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles,” and noted that 95 percent of those missiles would have violated the INF Treaty if China were a signatory.

Proponents of leaving the INF Treaty believed it to be outdated, and said the U.S. was tying its hands while the world’s two other major military powers develop their arsenals. Speaking about intermediate-range missiles, one nuclear expert at the Hudson Institute told Vox: “There’s a reason China and others have them and there’s a reason Russia is developing them.”

Importantly, NATO issued a statement supporting the U.S.’s decision to leave the treaty. Both NATO and the U.S. had attempted to bring Russia back into compliance, it noted, despite Putin publicly expressing his desire to leave the treaty in 2007.

What Are the Arguments for Staying?
While in force, the INF Treaty spurred the U.S. and Russia to destroy more than 2,600 missiles between them, and brought some transparency into a fraught relationship. Now, supporters of the treaty say that leaving it sets the stage for a new arms race. “The Reagan administration did not negotiate the INF Treaty as a favor to the Soviet Union, but rather to improve the security of the United States and its allies,” wrote one analyst.

Another expert, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, testified before Congress in 2017 that if possible, the U.S. should continue to pursue diplomacy. Remaining in the treaty, he argued, “will clearly enhance our ability to bring diplomatic and even economic pressure against Russia and give us a stronger political standing among our friends and allies.”

Others predicted that the U.S. would bear the blame for the treaty’s demise, enabling Russia to deploy their weapons without even the veneer of restraint. Russia never conceded that it had been out of compliance, instead charging the U.S. with violations. Some analysts now worry that by leaving the treaty the U.S. has lost control of the narrative.

Lastly, while NATO officially supported the U.S.’s decision to leave, some of our allies individually expressed displeasure. Sweden’s minister for foreign affairs tweeted that the “Trend of less cooperation on disarmament must be reversed and new ways forward explored.”

What’s Next?
With the INF Treaty officially dead, analysts are now turning their attention to another agreement called New START, our last major nuclear arms control treaty with Russia. New START limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads that Russia and the U.S. can deploy to no more than 1,550, and also limits the number of launch vehicles. The U.S. and Russia signed New START in 2010. It expires in February 2021, and can be extended by mutual agreement.

Former Russian Ambassador John Huntsman says the New START treaty was negotiated at a time that predated cyber warfare, hypersonic missiles, underwater nuclear torpedoes, and China’s strategic nuclear build-up. In an August interview with a Russian radio station, he noted that “Some want to extend New START. Some are arguing in favor of creating something new. I’m not sure where it will go.”

Learn More

Worse Off in the Long Run: Russia and nuclear expert Tom Nichols say that withdrawing from the INF Treaty will undermines the security of Europe and the U.S. — via Foreign Affairs

Blowing the Whistle: Conservative writer Rich Lowry writes that Russia was flagrantly disregarding the INF treaty and the U.S. was right to call the Kremlin out — via National Review

Myths vs. Facts: The State Department pushes back on what it says is Russian propaganda on the INF Treaty — via U.S. Department of State

What’s After New START? Our last nuclear arms control treaty appears to be on the rocks. If it expires, what comes next? — via Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

# # #

This article originally appeared in the September 22, 2019 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and a round-up of news items — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

Sign up below to receive future issues.

* indicates required field