The INF Treaty has been on the agenda in recent weeks. First the US ambassador to NATO inadvertently suggested that the United States might attack Russia preemptively for breaking the INF Treaty. That was a really stupid comment, and though she later backtracked, the damage was done. Then later president Trump announced that he will withdraw the United States from the treaty, which opens the gates for a new arms race with nuclear missiles.
In the spring I did a talk at the Danish Defense Academy titled “Why does Russia break the INF Treaty?” I have long intended to turn it into a blog post, but for various reason I never got around to doing it. Now seems like the last call if I want to get this perspective out, and I really do believe that it is important.
For some time, it has only been a question of whether USA or Russia would be the one to terminate the treaty. Now it appears we know the answer. And though Russia publicly acts surprised and outraged that USA would take such a step, they probably breathe a sigh of relief when nobody is listening. This means that president Trump will take the political blame for the collapse of a treaty that is deeply problematic for Russia’s military ambitions.
Unfortunately, the blame game has stood in the way of a more fundamental discussion about the problems with the INF Treaty. Because there are deep problems, and it has become unsustainable to keep the treaty in its original form. Technically speaking I don’t know that Russia is building and deploying a missile that breaks the INF Treaty. I just have the word from the American side about it. But I would almost (and only almost) go so far as to say that Russia should break the treaty. It poses restrictions that were unforeseen when the treaty was signed, and these favor USA over Russia in areas that have nothing to do with nuclear weapons.
If we fail to see this perspective, we will make the wrong decisions as the INF Treaty breaks down. The United States appears to plan a response that emphasizes low-yield nuclear weapons, which frankly is an answer that misses the point. So it is worth the effort to reflect on why Russia would break the INF Treaty and jeopardize the arms control regime that also has many benefits for Russia.
What is the INF Treaty
The INF Treaty was signed in 1987 as a bilateral agreement between the United States and the USSR. The goal was to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles, which especially posed a nuclear threat in Europe. The treaty bans all ground-launched missiles with a maximum range between 500 and 5500 kilometers. It also bans all launchers for such missiles.
The INF Treaty led to a significant reduction in the number of missiles on both sides. The United States destroyed some 800 missiles, and the USSR dismantled and destroyed about 1800 missiles.
Problems with the INF Treaty
The INF Treaty is 30 years old now, and it shows its age. In 1987, USA and USSR were the two superpowers and the only states with a substantial number of these missiles. It made sense with a bilateral agreement. That has changed. Today, countries such as North Korea, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and Iran have ground-launched intermediate-range missiles. This has especially been a concern for Russia because they are within range of these missiles.
It is difficult for the Russians to understand that a country like China can build ground-launched intermediate-range missiles, but Russia cannot. In 2008, Russia and the United States suggested to include more countries in the INF Treaty, but nothing came of the suggestion.
An even bigger problem is that the INF Treaty does not distinguish between conventional and nuclear missiles. The Cold War was all about nuclear weapons, so it didn’t make much difference. But today the technological development has made conventional high-precision long-range missiles the big thing in warfare. Any serious contender for the role of world superpower needs to have these missiles in large quantities.
The INF Treaty only concerns ground-launched missiles. Air- and ship-based systems are not included. This creates an asymmetry of disadvantage between Russia and the United States. Protected by oceans, the United States has built capabilities to project power with air- and ship-based systems. Russia has a geography that suggests ground-based solutions. It is unrealistic that Russia could support a navy with sufficient capacity for these missiles. Even if they could afford the ships – which they cannot – it still wouldn’t make sense to depend on an expeditionary naval force to project power when your country is predominantly landlocked.
How does Russia break the INF Treaty?
Since 2012 the United States suspected that Russia was developing a missile in violation of the INF Treaty, and in 2014 they filed an official complaint. In November 2017 the United States confirmed that the missile is called SSC-8 in NATO and 9M729 in Russia.
Russia has indirectly acknowledged that they are working on a missile called 9M729, but the data about the missile is sparse. The name suggests the missile belongs to the Iskander family of missiles. The Iskander-K cruise missile has the designation 9M728, and it has a range of up to 500 kilometers. It is possible that Russia has developed a longer range version of this missile. That could simply be a question of adding more fuel to the tank.
Another theory is that 9M729 is a ground-based version of the sea-launched 3M14 Kalibr cruise missile, which has a range between 1500-2600 kilometers. That would basically be a matter of developing a ground-based launcher for Kalibr.
In practical terms it doesn’t matter much whether SSC-8 is an extended range Iskander or a ground-launched Kalibr. Such missiles will have almost similar specifications. The groundbreaking feature of both Kalibr and Iskander is the ability to perform high-precision targeting. They also both have advanced counter-countermeasures, so they are able to penetrate most air defense systems. And finally they have the ability to carry different types of warhead, including nuclear. This means that we can interpret Iskander and Kalibr missiles as either conventional or nuclear missiles.
Herein lies the problem. The United States seems determined that Russia is breaking the INF Treaty in order to improve their nuclear arsenal, so they look for nuclear answers to balance that threat. It’s a kind of doomsday logic.
Russia wants a conventional missile, not a nuclear one
This dramatic interpretation does not make sense. The INF Treaty carries important benefits for Russia too, for example a barrier against a costly arms race that they cannot afford. They would not jeopardize the treaty for something that they have already, and it’s not like Russia lacks alternative ways to drop nuclear bombs over Europe. The SSC-8 adds very little in terms of nuclear power deterrence.
But what is plausible is that Russia would sacrifice the INF Treaty in exchange for a robust long-range high-precision missile capability. The war in Syria is a good case study of why Russia would want these missiles. While they have used the war to showcase the technical potential of their missiles, they have not been able to apply them in significant quantities. During the entire conflict, Russia has launched only around 166 cruise missiles from ships or aircraft. In comparison, USA fired at least 118 Tomahawk missiles during just one attack in Syria in April 2018.
To compare SSC-8 to Tomahawk makes a lot of sense. Russia wants the ability to do the same things with precision missiles as the United States can do with Tomahawk. That requires a ground-launched missile with greater range than the current Iskander. The fact that the missile can carry a nuclear warhead is a peripheral consideration. Tomahawk also used to have a nuclear variant, but it was disbanded because it was the least interesting feature of the missile.
So the most productive interpretation is that Russia is building a conventional missile with a maximum range that falls inside the definitions of the INF Treaty. It is unfortunate that the United States takes steps to cancel the whole treaty because of this instead of seeking to update the text. Russia might have accepted a compromise which gave them the ability to build conventional missiles without nuclear capabilities.
Now it seems that the arms control system is falling apart. In 2021 the New START Treaty will expire, so from that point the limitations on strategic nuclear missiles are also lifted. Let’s hope the two parties find the political will to negotiate before then.