In his annual state-of-the-nation speech last week, President Vladimir Putin eliminated any lingering doubt regarding Russia’s intent to ignore the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, Putin dismissed as “unfounded” longstanding accusations that Russia violated the INF Treaty. Putin also ordered the development of additional intermediate-range missiles.
The deployment of Russian intermediate-range missiles has shifted the balance of military power in Eastern Europe in the Kremlin’s direction, increasing the chances Putin may undertake further aggression. Further deployments would aggravate the situation. In response, the U.S. should immediately begin developing its own intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles with conventional warheads. As a first step, in its fiscal year 2020 defense budget proposal expected this month, the Trump administration should request research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) funding to develop such missiles for use with conventional warheads.
Signed by Washington and Moscow in 1987, the INF Treaty prohibits the production, possession, or flight testing of ground-launched intermediate-range cruise or ballistic missile systems with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Despite this clear prohibition, Moscow has been flight testing such systems since the mid-2000s, and has now deployed multiple battalions armed with the SSC-8 (also known as the 9M729) intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM).
Consequently, on February 2, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced the U.S. intent to withdraw from the INF Treaty. Pompeo said, “If Russia does not return to full and verifiable compliance with the Treaty by eliminating all 9M729 missiles, their launchers, and associated equipment in this six-month period, the Treaty will terminate.”
Meanwhile, unconstrained by the INF Treaty, China has deployed hundreds of missiles, including the DF-21D and DF-26 that fall within the range covered by the INF Treaty.
According to Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of all U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific, over 95 percent of China’s ballistic missiles would be prohibited by the INF Treaty.
If the U.S. produces intermediate-range missiles in earnest, Putin may reconsider his rejection of the INF Treaty. The U.S. could develop and produce these missiles without necessarily deploying them to Europe but retaining the ability to do so rapidly if necessary. The U.S. would also have the option of fielding them with conventional warheads in the Indo-Pacific. At a minimum, such a deployment would increase the lethality of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific, consistent with the National Defense Strategy. Such a deployment might also encourage Beijing to join an updated treaty that includes Russia, China, and the United States, although that is admittedly a longshot. Yet ignoring the deployment of intermediate-range missiles by rivals only erodes our ability to deter aggression.
Finally, it is worth noting that the production of these systems may take years. While the precise nature of the threats posed by Moscow and Beijing in a few years’ time remains unclear, most trend lines point in a dangerous direction. History tells us that U.S. strength and preparedness will facilitate a better outcome for the American people and our allies.
Thus, the administration should request RDT&E funding in the upcoming budget proposal with the goal of promptly producing U.S. intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles. Once these systems are procured – and after an updated assessment of Russian and Chinese actions as well as consultation with key allies – a subsequent decision could be made regarding their deployment to Europe or the Indo-Pacific. This approach represents the best way to protect American interests and respond to Putin’s violation of the INF Treaty.
Bradley Bowman is senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Andrew Gabel is a research analyst. Follow Bradley and Andrew on Twitter at @Brad_L_Bowman and @Andrew_B_Gabel. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.