The Department of Defense successfully tested a new ground-launched intermediate-range cruise missile on August 18, which hit its target after more than 500 kilometers (km) of flight. The test marks an important milestone for the U.S. military as it scrambles to develop missiles of the kind Beijing has deployed in massive numbers to threaten U.S. vessels and bases in Asia.
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed by Washington and the Soviet Union in 1987, prohibited the production, possession, or flight testing of ground-launched intermediate-range cruise or ballistic missile systems with a range between 500 and 5,500 km. Russia assumed the Soviet commitment to the INF Treaty after the latter’s dissolution, yet Moscow has deployed multiple battalions armed with the SSC-8 (also known as the 9M729) intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missile. Indeed, Russia’s violations began in the mid-2000s.
After imploring Moscow for years to return to compliance with the INF Treaty, the U.S. announced on February 2 this year its intent to withdraw from the treaty. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned, “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.” Moscow did not comply, and the U.S. formally left the treaty on August 2.
Never constrained by the INF Treaty, China has deployed hundreds of such missiles. Indeed, as Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of all U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific, noted in testimony earlier this year, over 95 percent of China’s ballistic missiles would have been prohibited by the INF Treaty.
China’s ground-launched missiles enable it to threaten U.S. partners and allies, as well as U.S. vessels and bases in the region, thereby jeopardizing America’s overall strategic position. Nevertheless, the U.S. abided by its INF Treaty commitment until Russian violations became intolerable.
Now, the U.S. and its allies can and should build a missile network in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s Anti-Access/Area Denial strategy. America’s adversaries have not stood still, and U.S. national security interests require that Washington respond accordingly.
The 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy called for building a “more lethal Joint Force.” This will almost certainly require the deployment of significant numbers of intermediate-range ground-launched missiles to the Indo-Pacific theater. Such a deployment could help deter aggression by Beijing by increasing the perceived risk, cost, complexity, and uncertainty associated with belligerent action.
The deployment of these missiles in sufficient numbers would also expand U.S. military lethality beyond its limited inventory of expensive aircraft, ships, and submarines that are difficult and time-consuming to replace. In short, the deployment of intermediate-range ground-launched missiles to the Indo-Pacific would make U.S. forces there more lethal, survivable, and cost-efficient. Accordingly, the U.S. should fully fund efforts to deploy conventionally-configured ground-launched intermediate-range missiles to the Indo-Pacific as soon as possible.
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, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.