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Trump’s Reckless New Missile Race

His withdrawal from the INF Treaty will spur a rush to build new arsenals with no plan for how to use them.


After 32 years, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the United States and Russia is dead. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the U.S.’s final withdrawal from the accord last week, blaming Russian violations for the move and promising “a new chapter by seeking a new era of arms control that moves beyond the bilateral treaties of the past.”

The Trump administration has made withdrawing from productive international treaties something of a pattern, but—unlike the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate agreement, and the Iran nuclear deal—American INF Treaty–related grievances weren’t a Trump-era development; Russia pushed the envelope of the accord on President Barack Obama’s watch, too. Yet the Trump administration’s instinctive response—to withdraw from the treaty hastily, rather than attempt a good-faith process to bring Russia back into compliance using the treaty’s provisions—means European and Asian security are about to get a lot more complicated.

When it was first signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, the INF Treaty barred both countries from possessing, testing, or deploying ground-based missiles—meaning ballistic or cruise missiles—with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (or roughly 300 to 3,400 miles). It was the culmination of nearly a decade of talks, aimed chiefly at reducing the nuclear threat posed to Europe in a conflict between the superpowers.

The Trump administration account is that Russia has developed a nuclear-capable missile—dubbed the SSC-8 “Screwdriver” by NATO—whose effective range violates the treaty. Officials made that case by releasing U.S. intelligence last December that appeared to substantiate the charges. But the allegation itself wasn’t new: The Obama administration had similarly accused Russia in 2014. The White House’s instinct back then was to enforce the INF accord, not scuttle it.

But within the United States, plenty of power brokers and ideologues have long sought to unshackle themselves from INF restrictions, regardless of Russia’s state of compliance. Many consider the U.S. to be in a new “great power competition” with China and Russia, and many are pushing for American decisions to be driven by new technology and capabilities rather than well-considered strategies. The Trump administration has already signed into law two National Defense Authorization Acts that provide funds to develop post-INF American missiles. The 2020 NDAA, recently passed by the House, originally included $100 million in funding requests for three new missiles capable of flying to ranges previously banned by the treaty.*

Proponents of withdrawal from the INF have owned up to all this before. In December 2018, Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said he “would rapidly develop the kind of missiles that we need to maintain the stable balance in Europe and also offset China’s missile build-up.” Seconds later, Cotton admitted that questions about where and how to base such missiles “can obviously be controversial, but that would be a decision to be made for the future.” In other words: We’ll procure and build the weapons and figure the strategy out later.

Right now, Asia, not Europe, appears to be the primary geopolitical driver of post-INF missile development in the United States. Many American critics of the INF’s strictures cite Beijing’s substantial missile arsenal, some 95 percent of which is thought to fall in the INF-proscribed category. (Unsurprisingly, China was supportive of the United States and Russia saving the INF Treaty, while categorically ruling out its own participation.)

But it doesn’t follow that new U.S. short-range missiles could establish the parity in Asia as they might in Europe. In the 1980s, the United States was able to deploy the Pershing II, a precise, fast-flying nuclear missile, in Western Europe. The weapon’s range gave it the ability to strike Moscow in a matter of minutes, seriously spooking the Soviet leadership. The Soviet Union had similarly leveraged Europe’s compact geography for its benefit with the deployment of the SS-20 “Saber” some years earlier, putting major NATO capitals at risk. But aside from the U.S. territory of Guam and a spattering of other U.S. Pacific territories thousands of miles from Chinese shores, there’s simply nowhere in Asia for American ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles to go. The U.S. instead relies on air- and sea-based platforms for long-range power projection in Asia. American basing options for post-INF missiles are very limited—at least until the U.S. has some very difficult conversations with allies.

The American network of treaty allies in the Asia-Pacific is expansive and an important advantage. In a world where these partners simply went along with American preferences, post-INF plans for Asia might look straightforward: We could base ground missiles in those places and create a headache for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force by targeting the first island chain—the islands running down from Japan to the Philippines—with conventional, intermediate-range missiles. On this view, American missiles would cause Beijing to think twice before, say, invading Taiwan.

That’s an overly hopeful view. No administration—least of all the Trump administration, which is extorting host nations in the region for support payments—will find it easy to convince allies that they should agree to host American missiles on their soil. Take Japan, the U.S. ally likeliest to come around to the idea of hosting some American post-INF missiles. Tokyo has long had to deal with public opposition to American military activities on Japanese soil, especially in Okinawa. Asking an already troop-weary Japanese public to tolerate massive American missiles on mobile launchers, driving around their towns, will be a hard pill for Tokyo to swallow.

Even if INF opponents had a clear vision for how to deploy new missiles in Asia, those deployments might create bigger strategic headaches for the United States. For instance, the U.S., whether it likes it or not, is in a nuclear deterrence relationship with North Korea. Pyongyang has long bristled at American bomber flights from Guam, which could retaliate against a North Korean nuclear strike within several hours. But one of the American post-INF missiles reportedly under development—a ballistic missile with a range of between 1,800 and 2,500 miles—could, if deployed to Guam, prompt a serious North Korean response. The flight time of such a missile to Pyongyang would be under 20 minutes; deploying a missile that might take out Kim Jong Un in his sleep will encourage North Korea to take dangerous steps itself. Kim might choose to implement a “fail deadly” mechanism, loosening the conditions under which his nuclear arsenal might be used. Even if the United States focuses its new INF deployments in Asia on challenges to China, we’d have to consider the implications for the uneasy relationship with North Korea.

It’s not just the United States that has to deal with the range of consequences of this treaty’s collapse. One of the most-forgotten features of the INF is it was never entirely bilateral after the fall of the USSR: It also covered a handful of former Soviet states that once had their territories involved in the production or testing of intermediate-range missiles. Among these is Ukraine, a country with a particularly strong domestic industrial base for the production of rockets. Though it would take several years in practice, Kyiv has said it reserves the right to develop its own post-INF missiles “as necessary.” Given the seemingly interminable hostilities between Russia and Ukraine, Moscow might find itself with a new regional headache in a matter of years, as it stares down both American conventional intermediate missiles in Europe and similar systems in Ukraine.

America did not violate the INF Treaty, but it did choose to pull the plug. The process by which the Trump administration chose to go about withdrawal was quick, haphazard with regard to U.S. allies’ interests, and fundamentally unstrategic. While the American military-industrial complex begins to spin up for the production, testing, and deployment of missiles that had been banned for 32 years, someone needs to give serious thought to what these missiles will do, where they’ll go, and whether the benefits they might bring to bear will truly outweigh the risks. So far, though, Trump officials have spent less time addressing these issues than it takes for a Pershing II to fly from Western Europe to Moscow.

* A previous version of this article stated that the 2020 NDAA included $100 million for three new long-range missiles previously banned by the treaty. That provision was scrapped before the bill was passed.