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U.S. Withdrawal and a Path Toward INF Treaty Compliance

By: Patrick Dozier

On December 8, 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and U.S.S.R. General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The Treaty’s purpose was simple – elimination of both countries’ conventional and nuclear ballistic missiles with ranges from 500 to 5,500 kilometers. Additionally, the INF Treaty prohibited both countries from future development, testing, and deployment of any new or existing missiles subject to the Treaty. The INF Treaty entered into force on June 1, 1988 and by May 1991, the last intermediate-range missiles were destroyed by both countries. For over two decades, the INF Treaty fulfilled its promise, with each country assured of mutual compliance as a result of the Treaty’s on-site inspection regime, the embodiment of Reagan’s axiom – “trust but verify”.

However, in its 2014 Compliance Report, the State Department declared Russia as non-compliant with the prohibition on flight-testing of missiles covered by the Treaty. The U.S. has designated the Ground-Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) at the heart of Russia’s non-compliance as the SSC-8. In a 2017 hearing before the House Armed Service Committee (HASC), Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, General Pete Selva testified that not only was there no information to suggest that Russia intended to return to compliance with the Treaty, but that Russia was also guilty of another INF Treaty violation because it had already operationally deployed the SSC-8. Deployment of the SSC-8 equates to more than just a violation of the INF Treaty, it represents an existential threat to NATO countries that fall within the range of the missile system. For its part, Russia denies that it has committed any violation. Instead, it claimsthat the United States is the party in violation of the INF Treaty. Russia maintains the United States’ violations entail: 1) placing its missile defense system throughout Europe, claiming this system has the capability to fire Treaty-prohibited cruise missiles; 2) that the airborne targets used in testing the Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) are akin to Treaty-prohibited missiles, and; 3) that the United States is fielding armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that Russia asserts are equivalent to GLCMs. However, all three accusations fail to qualify as violations and unlike Russia, the United States has proven its compliance. First, Aegis Ashore, the missile defense system that Russia alleges can fire Treaty-prohibited missiles, is only capable of firing defensive interceptor missiles. Second, the targets used for GBI testing are fully compliant with the INF Treaty because the boosters are only used as part of the research and development process, to identify and remedy any flaws in the GBIs. Finally, UAVs produced and fielded by the United States are Treaty compliant because they are reusable (they are not ballistic, thus they can launch and return), whereas Treaty-prohibited missiles are “one-way systems.” Another key difference – these UAVs only carry conventional weapons, whereas GLCMs have dual-capable delivery methods, allowing them to carry both conventional and nuclear weapons.

The INF Treaty stipulates that, while the Treaty is unlimited in duration, a Party may withdraw when “extraordinary events…have jeopardized its supreme interests.” The United States’ supreme interests have unquestionably been jeopardized because under the present Treaty it is unable to develop capabilities to counter the threat of the SSC-8, the very system Russia developed and fielded while party to the INF Treaty. In light of Russia operationalizing the SSC-8 in direct contravention of the Treaty, the United States should take substantive action to bring Russia back to the table and into compliance. If Russia refuses to either provide conclusive evidence that it is compliant or simply destroy the SSC-8 pursuant to Treaty protocol, the United States will be left with few, if any, alternatives to withdrawal from the INF Treaty.

U.S. withdrawal from the Treaty does not necessarily imply that the United States and Russia will be at an impasse in perpetuity. Historically, when parties negotiating a treaty still have something to gain, a mutually-beneficial agreement is possible. In December 2009, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was on the verge of expiration. As the most significant strategic weapons treaty signed by the United States and Russia at that time, extension of the Treaty seemed a foregone conclusion. When START expired, concerns grew that without the Treaty, a new arms race would ensue. However, two months later, New START was signed and subsequently entered into force in February 2011. Despite concerns by both nations regarding a number of the Treaty’s key details (number of inspections, presence of on-site inspectors, etc.), they reached an agreement based on mutual interests.

Should the INF Treaty end, mutual interest may once again be the catalyst that drives the United States and Russia to create a new variant of INF Treaty. An element that could hasten an updated accord is the inclusion of China in that agreement. Unrestrained by INF Treaty-restrictions, China has been free to develop its own missile capabilities. The ranges of these systems possess the ability to not only reach Russia, but also hold U.S. national interests at risk. The creation of a new INF Treaty, with China as a signatory, would therefore appeal to both Russia and the United States. For now, Russia may very well be leveraging the SSC-8 as a key negotiating tactic to either: 1) create a new INF Treaty that includes other nations or, 2) as a means to be relieved of all existing INF Treaty prohibitions upon U.S. withdrawal. Russia’s next move will likely be determined by both the Trump Administration’s willingness to negotiate a mutually beneficial outcome to the current disagreement, and the likelihood of Chinese agreement to join a new INF Treaty. In the meantime, U.S. withdrawal from the current INF Treaty is clearly not the preferred remedy to this issue. However, without Russia’s full compliance with the Treaty, U.S. withdrawal might be the most logical option remaining.


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