When U.S. President Donald Trump announced his intent to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, he put the blame primarily on Russia. Moscow, after all, has been openly violating the treaty for years, essentially daring the U.S. to scrap it. But Trump also gave a second reason for the decision: that staying locked in a decades-old arms control agreement with Russia – one designed for a bygone bipolar system – limited the United States’ ability to counter hostile powers in the Asia-Pacific, a region likely to become a bigger strategic challenge for the U.S. in the coming decades. The argument, long supported by the Pentagon, rests on the fact that the INF excludes countries like China and North Korea, both of which have built up sizable arsenals including many missiles the U.S. can’t develop according to the terms of the treaty. As much as 95 percent of China’s ground-launched missiles would be banned under the INF, an arsenal that is eroding the U.S. advantage in the Western Pacific. Withdrawing from the INF, however, probably wouldn’t do much to fix that problem.
It’s Not a Question of Nuclear Deterrence
In the Western Pacific, the U.S. nuclear deterrent depends on delivery systems not covered by the INF treaty, which bans only ground-launched missiles with ranges between 310 and 3,400 miles (around 499-5,472 kilometers). A quick look at the map of the region makes it fairly obvious why. There’s a whole lot of blue between Hawaii and China and not a whole lot of places where the U.S. could deploy land-based missiles. Guam is one, but it’s too small to ensure assets stationed there would survive in the event of a nuclear exchange. Then there are a few countries that, though allied with the U.S., don’t allow it to keep nuclear weapons or anything capable of delivering them at its bases on their territory.
Instead of land-based weapons, the U.S. has nine of its 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines – each capable of carrying 20 Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles – deployed in the region and operating undetected under China’s nose. Its fleet of around 60 nuclear-capable B-2 and B-52 bombers, meanwhile, can reach East Asia from Guam, from Hawaii or, as the Pentagon is fond of demonstrating to Pyongyang, from as far away as Missouri. (New classes of bombers and long-range standoff cruise missiles are expected to come online in the next decade.) And it has more than 400 intercontinental ballistic missiles in hardened silos scattered around the continental U.S. Each of these platforms would have a better chance of surviving an enemy strike than any ground-based missile system the U.S. could conceivably position within intermediate range of China or North Korea. Together, they are more than enough to ensure second-strike capability. So from the standpoint of nuclear deterrence, very little will change in East Asia if the U.S. shakes off the constraints of the INF Treaty: It already has ample options in place.
New Conventional Options, Old Constraints
The issue comes down to what ground-launched missiles could offer the U.S. in the Pacific that their air- and sea-launched counterparts don’t already provide. Theoretically, at least, ground-launched missiles can be deployed in greater numbers and can be kept on permanent alert so that they can respond instantly when called upon. Naval and air assets, by contrast, might be deployed out of range or bogged down in combat when the need to launch an attack arises. In addition, ground-launched ballistic missiles are not subject to the same weight limits as submarine-launched ballistic missiles, meaning they can carry heavier payloads, they have larger magazines, and they can be reloaded more quickly. They’re also probably a more cost-effective option than naval or air assets, since land-based missile silos and mobile launchers are considerably cheaper than warplanes and warships. (The counterargument: Warplanes and warships are good for much more than just launching missile attacks.)
Then, too, there are the constraints that the INF Treaty puts on U.S. conventional capabilities. Despite its name, the INF covers missiles armed with nuclear and conventional payloads alike, for the simple reason that most cruise and ballistic missiles with that range can carry either. Russia, in fact, claims that even the U.S. deployments of Aegis Ashore missile defense systems in Poland and Romania violate the treaty, since they could easily be modified to launch cruise missiles fitted with nuclear warheads. Getting out of the pact could enable the U.S. to boost its conventional capabilities in the Western Pacific. The INF also proscribes the deployment of certain battlefield weapons systems that the U.S. Army – not the Navy or Air Force – would like to be able to deploy, such as rocket-boosted artillery shells or a longer-range version of the Army Tactical Missile System.
These potential gains notwithstanding, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Congress last year that complying with the INF didn’t prevent the U.S. from satisfying any “military requirements.” Yet given the uncertainties of combat, Washington can’t afford to discount operational flexibility. Chinese naval and air defense capabilities are rapidly improving, making it more and more difficult for the U.S. Air Force and Navy to operate freely in the region. In a conflict with the U.S., China would have a considerable home field advantage, with an abundance of bases and arsenals nearby that would help offset its technological disadvantages. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which the U.S. at least temporarily loses air superiority or sea control. Land-based deployments, particularly of anti-ship missiles, would hedge against worst-case scenarios – while also driving China to stretch its forces thin by presenting it with a greater number of potential threats.
Back to Reality
Nevertheless, the reality is that the U.S. cannot yet deploy what it wants, wherever it wants. Any deployment would be a trade-off. For example, developing intermediate-range ground-launched missiles – which the U.S. currently lacks because of the INF – would be easy enough, but it would mean less money for something else. And it’s not clear that the marginal benefit ground-launched systems could provide over air- and sea-launched weapons would be enough to justify the time and money it would take to develop them. The U.S. would also need to consider whether ground-based deployments would needlessly aggravate regional tensions and accelerate Chinese and North Korean buildups. It may be easier to just stick with what’s already working.
By far the biggest issue, though, would be where to put ground-launched missiles. Located nearly 2,000 miles from the region’s potential conflict zones, Guam is too remote for some of the systems the U.S. would want, not to mention the problems its small size would pose to their survivability. If the U.S. base in Guam were to fire off a bunch of ground-based conventional missiles indistinguishable from nuclear-armed missiles, the strategic island may well cease to exist. Japan, South Korea or the Philippines would make more useful locations, but none allows the U.S. to deploy ground-launched intermediate-range systems there, mainly for political reasons. That these countries host U.S. troops on their soil is already a delicate matter; even staunch allies like Japan try to keep the U.S. footprint on its territory as small as possible to avoid domestic backlash that could jeopardize the partnership. For a ground-launched missile deployment to make sense, the U.S. would need silos dispersed throughout its regional allies’ territory and mobile launchers that could move freely outside bases. Not only would such an arrangement put substantially larger civilian populations in the cross-fire should a conflict break out, but it would also meet with fierce opposition in the host states.
Politics, of course, are fluid. If tensions with China or North Korea escalate enough, local attitudes may very well change. But the U.S. can’t afford to build a strategy around something so fickle as public opinion, much less invest in expensive systems with nowhere to put them. The more likely outcome is that the U.S. would simply encourage its allies – particularly South Korea and Japan – to build their own intermediate-range missiles. South Korea already has a robust arsenal, and the U.S. recently lifted the range and payload limits on South Korean missiles that it put in place back when it was worried Seoul might start another war with Pyongyang. Japan is moving in that direction too, albeit slowly. Given that the U.S. wants its allies to shoulder more of the regional security burden, these countries’ military assets may matter more for countering threats in Asia-Pacific than anything related to the INF.