Is US Withdrawal from INF Treaty the End of Arms Control? Does It Matter?

The US Air Force and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) prepare a flight test of the B61-12 guided nuclear bomb at the Nevada Test and Training Range. (Screengrab of U.S. Air Force Video by SSgt. Cody Griffith)
The US Air Force and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) prepare a flight test of the B61-12 guided nuclear bomb at the Nevada Test and Training Range. (Screengrab of U.S. Air Force Video by SSgt. Cody Griffith)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

"Make no mistake: The current situation, with Russia in blatant violation of this treaty, is untenable. Russia must return to compliance with the INF Treaty or the U.S. will need to match its capabilities to protect U.S. and NATO interests." -- U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Oct. 4, 2018

On Oct. 20, the Trump administration announced that it intended to withdraw from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Coupled with President Donald Trump's criticism of the New START Treaty, the most recent arms limitations agreement between Russia and the U.S., it's possible that over the next several years the United States will withdraw or allow to expire all of the main nuclear arms control limitations agreements it had previously negotiated with the Soviet Union and Russia.

Are the U.S. and Russia on the verge of a new nuclear arms race? What are the violations of the INF Treaty and what are the strategic consequences of dismantling the nuclear arms limitations agreements between Russia and the United States?

Structure of U.S.-Soviet-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Agreements

Between 1950 and 2010, the United States signed several dozen arms limitation agreements with the Soviet Union and then with Russia, although not all these agreements were subsequently ratified. These agreements ranged from banning the manufacture and use of biological and chemical weapons (Biological Weapons Convention, Chemical Weapons Convention) to limitations on the placement of nuclear weapons on the moon or on the seafloor (Outer Space Treaty, Seabed Arms Control Treaty).

The most important arms control agreements, however, dealt with the control of the nuclear weapons arsenals of the U.S. and the USSR/Russia. These agreements consisted of 8 key treaties: SALT I & II, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), START I & START II, SORT and the New START Treaty. Some of the latter treaties superseded earlier agreements.

The three key agreements, which largely provided the framework for nuclear arms limitations between the U.S. and the USSR/Russia, were the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the New START (NS) Treaty and its predecessors. The U.S. has already withdrawn from one treaty, announced its withdrawal from a second and expressed its displeasure with the third.

The ABM Treaty was an outgrowth of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks held between 1969 and 1979. Signed in 1972, at the Moscow Summit between U.S. President Richard Nixon and the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev, the agreement limited the deployment of ABM systems to just two ABM complexes -- one around the capital and one to safeguard an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) site. Each complex was limited to a maximum of 100 anti-ballistic missiles.

An additional protocol, in 1974, reduced the number of permissible sites to one each. The U.S. deployed an ABM system around the North Dakota Safeguard Complex, and the Soviet Union did the same around Moscow.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly called Star Wars, ratcheted up spending on anti-missile defense. This initiative was not a violation of the agreement. The ABM Treaty limited the deployment of ABM systems, it did not prohibit research on anti-missile defense.

It was the George W. Bush administration that withdrew the U.S. from the ABM Treaty. On December 31, 2001, pursuant to the six-month notice provision required to terminate the agreement, the Bush administration gave Russia notice of its intent to withdraw.

This was the first instance when the U.S. had withdrawn from a nuclear arms limitation agreement with either Russia or the USSR. At the time, the Bush administration justified its decision on the need to build a national missile defense system to protect the U.S. from a nuclear attack or nuclear blackmail from a rogue state.

The INF Treaty was signed in 1987, by Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. The agreement eliminated all nuclear and conventional missiles with ranges of 310 to 620 miles (short range) and ranges of 620 to 3,420 miles (intermediate range), as well as their launchers. The agreement did not cover sea-launched or air-launched missiles. A total of 2,692 missiles were subsequently decommissioned. The agreement also specified 10 years of on-site verification inspections.

On Oct. 20, 2018, Trump announced that the U.S. was withdrawing from the INF treaty due to repeated Russian violations of the agreement. Political opponents of the Trump administration have argued that the president cannot withdraw the U.S. from a Senate-approved treaty without congressional authorization. It is likely that a legal challenge will be forthcoming.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on whether the president has the constitutional authority to withdraw from a treaty without congressional approval.

The legal authority for the Bush administration's decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty was challenged by a bipartisan group of senators and congressman in federal district court. The lower court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, that the president did not have the authority to abrogate a treaty without congressional approval.

The decision was reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, when it held that the president has broad constitutional authority with respect to foreign affairs. The Supreme Court vacated the lower court's decision and remanded the case back to the appellate court with instructions to dismiss the case, but left the central issue unresolved.

The New START Treaty, signed between the U.S. and Russia in April 2010, is the latest agreement in a series of treaties designed to first limit and later reduce the nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and the USSR/Russia. These treaties included the SALT I, SALT II, START I, START II and the SORT treaties.

SALT I was ratified in 1972. SALT II was never ratified because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but both sides adhered to its provisions nonetheless. START I was signed in 1991, entered into in 1994, and continued until its expiration in 2009. START II was signed in 1993, was ratified in 1996, by the U.S. and by Russia in 2000. Russia withdrew in 2002. SORT was signed in 2002, entered into force in 2003, and expired in 2012. The New START Treaty was signed by the U.S. and Russia in April 2010, and went into force in February 2011. The agreement is set to expire in 2021, unless it is extended by both parties for an additional five years.

The New START agreement reduced the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers by 50 percent. It also limited the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550. This is down by almost 66 percent from the allowed number of nuclear warheads in the original START I agreement signed in 1991.

The agreement limits the number of deployed missiles and bombers to 700, and further limits deployed and non-deployed launchers, i.e. ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and heavy bombers equipped to carry nuclear weapons, to 800. The treaty also allows for satellite and remote monitoring, and up to 18 on-site yearly inspections to verify limits. The treaty does not cover the use of tactical or so-called battlefield nuclear weapons or their delivery systems.

As of February 2018, Russia has 527 ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers deployed, carrying a total of 1,444 warheads. The U.S. had 652 deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers carrying 1,350 nuclear warheads. From a practical standpoint, the actual number of nuclear warheads exceeds the stated 1,550 limits since bombers are counted as the equivalent of one missile, even though they can carry multiple nuclear weapons.

According to the Federation of American Scientists, Russia possesses 4,350 nuclear warheads, while the United States has 3,800. The reduction in the nuclear arsenal of the U.S. and Russia is remarkable when you consider that as recently as 1985, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had more than 60,000 warheads between them. Still, all it takes is a dozen well-placed warheads to wreak incomprehensible destruction to either country.

The Putin government has raised the issue of extending the START Treaty beyond its current expiration date of 2021. It was one of the first items raised by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his first 60-minute phone call with Trump on Feb. 8, 2017.

According to news reports, Trump denounced the New START Treaty, calling it "a bad deal for the United States," and claimed that it was "one of several bad deals negotiated by the Obama administration" and that the agreement favored Russia.

Alleged Violations of the INF Treaty

Both the U.S. and Russia have accused each other of violating the terms of the INF Treaty. These accusations are not new, going back more than a decade.

The U.S. first raised the issue of treaty violations in 2008. In 2014, the U.S. formally accused Russia of breaching the INF Treaty by conducting flight tests of a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) whose range exceeded 300 miles. The INF Treaty does not ban research and development, but prohibits flight testing.

Russia denied the charges and threatened to withdraw from the INF Treaty. Russian threats of withdrawal from the treaty are nothing new. Putin had declared, as far back as 2007, that the INF Treaty "no longer served Russian interests"; a claim echoed by the then-Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky.

Eventually, the U.S. identified a GLCM, designated the SSC-8, as a violation of the INF treaty. The Kremlin has confirmed the existence of a new missile system it has designated the 9M729, but denied that the new missile is in violation of the INF Treaty. It's possible that the SSC-8 may be a ground-based version of the Kalibr sea-launched cruise missile.

Starting in 2014, these charges were also flagged in the State Department's yearly report on Russia's Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments (Compliance Report).

In 2016, the Obama administration called for a meeting of the Special Verification Commission, which had been established pursuant to the INF Treaty, to address the issue of Russian compliance with the agreement. Two separate meetings of the SVC failed to resolve the issue.

The Trump administration has charged that, in 2017, the Kremlin deployed two fully operational battalions of nuclear-armed SSC-8s. One battalion was located at the Russian missile test site at Kapustin Yar near the southern Russian city of Volgograd. The location of the second battalion is unconfirmed, although there have been reports that it might be deployed in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. If confirmed, that would bring Western Europe in range of the missiles.

Moscow had previously confirmed that there are nuclear-capable Iskander missile batteries in Kaliningrad, but has refused to confirm their payloads. The range of the Iskander cruise missiles is under 300 miles, compliant with the INF Treaty. That range is sufficient to cover most of the eastern Baltic and northeast central Europe as far as Berlin. Russia has denied that the SSC-8 cruise missile is deployed there.

Each SSC-8 missile battalion is believed to consist of four mobile launchers, each of which would have six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. The challenge posed by the SSC-8 is that its mobile launchers are difficult to distinguish from those used by the Iskander, except by on-site visual inspection.

In addition, the U.S. has charged that Russian tests of the RS-26 ICBM at ranges below 3,300 miles are also a violation of the INF Treaty. It's unclear whether the shorter flight trajectory of the RS-26 was the result of different missile payloads, heavier payloads from the addition of systems designed to evade anti-ballistic missile defenses or simply the result of being flown on a flatter, depressed trajectory or a higher lofted trajectory.

It does raise the possibility, however, that Russia could field a force on intermediate-range ballistic missiles prohibited under the INF Treaty in the guise of ICBMs, although the deployment of such missiles would still come under the limit of delivery vehicles mandated by the New START Agreement.

In March 2018, Putin, in his annual state of the nation address, announced that Russia had developed and is now ready to deploy six new weapons systems. These consist of a cruise missile with a nuclear engine, since named Burevestnik; the RS-28 Sarmat Intercontinental Ballistic Missile; a nuclear-tipped hypersonic boost-glide vehicle named Avangard, with a programmable flight path that would allow it to make unpredictable sharp maneuvers and which, according to Putin, would make it "absolutely invulnerable to any missile defense system"; a nuclear-armed unmanned undersea drone since named Poseidon, which has been described as a sort of nuclear torpedo; a dual-purpose nuclear and conventional air-launched hypersonic cruise missile called Kinzhal; and a short-range, directed-energy weapon described as a "laser cannon," intended for ballistic missile defense.

If true, these new super-weapons systems could dramatically alter the strategic balance between the U.S. and Russia, allowing Moscow to deploy nuclear-armed ICBMs capable of avoiding American anti-ballistic missiles, while at the same time providing Russia with an ABM capability that would make it invulnerable to a nuclear missile attack by the U.S. The Pentagon was quick to dismiss the Russian claims, announcing that there was nothing new in the weapons systems that Putin had unveiled, that their capabilities were grossly exaggerated and that U.S. defense planners were already aware of these systems.

It's unclear how these new weapons systems fit into the existing framework of nuclear arms agreements. Since some of these weapons systems can be used in a dual role, both tactical and strategic, they would presumably be a violation of the INF Treaty.

In turn, Moscow has contended that there are three U.S. military programs that violate the INF Treaty.

Russia has claimed that the use of target missiles capable of flying to intermediate range during anti-ballistic missile tests violates the INF Treaty. The U.S. has countered that the target missiles were never equipped with warheads and were meant for research and not as a new weapons delivery system, and that such uses are allowed under the INF Treaty for purposes of testing ABM defenses.

Russia has also claimed that unmanned aerial drones, equipped to carry precision-guided weapons to attack ground targets, are also violations of the INF Treaty. Such drones, according to the Kremlin, fit the definition of a cruise missile defined in the treaty since they are "unmanned, self-propelled vehicles that sustain fight through the use of aerodynamic lift over most of its flight path" and "is a weapons delivery vehicle."

The U.S. has countered that drones are not missiles but are "two-way, reusable systems" and that the INF Treaty "imposes no restrictions on the testing, production or deployment of reusable armed UAVs."

The MK-41 (Aegis Ashore) launchers for SM-3 missile interceptors that the U.S. has deployed in Romania and Poland could, Moscow claims, also be used to launch long-range cruise missiles, which are prohibited by the INF Treaty. The MK-41 is used to launch sea-based cruise missiles (SBCMs), such as the Tomahawk. There is no reason why a Tomahawk could not be launched from land.

It appears Moscow has a valid point here. On the other hand, the INF treaty only bans GLCMs of short- or intermediate-range, not all cruise missile of those ranges. Potentially, this is a loophole in the INF treaty.

According to the Trump administration, however, it's a moot point because the MK-41 missile batteries that are deployed in Poland and Romania are sufficiently different from the shipboard version that they could not be used to launch SBCMs like the Tomahawk. Moreover, the potential loophole notwithstanding, there is no evidence that the U.S. is deploying SBCMs on land in violation of the INF Treaty.

Strategic Consequence of US Withdrawal from the INF Treaty

Russia claims that the INF Treaty is unfair because it is surrounded by several countries that have intermediate-range nuclear weapons, while the U.S. has no such threats. These countries include Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea and China. In addition, Iran has intermediate-range missiles, although it does not have nuclear warheads. That's a valid point, although it's hard to imagine that any of these countries pose a military threat to Russia. Moreover, Russia's nuclear arsenal is substantially larger than any of its neighbors.

Russian objections do underscore a legitimate point, however. The U.S.-Soviet/Russian arms control agreements were negotiated at a time when almost all the nuclear weapons were possessed by the two Cold War rivals or countries allied with them. Nuclear proliferation over the last several decades means that there are many more countries capable of fielding short- and intermediate-range nuclear weapons.

These nuclear powers have largely focused on developing precisely the short- and intermediate-range tactical nuclear weapons that the INF agreement was designed to eliminate. According to the former head of U.S. Pacific Command, retired Adm. Harry Harris, "roughly 95 percent of China's nuclear arsenal would be rendered obsolete if China was a party to the INF Treaty."

That means that both Washington and Moscow must either try to include other countries with short- and intermediate-range nuclear weapons as part of their arms control agreements; consent to the proliferation of such weapons, while denying them to themselves; or simply abandon the prohibition on short- and intermediate-range nuclear weapons.

The likelihood that other countries would consent to limitations on short- and intermediate-range weapons is very low. The Chinese government has already made it clear that it would not be coerced into agreeing to any such ban. U.S.-Soviet/Russia arms limitations agreements were hard enough to negotiate; multilateral agreements will be a whole order of magnitude harder.

While the U.S. and Russia can continue to negotiate reductions in their nuclear arsenals, banning entire categories of weapons is going to be less likely if other countries will be able to deploy such weapons.

The immediate consequences of a U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty is that both sides will now be free to manufacture and deploy short- and intermediate-range nuclear weapons. Essentially, this is a return to the status quo of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the USSR was planning to deploy the SS-20 intermediate-range nuclear missile in Europe.

At that time, the U.S. responded with a dual track strategy, proposing the deployment of Pershing II ballistic missiles and adding new GLCMs, while at the same time pursuing nuclear arms limitations talks that eventually yielded the INF Treaty. A total of 108 Pershing II and 464 GLCMs were slated for deployment, each carrying a single nuclear warhead. This proposed deployment was highly controversial in Europe, prompting significant political unrest and public demonstrations against their presence.

A similar response, today, would be even more controversial and would create significant tensions within NATO. Given Europe's fractured political landscape, building a political consensus in support of such a policy will be difficult. It's likely that the newer members of NATO, the Baltic states and many of the former members of the Warsaw Pact, would prove receptive to stationing such weapons systems on their soil. In doing so, however, they would spur a comparable Russian deployment, one that would threaten NATO members further west and which would be highly controversial within the alliance.

The Trump administration may be using the threat of withdrawal from the INF Treaty to stoke Russian fears that the U.S. is prepared to launch a nuclear arms race -- a race that Moscow does not want and which it cannot finance. This would be a repeat of the Reagan strategy that many believe ultimately bankrupted the Soviet Union and led to its collapse.

Washington does share with Moscow the concern over the proliferation of short- and intermediate-range nuclear missiles. In Washington's case, this deals primarily with the deployment of such weapons systems by North Korea and China, since they threaten key U.S. allies in east Asia. It seems unlikely, however, that the U.S. would succeed in basing such weapons in the region. Such a deployment would be politically controversial in a host country. It would also bring a sharp reaction from Beijing and likely threats of economic retaliation against any country hosting such systems.

In early 2017, the Trump White House indicated it would consider a range of potential military, diplomatic and economic responses, including additional economic sanctions, in response to Russian violations of the INF Treaty. There was little interest in Europe in imposing additional economic sanctions against Russia, but European Union attitudes may change if the alternative is a complete U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty.

The Kremlin's unwillingness to be more transparent on its new weapon deployments raises legitimate fears about its commitment to the existing network of arms control agreements. In this environment, it is hard to imagine that the U.S. and Russia will be able to negotiate any additional arms control agreements or that any such agreements would get congressional approval.

There is one larger question. Do arms control agreements matter? As the noted geopolitical strategist George Friedman has noted, it is not nuclear arms agreements that prevent nuclear war, it is the horror of such a war that is the most effective deterrent.

Such agreements are important confidence-building measures. Still, do countries have confidence in one another because they have signed such agreements, or do they sign such agreements because they have confidence in one another? Like most "chicken and egg arguments," it's a little bit of both, one that can give rise to both positive and negative feedback loops.

Fear is a powerful and a dangerous emotion. Transparency as to motives and intent is the ideal antidote. In that regard, such agreements make it less likely that one side will stumble into a nuclear conflict due to a miscalculation or misunderstanding.

The challenge of nuclear arms control going forward is that while the management of the U.S.-Russian nuclear arsenals remains at the center of the arms control discussion, the conference table is getting increasingly crowded with participants that are not part of that dialogue but who can shape it by their actions.

While the U.S. and Russia can continue to reduce their nuclear arsenals, admittedly difficult in the current environment, the spread of nuclear weapons will continue unabated. So, while it's possible that the U.S. and Russia could rebuild the framework for nuclear arms limitations and reduce the aggregate number of nuclear warheads, ownership of what's left will be more diffuse and outside the control of either Washington or Moscow.

The Russian-American nuclear arms limitations agreements are important because they are at the center of arms control and nuclear proliferation and are a prerequisite for any broader multi-party agreement limiting nuclear weapons.

Russian behavior, with respect to the INF Treaty, is troublesome because it underscores what is increasingly seen in Washington as the Kremlin's provocative, combative and reckless policies.

Under such conditions, maintaining the existing structure of arms control agreements is especially important, but such an outcome is unlikely unless both sides are convinced of the other party's willingness to abide by those agreements. Barring that, U.S.-Russian relations will continue to deteriorate into an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable condition.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to for consideration.

Show Full Article