Whether The U.S. Scraps The INF Or Stays In, China Must Be Checked

Whether The U.S. Scraps The INF Or Stays In, China Must Be Checked

EDITOR’S PICK902 viewsNov 5, 2018, 04:09pm

Dave Deptula Contributor

Aerospace & Defense I write on defense, strategy, the profession of arms, and aerospace.

Dave Deptula

Dave Deptula Contributor

Aerospace & Defense I write on defense, strategy, the profession of arms, and aerospace.

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Chinese DF21D U.S. Aircraft Carrier Killer(Andy Wong REUTERS)

President Trump recently made it clear that he intends to withdraw the U.S. from the 1987 intermediate range nuclear forces (INF) treaty. Beyond the merits of being in or out of the treaty, the U.S. must address the treaty’s unintended consequences that resulted in China’s conventionally-armed missile advantage in the Pacific. While the U.S. was constrained from building short and intermediate range conventional missiles under the bilateral INF treaty with the Russians, the Chinese were not and expanded their military reach and capacity with these systems. The removal of the constraints of the INF treaty would allow for either the cost-effective U.S. deployment of a relatively inexpensive class of medium range conventional missiles to counter the Chinese missile build-up, or provide the incentive for Russia and China to realize the benefits of a new arms control treaty.

The Russians have been violating the INF arms control treaty since at least 2008. This 1987 bilateral agreement between the US and the Soviet Union (and after the dissolution of the Soviet bloc, the Russian Federation) rid Europe of a serious nuclear threat. The agreement was one of President Reagan’s most important accomplishments. It eliminated an entire class of nearly 2000 Soviet nuclear armed SS-20 missiles.

Given long-standing Russian violations of the INF treaty and Moscow’s rejection of any remedial action, the United States recently announced its intention to withdraw from the 1987 treaty. The NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, stated that NATO allies agree with the United States that Russian violations put the treaty at risk.

Much has already been written about the pros and cons of the U.S. stated intention to withdraw from the treaty. Outside the binary “stay” or “go” options is to realize that treaties are initiated, negotiated, and formed based on the technologies, politics, and geostrategic conditions that exist at the time a treaty is negotiated and then signed. Clearly those conditions today are very much different than existed in the mid-1980s. The 1987 INF treaty simply no longer applies to the geostrategic conditions that exist today. However, there now may be an opportunity to evolve the 1987 INF treaty into a 2018 variant that could provide mutually beneficial results for the new signatories—a version that would include China.

In this regard it is important to recognize that the 1987 INF treaty prohibited the U.S. and the Soviet Union from deploying all ground-based nuclear and conventional missiles ranging from 500 to 5500 kilometers as well as their launchers. Inclusion of the term “nuclear” in the treaty description has masked the fact that non-nuclear missiles in these ranges were also restricted.

China was not a signatory to the INF treaty and as a result they built and fielded thousands of sophisticated land-based intermediate range non-nuclear missiles that gives them great military strategic advantage in the Pacific. In essence, the INF treaty resulted in the U.S. ceding the non-nuclear and nuclear intermediate range missile advantage to China.

The elimination of the 1987 INF treaty constraints vis-à-vis China may give the U.S. and her allies in the Pacific the opportunity to greatly complicate the Chinese military calculus by fielding a new U.S. force of land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with conventional warheads. Doing so would greatly increase the uncertainty for the Chinese in judging the outcome of any planned military competition. At the same time, the ability to field new conventional missile capabilities could also provide the occasion, as during the Reagan era, to create a dynamic that leads to substantive negotiations with the Chinese with the desired result of reducing their inventory of conventional missiles in exchange for halting any deployment of new U.S. conventional land-based missiles.

Some media reports reflect concern that the potential deployment of American ground-based conventional missiles in the Pacific region will somehow “raise tensions” with China. The reality is that the Chinese have already “raised tensions” throughout the Western Pacific with the deployment of the DF-21D  ostensibly capable of striking U.S. aircraft carriers and the DF-26 reaching as far as Guam. Recently retired Admiral Harry Harris, former commander of Pacific Command, and America’s new ambassador to the Republic of Korea commented on this topic earlier this year: “We have no ground-based [missile] capability that can threaten China because of, among other things, our rigid adherence to the [INF] treaty.”

In testimony submitted to Congress last year, Harris observed that the Chinese Rocket Forces had more than 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles, most of which would violate the INF treaty if China was a signatory. He went on to state, “Over the past two decades, China has developed numerous ground and air launched missile systems that far outrange U.S. systems. They have done this at a fraction of the cost of some of our more expensive systems. Constrained in part by our adherence to the INF treaty, the U.S. has fallen behind in our ability to match the long-range fires capabilities of the new era.”

The United States deployment of our own land-based conventional missiles in the Pacific would give us significant leverage to check Chinese hegemonic efforts in the region, not the least of which is the militarization by China of the South China Sea, where China has built an artificial island chain that the international court has ruled is in international waters and a violation of international law.

Furthermore, the Chinese have built airfields on the islands as well as military facilities and installations all capable of employing military aircraft. Add to this multi-billion-dollar effort the Chinese development of multiple road and port facilities throughout the Western Pacific and South Asia (their “One Belt—One Road” initiative), and it becomes clear that China is pursuing a major military presence in the region.

The removal of the constraints of the INF treaty could better position the United States and its allies to put military and diplomatic pressure on the Chinese to reduce their increasingly aggressive posture in the Pacific. Without the INF restrictions, the U.S. could achieve the following through the deployment of a cost effective, medium range conventional missile force:

  1. Negate the one-sided conventional missile advantage currently held by the Chinese;
  2. Hold at risk the Chinese Navy throughout the region in the same manner the Chinese have achieved against our Navy;
  3. Reverse the waning in Asian-Allied confidence in the U.S. extended deterrent, countering, in part, the Chinese investment in its nuclear, space and cyber-attack capabilities;
  4. Provide a new deterrent of North Korea absent an agreement to eliminate its nuclear arsenal;
  5. Provide the medium and intermediate range conventional missiles with which the United States could deploy land and sea based anti-satellite missile systems;
  6. Provide an air launched ballistic missile capability to enhance deterrence of Chinese military adventurism;
  7. Offer conventional intermediate range offensive missile capability to our allies in the region supplementing the U.S. deterrent;
  8. Provide rapidly deployable cruise and ballistic missile system options to augment U.S. basing in the region;
  9. Couple U.S. passive regional missile defense capabilities with an offensive capacity;
  10. Cause China to spend more on missile defense than previously anticipated altering their budget priorities and therefore slowing other military programs, or adding to their defense spending;
  11. Provide a tangible incentive—as President Reagan did with the deployment of the Pershing IIs and BGM-109 ground launched cruise missiles (GLCMs)—so that faced with U.S. deployment of modernized versions of these capabilities, Russia and China may realize the benefits of genuine arms control.

As National Security adviser John Bolton quipped recently, it is perfectly understandable that the Chinese want the United States to stay within the framework of the INF treaty: “If I were Chinese, I would say the same thing. Why not have the Americans bound, and the Chinese not bound?” Indeed—from the U.S. perspective the status quo is untenable.

Whatever course is taken by the Trump administration and Congress with respect to the 1987 INF treaty—whether in, out, revised, or replaced—the U.S. must resolve our self-imposed constraints on ground-based conventional missile deployment. A new strategy is needed to counter China’s significant offensive conventional missile capacity to strike U.S. and allied warships and bases throughout the Pacific. 

I currently am the Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and also a Senior Military Scholar at the Air Force Academy. I was the principal attack planner for the 1991 Operation Desert Storm air campaign; commander of no-fly-zone operations over Iraq in the late…

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