Missile Diplomacy: Options for INF Compliance

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Amy Woolf, a Congressional Research Service specialist, Paul Schwartz, a CSIS Senior Associate, and Stephen Pifer, Director of Brookings Institution’s Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative, discussed Russia’s alleged violation of the INF and its implications.

In July 2014, the US State Department released a report determining that Russia was in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. While pundits on both sides are calling the US’s continued observance of the INF into question, it remains strategically imperative for the US to maintain compliance even if it does so unilaterally; the alternative entails further straining the US defense budget and accepting international blame.


What is the INF?

The Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) was an agreement signed in 1987 between President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev that prohibited the development, testing, and deployment of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as their respective launch vehicles, with an intended striking range between 500 and 5500 kilometers. This ban, however, was not extended to sea- and air-launched missiles, and any such missiles are permitted to be test-launched from a ground location so long as the launch vehicle is distinguishable from an operational ground-based launcher. Similarly, rockets not designed or tested as a ‘weapons-delivery platform,’ such as scientific projects, and missile defense interceptors are exempted.

Article VII of the treaty serves to define whether a missile’s range falls within the boundaries. Under the treaty, a missile is banned only if its maximum striking range falls between 500 and 5500km. A missile capable of striking a target beyond the 5500km limit, even if it is capable of striking at distances less than 5500km, is classified as a strategic ballistic missile and counted under the New Strategic Offensive Arms Control Treaty (New START).

The implementation of the treaty was, in 1988, enormously beneficial for both the West and the Soviet Union. The destruction of over 2,000 missiles from both sides represented one of the greatest diplomatic gains of the decade and considerably softened relations; today, however, military innovation, such as the development of equivocal missiles launched from sea and air platforms, has mitigated the treaty’s effects on US capabilities while Russia’s relative lack of innovation has left it vulnerable. Furthermore, geographic circumstances significantly alter the equation – America is protected from intermediate range missiles by the Atlantic and Pacific, while Russia has had to cope with the emergence of multiple nuclear nations that are unrestricted by the INF.


Accusations Against Russia

In July 2014, the US State Department released its “Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments” report, claiming that Russia has intentionally violated the INF by developing a ground-launched cruise missile with a maximum range between the identified bounds. Media outlets immediately speculated on the missile and its delivery system, saying it may be a revived SS-26 ISKANDER, dubbed the R-500, the new SS-27 Mod 2 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, or that the system in question may have been a sea-based missile that was tested from a ground site.

The Obama administration has thus far been quiet on details of the topic except to say that none of these theories are correct while implying that a missile of entirely new design is being developed in Russia. The reasoning behind this decision appears to be to protect the US’s source of information, as well as maintain the likelihood that it will be able to gather future information concerning covert weapons development programs in Russia. However, its unwillingness to produce any information or share its data with third party nations or the public has significantly weakened its diplomatic posture in the international community.


Russian Counter-Accusations

True to its strategy of hybrid warfare, the Kremlin quickly responded to the report by releasing a number of accusations intended to mire the debate in legal argumentation. Two such accusations, that the US ballistic missile interceptors violate the treaty and that drones can be legally interpreted as missile delivery systems, are quickly refuted by a close reading of the treaty. However, concerns about the US’s MK41 Vertical Missile Launch System could hold more ground.

A variant of the MK41, a sea-based cruise missile launcher, is currently planned to be deployed in Poland and Romania as a ground-based launcher. Given its ability to fire cruise missiles with maximum ranges less than 5500km, Russia has raised complaints over the legality of such a system. The US responded that the ground version of the launchers would have significant differences to ensure compliance with the treaty, however the question remains as to how substantial those differences are and how easily the launchers could be converted if the US were to withdraw from the agreement.


Prospects for US Abandonment of INF?

Currently, the US is expressing its commitment to bring Russia back into “full compliance” with the INF, however it is unclear what full compliance would entail. An agreement to ensure compliance would likely necessitate intrusive inspections of Russian missile development sites and the surrender of at least some of the intelligence the US is drawing its accusations from. Neither of these admissions is likely to come easily, if at all.

Given the host of military options available for ordinance delivery, and Russia’s lack of comparable development in those arenas, the West is strongly in favor of preserving the treaty. A host of economic and military options are being discussed to “encourage” Russia to return to compliance, including Section 1671 of the current draft of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act ordering the US Secretary of Defense to develop plans for creating counterforce (attacking before enemy missiles are able to be launched), countervailing strike (developing a new capability to offset Russia’s violation), and active defense (missile interception) capabilities regardless of their compliance with the INF.

Saber-rattling aside, many political voices on both sides caution against withdrawal from the treaty. Pundits in Washington argue that developing a new missile, most likely a Pershing-3, would be extremely expensive and likely incompatible with current defense budget caps. It would also harden Russia’s stance, encouraging the Kremlin to switch from developing a system to actually employing it in large numbers. A countervailing strike is even more provocative, given that the development of a new system could provoke another arms race in Europe. Active missile defense represents a far more feasible and versatile response, given that much of the technology already exists and the interceptors can be employed against a range of offensive systems.


Moving Forward

Historically, the majority of arms treaties are resolved and all involved parties return to full compliance. That said, Russia has previously been far more likely to negotiate or comply with regulations when it maintains a position of parity with the US; it currently does not, however direct military intervention remains an extremely unlikely scenario. Thus, the US is limited to several diplomatic options that will likely be synergized with military innovation.

Developing active defense capabilities guarantees a positive outcome for the Obama administration – missile interceptors would pose a threat to Russia’s offensive capabilities (both in compliance with and in violation of the INF) while ensuring the US would remain within the boundaries of the treaty.

The development of a new intermediate range missile is a likely contingency, though implementation of such a system faces a number of hurdles. Besides allocating funding from an already-strained defense budget, a new missile would take years to develop. Furthermore, the range of such a missile implies it would need to be forward-deployed in Eastern Europe, as well as Asia; hosting modern American missile defense is already a diplomatic soft spot. Convincing allies to host an offensive missile and return to 1980s-style missile warfare would be near impossible.

Ultimately, it would benefit the US to remain in compliance with the INF even if it does so unilaterally. Russia is not likely to admit to secretly developing a new missile system that violates an international treaty, meaning that the onus falls solely on the US to withdraw from the agreement. So long as the dispute remains a diplomatic issue, the US’s ability to direct blame towards the Kremlin will be paramount.

The US also maintains the option to garner international support for its claims by releasing data to third party nations. Such a move could generate fierce blowback from currently uninvolved nuclear nations within range of the new system, such as China, India, and Pakistan, and create a multilateral problem for the Kremlin. Given the Obama administration’s previous unwillingness to share classified data, however, the likelihood of this option remains uncertain.


Leksika would like to thank the Center for Strategic and International Studies for hosting the panel discussion from which this analysis is derived.

Leksika would also like to thank Cameron Swathwood, whose insight contributed to the development of this analysis.


Photo courtesy of NATO