Cover: Facing the Missile Challenge

Facing the Missile Challenge

U.S. Strategy and the Future of the INF Treaty

Published Sep 27, 2012

by David W. Kearn, Jr.


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Research Questions

  1. What are the potential military contributions of a new generation of conventional land-based intermediate-range ballistic missiles to effective U.S. responses to critical regional missile threats in light of existing and future alternative programs?
  2. What are the political and military implications of a United States withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty?
  3. What are potential ways forward for the United States on how to proceed in both diplomatic and political-military terms to best address the missile proliferation threat?

The Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), signed in 1987, eliminated nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers from the United States and Soviet arsenals. The treaty was a diplomatic watershed, signaling the beginning of the end of the Cold War, and has served as a basis for security and stability of Europe. However, the security environment has changed dramatically in the past twenty years. To develop and deploy a new generation of land-based intermediate-range ballistic missiles, the United States would have to withdraw from the Treaty. Such an action would have significant political and military implications. The study attempts to explore and illuminate some potential responses of critical international actors, such as Russia, China, and America's NATO and East Asian allies, to fully understand the expected costs that may be incurred over time. The study concludes with a consideration of potential ways forward for the United States to provide policymakers with guidance on how to proceed in both diplomatic and political-military terms to best address the missile-proliferation threat.

Key Findings

It appears to make little sense for the United States to withdraw from the INF Treaty.

  • Despite the existence of other regional threats, only the challenge of China's expansive missile forces would seem to warrant the consideration of an "in-kind" response by the United States.
  • Given the potentially stringent requirements and significant costs of a new conventional IRBM program, alternative existing and future programs may prove more operationally flexible and cost-effective.
  • Two states that have had previously questionable records in the proliferation arena — Russia and China — may have fewer concerns about maintaining robust export controls on missile technologies, and engage in further proliferation.
  • The perpetuation of the INF Treaty reinforces global trends that have limited the number of states with intermediate-range missile capabilities.

U.S. withdrawal would likely also seriously undermine the Missile Technology Control Regime.

  • Such a move would mark a dramatic reversal of the more cooperative policies of the Obama administration and the progress toward "resetting" the U.S.-Russia relationship as exemplified by the New START treaty. It also is likely to be most controversial in Europe, where it has visibly contributed to stability and security.

The INF Treaty has clearly contributed to the security and stability of regions critical to U.S. national interests, most importantly Europe, and thus provides clear, if often taken-for-granted benefits for the United States.

  • At the same time, a U.S. decision to unilaterally withdraw from the INF Treaty or cooperatively dissolve the treaty with Russia, could be viewed as destabilizing and create real challenges for America's allies in the East Asia region.


  • The United States should work closely with Russia to expand the Treaty to other regional powers, most notably China. A discussion of U.S. missile defenses, particularly in regional security contexts, would likely need to be a component of (or the central discussion topic of concurrent to) any negotiations on the expansion of the INF Treaty. Moreover, given Russia's concerns about U.S. and NATO ballistic missile defense in Central Europe, it would seem that some understanding between the two on BMD would be necessary to obtain Russian cooperation in approaching China.
  • The threat created by the expansion of Chinese missile forces can be addressed with other military and diplomatic measures in both the shorter and longer terms. Investments in maintaining or, if necessary, expanding stocks of air- and sea-launched cruise missiles, which can be delivered by existing platforms, will enhance any perceived gap in U.S. capabilities in the shorter terms. In the medium term, revisiting concepts such as the Navy's "Arsenal Ship" may be a relatively cost-effective means to significantly enhance the offensive capabilities available to combatant commanders in the Western Pacific.
  • In the longer term, investments in a next-generation family of bombers, both penetrating and standoff, will provide a formidable and versatile capability for enhancing the U.S. deterrent during crisis or executing missions, should deterrence fail. Similarly, new air- and sea-launched cruise missile systems and precision guided munitions that maximize the capabilities of these platforms against advanced air and missile defenses would be prudent areas to focus investment.

The research described in this report was supported by the Stanton Foundation.

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