Missiles for Asia?

The Need for Operational Analysis of U.S. Theater Ballistic Missiles in the Pacific

by Jacob L. Heim

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Research Synopsis

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Research Questions

  1. What is the status of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the U.S. response to current challenges to it?
  2. In the context of the East Asian military balance, what are the benefits and risks of adding conventional land-based theater ballistic missiles to the U.S. portfolio of strike capabilities?

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which the Soviet Union and the United States signed in 1987, prohibits conventional and nuclear-armed land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km. The U.S. Department of State concluded in 2014 that Russia is in violation of its treaty obligations, raising doubts about the treaty's durability and how the United States should respond. At the moment, U.S. policy remains committed to the treaty and seeks to encourage Russia to return to compliance by eliminating prohibited systems, but attempts to revive the treaty could take several years and might not succeed. While arguing that it is too soon for the United States to withdraw from the treaty, the author suggests that, in the meantime, the U.S. Army should start a rigorous assessment of the potential military value of conventional land-based theater ballistic missiles (TBMs). No rigorous analysis thus far has measured how land-based TBMs could contribute to solving key operational challenges in relevant scenarios. This report focuses on potential operations in East Asia, showing that TBMs offer both benefits and risks. If a strong, evidence-based case can be made for the military value of TBMs, a strategic assessment could weigh whether the military benefits plausibly exceed the risks to structural stability, crisis management, regional access, and proliferation. By beginning to analyze these questions now, the Army will be prepared to offer well-considered options if current U.S. policy fails to revive the INF Treaty.

Key Findings

The Durability of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is in Doubt

  • The U.S. Department of State has concluded that Russia is in violation of its obligations under the treaty.
  • The United States remains committed to the treaty and seeks to encourage Russia to return to compliance by eliminating prohibited systems. The prospects are unclear; attempts to revive the treaty could take several years.
  • It is too soon for the U.S. to decide to withdraw from the treaty, but it is still worth examining the benefits and risks of adding conventional land-based theater ballistic missiles (TBMs) to the U.S. force structure.

China's Rapid Military Modernization Could Threaten U.S. Forces

  • Land-based, conventionally armed precision ballistic and cruise missile systems have been a focus area for modernization.
  • Chinese TBMs could play a key enabling role in counterintervention campaigns.

TBMs Offer Some Potential Benefits

  • TBMs might provide negotiating leverage in new arms-control negotiations.
  • TBMs can be survivable, can strike quickly, and can penetrate many defenses.
  • Development risks are likely lower for TBMs than for other candidate technologies.

But the Benefits Must Be Weighed Against the Potential Risks

  • Land-based TBMs would require regional access agreements, which may be difficult to obtain.
  • TBMs are more expensive than some alternatives, such as cruise missiles, and could be slow to deploy into rapidly evolving crises.
  • The characteristics of TBMs make it difficult to reassure adversaries that they will not be used in surprise attacks on leadership or other sensitive targets, potentially undermining structural stability and crisis management.

Recommendations

  • The U.S. Army can start a rigorous operational analysis of the potential military value that conventional land-based theater ballistic missiles (TBMs) could add to the U.S. portfolio of strike capabilities.
  • In particular, the U.S. Army should analyze the potential military value of TBMs in the Pacific and whether they might plausibly help the U.S. offset China's military modernization.

Research conducted by

This work was sponsored by the Office of the Under Secretary of the Army and was conducted within the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program, a part of the RAND Arroyo Center.

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