Full Spectrum FU: On Trump’s Withdrawal from the INF Treaty

12/8/1987 President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty in the East Room

Hitherto in the nuclear age humanity has relied upon a thin margin of survival provided by arms control, for arms control has tended to provide some measure of strategic stability and some reduction of nuclear dangers. For the most part arms control has functioned as a way of managing rivalry, but for a moment in the twilight of the Cold War for Mikhail Gorbachev and the global peace movement arms control was meant to be about so much more. For Gorbachev arms control was a means or a step toward a fundamental transformation of the global security agenda what he, along with others, referred to as “new thinking.” The idea follows one of the more well knowing sayings of Albert Einstein, namely that nuclear weapons have changed everything save for the way we think. The logical corollary being that should we wish to avoid untold damage to human kind we need to change the very way we think about politics, society and each other.

By now we have all come to know of President Trump’s announcement that he intends withdrawing the United States as a party to the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty or INF for short, which bans Moscow and Washington from testing and deploying land based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 km. It is highly likely that he will follow up on this making formal withdrawal a mere formality.

For Gorbachev the INF treaty was a crucial step toward a new world, and for this very reason it is seen by many devotees and analysts of arms control, such as yours truly, as their favourite example of the species. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell on Spinoza, that second half of the Einstein-Russell Manifesto, others might have surpassed the INF in significance but ethically the double-zero is supreme.

Many, rightly, in their reaction to Trump’s announcement have focused broadly on the impact that the INF withdrawal will have on the future of arms control, that is on our thin margin of survival. It would not do to just limit discussion to the INF Treaty itself. There is very little of arms control left, New Start which expires in 2021, but can be renewed, is just about it now. Without any arms control agreements, or even an agenda, to speak of no formal treaty constrains the nuclear forces of either Moscow and Washington. Furthermore, no arms control means that worst case analysis and thinking will dominate the strategic mindset of planners even more so than it does now. Trump is in no hurry to renew New Start, having rejected President Putin’s entreaty to discuss the topic at the Helsinki Summit, and that only because it’s appended with Barack Obama’s signature. Withdrawal from the INF hardly inspires confidence in the near-to-medium term future of arms control.

When the world is absent an arms control agenda humanity tickles the dragon’s tail.

The INF Violation Dispute Between Moscow and Washington

But before considering such broader matters, let us concentrate narrowly on the INF dispute itself. A good place to start is with the Krasnoyarsk radar controversy of the Cold War. It seems to me that the INF dispute bears a good deal of similarity to the Krasnoyarsk controversy.

The United States charged the Soviet Union with violating the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT) because the construction of the Krasnoyarsk radar was not based on the periphery of the Soviet Union and was not to face outward, as it was required to under the ABMT. The US alleged that Moscow was developing a radar to provide early warning of submarine launched ballistic missiles that was based inland and saw into Siberia. Then, like now, Moscow denied the allegation, made some spurious counter charges, and was dragging its feet in formal negotiations on the topic. Eventually, Moscow came clean and acknowledged that the Krasnoyarsk radar was to be an early warning radar and that it was contrary to the ABMT. But the US charge, especially coming from Hawkish quarters in the Reagan administration especially the Pentagon, claimed that the radar was a “material breach” of the ABMT because it violated its “spirit and intent.” For yet others, Krasnoyarsk might have been a breach of the ABMT but it was not a material breach because the intent behind the radar was not to support a ballistic missile defence system. Those who argued that it was a material breach had an interest in elevating the violation to a material breach to justify withdrawing from the ABMT, which was an impediment to the further development of “Star Wars” or the Strategic Defense Initiative. Crucially for our purposes, that would have worked to the extent not that the charge of a material breach was made but that it was uncritically reported and widely accepted as such. The United States did not withdraw from the ABMT on account of the Krasnoyarsk radar and remained party to it throughout the controversy.

Krasnoyarsk was a violation of the ABMT but it was not a “blatant violation.” The distinction is critical when we think of the INF dispute today. The term “blatant violation,” by which is meant a material breach that violates the spirit and intent of the INF treaty, has been made, widely repeated, and widely accepted ever since the Obama administration publicly called Russia out on violating the treaty. Washington has alleged that Moscow has developed and deployed a land-based cruise missile, launched from an Iskander TEL, which has a “range capability” prohibited by the INF treaty.

The cruise missile in question is known as the 9M729 (Russian designation) or SSC-8 (US designation), which appears to be a land-based variant of the sea launched Kalibr cruise missile. Adding to the charge of the blatant nature of the violation Washington has alleged that Moscow has sought to obfuscate the INF prohibited nature of the 9M729 missile. Furthermore, the United States has stated that Russia has tested the 9M729 to ranges prohibited by the INF Treaty and thereupon deployed it.

A blatant violation, or material breach, if true. But there are aspects to all this that leads us to wonder and to be sceptical.

Firstly, recently the Trump administration has mischaracterised Russian satellite proximity operations as anti-satellite weapon related to justify its opposition to space arms control. The Trump administration has form here. Secondly, the whole INF dispute has been murky. We don’t really know what the violation entails. The United States apparently came to know of research and development for the 9M729 in 2008. Subsequently Washington suspected a violation and raised it with Moscow, but Russia responded much as it did with Krasnoyarsk (to which we return). In 2014 the United States formally charged Russia with violating the INF treaty, requested a special verification commission meeting as per the dispute settlement provisions of the treaty which went nowhere (recall Krasnoyarsk), and has since repeated the charge.

However, despite all this neither Obama nor Trump nor Putin released much by way of information. That has allowed others to fill in the breach, for nature abhors a vacuum. In official State Department documentation, the expression “range capability” has been used, which in itself is suggestive of something less than a material breach. Russia has a number of short range land deployed cruise missiles that come close to the INF limit and which are designed to be highly manoeuvrable to evade ballistic missile defences. Cruise missile do not fly on a ballistic trajectory. Without question the 9M729 was designed to be highly manoeuvrable, BMD is too much of a Moscow obsession to think otherwise.

Russia has a number of sea launched cruise missiles and its bevy of cruise missiles designed by the Novator design bureau, both land and sea deployed, appear to be of a single class. It is possible that the sea launched Kalibr, which has a range of 2,500km has export versions of lower range achieved simply by reducing the size of the fuel tank. The known INF compliant land versions of Novator design bureau missiles might have achieved INF compliant ranges through the same means, and so the Russians attempted to do the same with the 9M729 but the US considers the fuel loading to be consistent with a missile above 500km range, so the Russians may have inadvertently missed the mark. That would be contrary to the treaty, but not a blatant violation or a deliberate material breach more a technical violation. That possibility is a point that has been strongly made by Pavel Podvig from the beginning of the saga. A bit like the Krasnoyarsk radar controversy, perhaps even less so given that the Soviets would have known well beforehand that an inland-inward looking radar was technically contrary to the treaty.

Washington has stated that Russia had tested the 9M729 or SSC-8 to an INF prohibited range and has attempted to obfuscate this, which would be a blatant violation. However, no evidence has been presented of this. The Russians have claimed that they gave Washington a full disclosure of when the 9M729 was tested, where and to what ranges. The United States continues to insist that the 9M729 was tested to INF prohibited ranges twice at Kapustin Yar. Furthermore, the Russian foreign minister has stated that just prior to its announced intent to withdraw from the Treaty the US handed over to Russia a detailed questionnaire on implementing the INF Treaty, but Washington did not even wait for a response prior to withdrawing. According to Lavrov, Moscow had asked for evidence supporting the accusation, especially satellite images, but none has been forthcoming from Washington. Regarding the obfuscation, it could well be the case that what the US considers attempts to conceal the blatant nature of the violation were attempts to lower the range capability so that the missile would be INF compliant.

The most we know about the 9M729, therefore, is just that its name. As the iconoclastic physicist Richard Feynman stated there’s a big difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something. Knowing the name of the 9M729 tells us nothing about whether its development and deployment is contrary to the INF Treaty. To imperil the thin margin of survival on account of something we know very little about, which might amount to a technical though not material breach, but which is nonetheless widely seen, on little publicly available evidence, to be a blatant violation is surely irrational.

Russian actions are also highly irrational. There’s nothing about a new land based cruise missile that adds anything to Russia’s security. Moscow can strike targets deep in Europe with sea launched and air launched cruise missiles. By refusing to publicly air the details of US accusations and its own information on the 9M729 Moscow has enabled the blatant violation discourse to take hold, which set the scene for a possible withdrawal from the Treaty and its attendant effects on arms control more broadly. That also is highly irrational. The Russian military-industrial complex, the source of the trouble, has shown itself to have an outsized influence on society, which fosters a type of militaristic outlook, much akin to the Grechko period in the Soviet era that also adds little to Russia’s security and human development the relatively low level of which should be regarded as the primary threat to Russian society. That too is highly irrational.

It is interesting to observe how nuclear weapons are surrounded with an aura of rationality. From the science and engineering to the axioms of deterrence theory rationality permeates our understanding of the absolute weapon. Yet when we look at the history of the nuclear era we find many examples that should lead us to question our association of nuclear weapons with rationality. Too many times have we tickled the dragon’s tail and we are set on tickling it some more, perhaps even bucking up some fool’s courage on going for the belly, yet we do not even know why. Furthermore, both the media and liberal arms control analysts have enabled this irrationality. That’s because they have repeated the charge ad nauseum that Russia has blatantly violated the Treaty so much so that it has become an established fact no matter that the evidence supporting the contention is publicly non-existent. This despite one fraud after another; the bomber gap, the missile gap, the window of vulnerability, WMD in Iraq and so on. Should we survive the nuclear age this persistent pattern and the enabling role of the media and public intellectuals will surely be front and centre in its historiography. The problem with nuclear weapons is that the ideology of guardianship is strong and democratic oversight by the public is thin.

Intermediate Range Missiles in Asia?

One of the more interesting aspects of the Trump announcement of intent to withdraw from the INF Treaty was that he focused on China and Asia just as much as, if not more than, Europe. Trump and his acolytes have cited China’s intermediate range missiles, especially its intermediate range ballistic missiles, as well as North Korea’s intermediate and medium range missiles as hobbling the projection of power in Asia. Although it is true Trump stated that in withdrawing from the INF Treaty the US would not go on to develop intermediate range land based missiles of its own that declaration should be taken with a grain of salt. Firstly, the withdrawal is contrary to previously established Trump administration policy on Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty. Secondly, nobody should take Trump’s word seriously. Certainly, the Russians are not as Moscow has stated that Russia will respond by developing systems prohibited by the Treaty, and that relatively quickly. One thing they may do is lower the range of the RS-26 ballistic missile, currently classed as an ICBM. Should Moscow so respond it’s hard seeing Trump refraining from responding in kind. Thirdly, removing a treaty constraint enables the military-industrial complex to lobby for previously prohibited systems which is easier done in a Congress controlled by Republicans.

It could well be that the United States will develop an intermediate range ballistic missile for deployment in Asia. As has been pointed out by analysts, it will be hard for Washington to deploy INF prohibited missiles in bases on the territory of allied countries in both Europe and Asia. However, Washington might deploy intermediate range missiles in Guam. China has recently deployed the conventional, although it can be nuclear armed, DF-26 intermediate range missile, known as “the Guam killer,” in Henan Province. North Korea appears to target Guam with the Hwasong-12 intermediate range missile. The United States has stand-off weapons of its own such as air and sea launched cruise missiles, but it could well be the case that military planners will find a niche role for an intermediate range missile in Guam on account of its lower flight times. The US could deploy an intermediate range missile, nuclear or conventional, armed with a trajectory shaping warhead or vehicle (TSV). A TSV would not follow a fully ballistic trajectory, but it would be able to glide and manoeuvre for a certain distance upon reentry. A TSV can slow down the velocity of impact of an earth penetrating warhead making it less likely to disintegrate upon immediate impact with the ground. This would be useful for striking hard and deeply buried targets. Secondly, a TSV warhead combines short stand-off flight times with manoeuvre which means it can be retargeted in flight, which is makes it relatively advantageous for striking road mobile targets like the DF-26 and the Hwasong-12 IRBM (not to mention the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 ICBMs).

It’s possible to imagine a case being made for intermediate range missiles armed with TSV warheads as part of “prompt global strike” even though the US has stand-off weapons like the Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range. There’s a certain logic to this with respect to full spectrum dominance which is the idea that the US needs to reign supreme on every rung of the escalation ladder. No foreign weapon type can go like-for-like unmatched. This is not to say that this underlies the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty, but it is to suggest that such full spectrum dominance type of thinking can be exploited to develop an intermediate range ballistic missile armed with a TSV warhead. A TSV warhead is not as manoeuvrable nor as speedy as a hypersonic glide warhead, of the type Putin has much hyped, but it is more realistic than Putin’s weapons which might not see the length of day.

So, that begs the question; why did the US withdraw from the INF Treaty? Here I’d agree with the punk rock thesis. It’s mainly a Trumpian FU, and one consistent with the so-called Trump Doctrine which succinctly, but accurately, consists of little more than we’re America, bitch. That the withdrawal came in the midst of campaigning for the November mid-term elections lends credence to this view. As does the reputed driving force behind the withdrawal, Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton who long has argued for an America unconstrained by agreements and treaties especially arms control treaties. The Bolton connection demonstrates that this is nothing terribly new, indeed the echoes to first term George W Bush are loud and clear even though most refuse to listen to them. We rather view Trump as sui generis yet “we’re America, bitch” very much reminds one of Team Bush.

Take say the widely reported statement of Trump upon his announcement of the INF withdrawal that Washington will not allow any state to out compete the US; that it will spend big and build up its nuclear forces if need be so that all others will come to see sense. That was presented as a uniquely Trumpian policy. But it isn’t. That policy is George W Bush’s policy of “dissuasion.” As the controversial “Bush Doctrine” 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States put it

Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States

Another Bush era concept, tailored deterrence, underpins Trump’s nuclear posture review and forms the doctrine justifying, for example, the low yield Trident (W76-2) nuclear warhead. Even the Trumpian posture of irrationality isn’t anything new. The Clinton administration’s “Essentials of Post Cold War Deterrence” stated that the United States must appear “irrational and vindictive.” Leadership elements need appear “out of control” in a crisis that effects the vital interests of the United States.

Common Security

Which brings us back to Gorbachev’s “new thinking.” NATO is based on the curious idea that Washington is a part of Europe but somehow Moscow isn’t. A security order that see’s Russia as the great Oriental “other” either to be subdued or contained is not how peace and security can be indefinitely based in Europe. Mikhail Gorbachev’s vision for arms control, of which the double-zero of the INF Treaty was but a step, was to use it to support what he called “Europe, our common home.” The idea was to build a system of common security where Europeans draw security from each other rather against each other. A new, less militarised if not significantly demilitarised, Soviet Union through arms control, disarmament and cooperative security would be increasingly integrated into a common European security architecture. This was not just Gorbachev’s vision. It was the vision of the peace movements of Western Europe that responded to the acceleration of the arms race in the 1980s, which included the deployment of modernised intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe. Arms control was not just to be a means for managing rivalry. A similar vision also animated the demonstrators in the East in 1989. The Palme Commission Report on Disarmament and Security, highly influential among the peace movements, argued that in the nuclear era security can only be achieved in common. That was “new thinking.”

But that was all rejected by NATO in favour of its continued expansion both geographically to the East and in terms of mission formally opening the prospect of offensive military operations. New thinking was rejected not after the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. Right from the get-go the US deliberately deceived Gorbachev about its intentions. The objective was always to pocket whatever concessions Gorbachev made to expand NATO and lock in US hegemony. In Washington “old thinking” always dominated, and there is a certain logic to that. Having just won the Cold War through, in its eyes, old thinking who was to teach Washington that old thinking is irrational? That sense of deception has burnt deep into the psyche of the Russian political elite and so we get Vladimir Putin an exponent of old thinking precisely. Furthermore, a sense of danger is functional for the Russian political elite which is still dominated by clans linked to oligarchs. Putin sits at the top of the political hierarchy, but under him Russia’s institutional framework is weak. That is a bigger source of insecurity for Russian society than Ballistic Missile Defence.

I submit that what lies behind the demise of the INF Treaty is the deliberate rejection of Gorbachev’s vision. I don’t agree with Gorbachev’s many critics on the Left. I think he was that rare species, a human being in politics, who had the right concept but was unable to implement it. When old thinking dominates the mind sets of the two dominant nuclear powers arms control largely functions as a tenuous holding action. What is needed is a revival and updating of ideas of common security. So long as the peace movement that helped bring about the INF Treaty is dormant and bereft of an alternative conception of security that rejects full spectrum dominance, but also deterrence, then efforts to limit armaments much less disarmament will always be fragile and subject to reversal if successful.

It has been asked; what must be done to salvage arms control? The answer is simple. As the political elites march back to the future to the 1980s, in many respects what is happening now is picking up the qualitative arms race where we left it, so we should too. We should dust off common security and make it anew.

It is possible to imagine a global peace movement armed with a concept of common security united in joint action with other social and ecological justice movements within and across nations building the basis of a more perpetual peace as perestroika proceeds at home and abroad. The future of the species, much less arms control, depends upon it.