Washington Announces Intent to Withdraw from the INF Treaty

The United States has formally given notice that it will withdrawal from the INF Treaty in 60 days unless, in the interim, Russia returns to full compliance with the Treaty. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, in response announced that Russia will no longer engage with the United States on the matter. Unless something arrives from out of left field that just about wraps it up for the INF Treaty. I’m sure its comprehensive history will make for a nice PhD thesis or two and that with a nice sense of closure, so at least all is not lost.

The formal notice of US intent to withdraw was publicly made by Mike Pompeo in a US State Department press statement. In that statement Pompeo repeats the charge that Russia is in “material breach” of the Treaty. President Trump also released a press statement available at the White House website. The US position is that Russia’s alleged violation of the Treaty is not a mere technical violation of its terms. It is possible to breach a treaty’s terms but for that not necessarily to constitute a material breach. For example, the Soviet Union was in breach of the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty when it was working on developing the Krasnoyarsk radar but that breach was not a material breach. Is Russia in material breach of the INF Treaty? Let us return to this question in due course.

The formal announcement has provoked a lot of commentary and media attention, with one of the more common refrains being that the looming withdrawal will set off a renewed nuclear arms race. I do not share those views. Rather, the likely end of the INF Treaty represents a further development in an arms race already off and running. We are heading toward waters we would have sailed had not Mikhail Gorbachev, in my opinion one of history’s more important figures, burst onto the scene in the and those waters are not smooth. The announcement has come not long after the release of the Trump administration’s Missile Defense Review, which calls for qualitative and quantitative augmentation of missile defence, Russia’s successful test of the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle from an ICBM, a reported test of Russia’s Nudol direct ascent anti satellite missile, and America’s National Nuclear Security Administration’s announcement that it has began production of the low yield (usually given as a third the yield of Little Boy so ~4KT) W76-2 warhead for the Trident II SLBM. The latter threatens to lower the threshold of nuclear war as it appears based on the misplaced view that escalation can be controlled and that low yields make for rationally more usable nuclear weapons, especially in regional contingencies of the type involving North Korea or Iran.

China has also released a video depicting a military exercise involving the DF-26 Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (i.e. INF Treaty range) often dubbed “the Guam killer.”

There’s a good Chinese TV report on the DF-26 exercise available on YouTube here.

Vladimir Putin has been reported in the Russian media as saying that Moscow, following a US withdrawal from the INF, will develop a land based variant of the 3M14 Kalibr sea launched cruise missile with a range greater than 500km and less than 5500 (3M14 Kalibr has a 2500km range), the US allegation of course is that Russia already has a GLCM outside INF Treaty limits ie the 9M729 (or SSC-8), and a ground launched version of the hypersonic R-500 or 3M22 ‘”Tsirkon” or “Zircon” cruise missile also to a range otherwise prohibited by the INF Treaty. The Tsirkon reportedly has a range of 1000km. Other reports claim that Putin has stated Russia will not develop these systems unless the US first develops INF prohibited systems and deploys them in Europe. Moscow’s claims regarding US violations of the INF are spurious.

It seems to me that one key source of our troubles is that the military-industrial complexes of the world’s major strategic powers are increasingly beyond popular control. To the extent that is true the renewed arms race is, fundamentally, a reflection upon the state of democracy. As we know substantive democracy has been under assault over the last 30 years, and one of the effects of this appears to be a greater level of influence and autonomy for the military-industrial complexes. This is a matter requiring further study, reflection and action. Certainly, for example, a decision of such moment as the future of the INF Treaty should be based on as much dissemination of information into the public sphere as possible and that by both sides. In a democracy rational decisions are made when a fully informed public is offered the opportunity to make reasoned choices.  But that isn’t what we have seen with the INF Treaty. Rather, we are heading toward the end of a key Cold War era arms control agreement with the minimal of information being presented to the public. Such things cannot be permissible in democratic societies.

I get the, tentative, impression that the way the INF affair has played out suggests the end of the Treaty is something that both Russia and America have tacitly agreed to.  We have, for example, the minimal information alluded to above. If both sides wanted to save the INF Treaty, then the INF Treaty would have been saved. If one side wanted to save it, but the other not then that side ought to have gone the extra mile to provide as much transparency as the situation allows. The United States hasn’t provided much by way of information. Russia has, in drips and drabs, provided progressively more but certainly not enough to establish its claim to be in accord with the Treaty. Much greater effort would have gone into providing transparency regarding claim and counter claim if both sides, indeed even if only one side, wanted to preserve the Treaty. That both Moscow and Washington tacitly agreed to end the Treaty thereby becomes, at the very least, a reasonable hypothesis. I’d be surprised if at least some strategic planners in Beijing haven’t reached this conclusion.

In a major press briefing and information session for military attaches, not long before the formal announcement of US withdrawal, Russia provided the most information to date on the 9M729 missile which, seemingly, is at the centre of the INF dispute. The Russian analyst, Pavel Podvig, continues to have the most informed and detailed commentary on the INF Treaty dispute and his analysis of the briefing is available here.

Moscow showed off a drawing of the 9M729 missile alongside the 9M728 ground launched cruise missile, the launch tube of the 9M729 missile, the TEL for the 9M729, and a table of  missile test launches from 2008 to 2014 at the Kapustin Yar test facility. Previously it had been reported that the 9M729 missile had a length of 8m. The 9M729 container has a length of 7.93m, 0.53m more than the 9M728 which has a maximum range of 490km (nobody alleges that it isn’t INF compliant.) According to the renderings the 9M729 has a larger warhead and a larger modernised guidance component than the 9M728 but the same propulsion system. The table asserts that all tests at Kapustin Yar of surface-to-surface missiles, bar ICBM tests, during the 2008-2014 period were in accord with the INF Treaty. Washington, recall, alleges that Russia tested the 9M729 cruise missile during that time period from a fixed launcher to a range prohibited by the treaty.

A drawing, of course, is not the same as an inspection of the missile and a rendering with a larger warhead and a larger guidance system seems for many to be a convenient contrivance. The Kalibr family of cruise missiles is of modular design, so it is possible, but why develop a missile with the same range as the 9M728 but with a bigger warhead and a more sophisticated guidance package has not been made clear. The briefing does not establish the Russian position, but the United States has ignored it and hasn’t provided any further information of its own. The position of the Trump administration has been that it will accept nothing less than a Russian confession and a return to full compliance with the Treaty. That said, if the briefing is accurate it would provide evidence of the Russian military-industrial complex wrangling out of the political system a missile that marginally adds to Moscow’s strategic capabilities.

As noted China released a video of a missile exercise featuring the DF-26 IRBM. There are two variants of the DF-26, a land attack variant and an antiship variant. The exercise video provided detail not seen before and featured a take away of fins on the RV, for greater terminal phase stability (so accuracy) and suggestive also of a MaRV or manoeuvrable warhead. The DF-26 exercise was accompanied by much commentary about the purported terminal phase capability of the DF-26 in particular its ability to incorporate updated real time information from multiple sensor suits to strike moving targets like an aircraft carrier strike group (I’ll ignore the obvious temptation to waffle about the nature of knowledge at this point i.e. would that mean the DF-26 knows where a carrier strike group is). Such claims are likely overstated but the dual conventional and nuclear capable DF-26 can hold at risk military targets on Guam, a key operating base in what China calls Washington’s second island chain of military operating bases dedicated, according to Beijing, to China’s containment. Beijing, furthermore, sees Guam as important to the Pentagon’s implementing, if necessary, the AirSea Battle concept (akin to NATO’s AirLand Battle of the 1980s). President Trump in his White House statement linked above stated that; “We cannot be the only country in the world unilaterally bound by this treaty, or any other.” When Donald Trump first announced an intent to walk from the INF as much, if not more, emphasis was placed on Asia (read China) than Europe. According to a New York Times article Washington planners are considering deploying land based intermediate range missiles in Asia.

…The question now is whether the United States will begin to deploy new weapons to counter China’s efforts to cement a dominant position in the Western Pacific and keep American aircraft carriers at bay. Much of Beijing’s growing arsenal currently consists of missiles that fall into the ranges — land-based missiles able to fly 300 to 3,400 miles — that are prohibited by the treaty…

Guam offers a good place to deploy land based intermediate range missiles in Asia as it frees Washington from possible alliance concerns about deploying them on their territory.

Critics, correctly, argue that air and sea launched standoff weapons can provide a direct response to the DF-26 and that in a way which also can obviate any possible allied constraints on their use in contingencies involving China. For example, air launched and submarine launched cruise missiles can be deployed from Guam. But when you read the article carefully you can see that an old Cold War era line is being trotted out to justify deploying land based intermediate range missiles aimed at China. The objective, Trump administration figures are claiming, is to develop a global INF Treaty, or at the very least one that includes China, but to do that Washington needs to develop a bargaining chip to trade away in an arms control negotiating process. Moreover, deploying ground based intermediate missiles in Asia provides negotiators a position of strength from which they can extract concessions. That is precisely on a par with the, false, claim that the Reagan era deployment of the Tomahawk GLCM and the Pershing II IRBM spooked the Soviet Union into agreeing to the INF Treaty in the first place (i.e. Reagan’s preferred “double zero.”) If you want to believe all that you can, but I should say that such arguments were made by the military-industrial complex to justify weapons systems during the Cold War era arms race. Recall the point made above regarding unconstrained military-industrial complexes.

The United States, tacit agreement or not, is saying to Russia the following. You, Russia, are no longer our competitor. You are a great power lost to history, thump your bare chest in the ice much as you like, indeed you’re at most a regional power to use the expression describing Russia in the Missile Defense Review. We regard a rising China to be our peer (or near peer) competitor and we won’t be constrained by a Cold War era arms control agreement with a has been state as we engage in strategic competition with Beijing. That competition will shape the future of the world. It’s that message that stings in Moscow. John Bolton, as well as others close to or part of the Trump administration, were noted as arguing during the Bush II era that arms control agreements are relics of a time when the system of world order was different, and so the colossus should not be bound by them as it shapes and moulds world order as required. This message to Moscow is entirely consistent with that world view.

In which case the 9M729, whatever be its range capabilities, is not the missile at the centre of the INF saga. That status would belong to the DF-26.

Incidentally. Let us assume that the United States does announce the intention to develop land based intermediate range missiles to be deployed in Asia or Guam specifically. That would mean Washington would be working to deploy more usable W76-2 warheads for Trident SSBNs on patrol in the Pacific. It would mean that it would be developing ground based intermediate range missiles in Asia to boot. Oh, and not only will this compel China to join a new multipolar INF Treaty but North Korea will engage in final, fully verified denuclearisation at the same time.