The danger of Congress’ arms control agenda

Earlier this year Russia deployed the SSC-8 ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The INF Treaty prohibits the United States and Russia from possessing ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. As such, Russia’s deployment of the SSC-8, with a range of 2,000 kilometers, calls into question the durability of the INF Treaty at a time when the Trump administration is reviewing its nuclear posture.

This particular Russian system has raised alarm since testing began in 2008, but while the previous administration was accused of doing too little, the Defense Authorization bills in both the Senate and House of Representatives may go too far in seeking to pressure Russia into compliance.

The Senate and House bills converge on a set of policy prescriptions to address Russia’s non-compliance. First, the House bill recommends the deployment of “additional missile defense assets in the European theater to protect United States and NATO forces from ground-launched missile systems of the Russian Federation that are in noncompliance with the INF Treaty.”

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Next, both bills suggest enhancing “counterforce capabilities to prevent attacks from these missiles.” Finally, and most notably, the establishment of “a program of record to develop a … ground-launched cruise missile system with a range of between 500 to 5,500 kilometers” is encouraged. These steps, however, would only serve to exacerbate tensions, drive a wedge between Washington and Moscow, and upset alliance partners who fear an arms race in intermediate-range missiles in their immediate neighborhood.

Although touted by proponents as a means of defense, ballistic missile defense (BMD) has typically been seen by adversarial countries as a veiled instrument of an offensive counterforce capability that undermines their deterrent. This explains why Russia has vocally opposed previous installments of NATO BMD infrastructure in Eastern Europe. Further, some of our NATO allies have voiced discomfort in hosting missile defense assets in the past as well. In addition to adding escalatory pressure, missile defenses in Europe would be ineffective against Russia’s large nuclear arsenal, and with relative cost favoring offensive missiles over defenses, the price of keeping up is hard to justify.

As with ballistic missile defenses, a counterforce capability upsets strategic stability and undermines an adversary’s deterrent, leading to such negative consequences as arms racing, provoking an adversary to develop a “launch on warning” posture, and creating a “use it or lose it” dilemma during a crisis. Further, previous Russian responses to American qualitative advances in offensive counterforce capabilities took the form of a quantitative buildup in their nuclear arsenal. With the entry into force of New START Treaty limits on nuclear arsenals set to begin in February of next year, it would be unwise to invite Russia to increase its arsenal and violate another treaty.

Finally, creating a “program of record” to develop a ground-launched cruise missile with the specifications currently outlawed by the INF Treaty would not persuade Russia to comply with the treaty. Rather, it would signal that Washington too has abandoned the treaty, leaving little possibility for its revival in the future.

Reintroducing cruise missiles to Europe would also face opposition from our NATO allies, as they are the ones most threatened by this category of Russian weapons, and the basing of similar U.S. missiles on their territory would put them high on the target list should a nuclear exchange occur. Lastly, scrapping the INF Treaty would further cast doubt on Washington’s credibility to abide by other arms control agreements, including the New START Treaty. In sum, violating the parameters of the treaty is not the appropriate way to save it and only threatens further escalation.

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To better manage the strategic tensions brewing between Washington and Moscow, the United States should reinforce its basic principles towards European security. It should reaffirm its commitment to the conventional defense of our NATO allies while explicitly stating that any nuclear use by Russia would be met with a nuclear response.

Additionally, our continued compliance with the INF Treaty will confirm our commitment to arms control more generally, leave the door open for Moscow to re-comply with the treaty, and signal our intention to work towards stability in bilateral relations with Russia. In sum, enhancing our deterrence credibility is safer than stoking the flames by entering into an arms race over GLCMs. Lowering the nuclear threshold through the proliferation of such missiles can only serve to endanger U.S.-Russian relations and strategic stability in Europe.

Kevin Laiveling is a researcher with The Stimson Center’s South Asia program. 


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.