What is the INF Treaty?
Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty or the INF was signed in December 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. It prohibited the United States and the Soviet Union from possessing, testing and deploying ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles of ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (300 to 3,400 miles). The INF treaty helped address the fears of an imminent nuclear war in Europe. It also built some trust between Washington and Moscow and contributed to the end of the Cold War.
Under the treaty, Washington and Moscow destroyed 846 and 1,846 missiles, respectively. Given their relatively limited range, these systems were designed chiefly to fight a theater nuclear war in Europe. Short flight times and unpredictable flight patterns made them hard to detect, so strategists argued that these systems exacerbated crisis instability and increased the chances of accidental nuclear war. European countries therefore considered the destruction of these missiles as highly beneficial to regional security.
Despite its name, the INF Treaty covers all types of ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles — whether their payload is conventional or nuclear. Moscow and Washington are prohibited from deploying these missiles anywhere in the world, not just in Europe. However, the treaty applies only to ground-launched systems. Both sides are free to deploy air- and sea-launched missiles within the 500-to-5,500-kilometer range.
What has happened recently?
President Trump has announced the United States plans to withdraw from the U.S.-Russian Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Trump accused Moscow of “violating” the treaty and said he would reconsider only if both Russia and China limited their forces.
Has Russia violated the treaty?
The State Department first declared Moscow had violated the treaty in July 2014. U.S. officials have since identified the 9M729 cruise missile as their main concern. NATO designated the new Russian cruise missile as the SSC-8. The United States has not released an assessment, but the missile is rumored to have a range of approximately 2,000 kilometers (about 1,250 miles).
In February 2017, U.S. officials said they believed Russia had deployed the system operationally. The United States has pursued an increasingly robust policy, including sanctions, to pressure Moscow back into compliance with the treaty.
Why did Trump mention China?
China is not bound by the INF Treaty and has deployed intermediate-range missiles in significant numbers. As analysts have noted, Harry Harris, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea and former head of the U.S. Pacific Command, has estimated that intermediate-range systems make up “approximately 95 percent” of the People’s Liberation Army missile force.
However, Washington has few bases in the Pacific where it could place a ground-launched missile within range of China without consent from allies. It is an open question whether governments such as Japan, South Korea or Australia would be willing to host such systems
What are the military implications of withdrawal?
It is unclear what INF-prohibited systems the United States could deploy to Europe or Asia in the near term. The U.S. military has not developed any land-based missiles within the prohibited ranges for decades and has only just started funding a new ground-launched cruise missile to match the 9M729.
Moscow is in a very different position and could rapidly expand deployment. The number of operational 9M729 missiles has been quite limited, but released from its official obligations under the treaty; Moscow could deploy more units rapidly.
What are the diplomatic implications of withdrawal?
Withdrawal is likely to be controversial with U.S. allies in NATO, further splitting the alliance at a difficult time for transatlantic relations. Many Western European NATO states favor retaining the INF, in conjunction with previous U.S. policy designed to push Moscow back into compliance. This raises concerns that divisions within NATO may worsen when the United States officially withdraws from the INF.
India’s Role in the Treaty
As one of the nine known nuclear-weapon powers, India has to adapt to the erosion of traditional methods of managing arms races.
US President Donald Trump’s announcement 10 days ago about American plans to withdraw from the three-decade-old missile treaty with Russia has not got the attention it deserves in Delhi. The decision marks the end of an era of disarmament that India was so engaged with since its Independence.
Even more important are the likely implications of Trump’s move for Indian security — especially on the military balance with China, its traditional defense cooperation with Russia and the new possibilities for high-technology cooperation with the US, Europe and Japan.
Although the US cites Russian violations of the INF treaty as the immediate cause for the withdrawal, coping with China’s massive rocket force appears to be the more important reason for the decision.
Here is the problem
Trump said the only way to sustain the treaty is for Russia to stop the violations and China to join the INF treaty. Many arms control activists have long called for a genuinely universal INF treaty — that is all countries will give up intermediate range missiles.
China has already rejected the proposition. It has always refused to join the US-Russian arms control agreements. India too will have little interest in joining a treaty that would take away its current nuclear deterrent in the form of medium-range Agni missiles.
India’s problem is less with the arms control diplomacy than the nature of its missile programme. While it has no reason to shed tears for the INF treaty, it will have to seriously examine the implications of the next steps by the major powers.
If the US deploys a new INF in Asia, to enhance its capacity to deter China, Beijing is bound to react. The focus of a potential new arms race appears to be less on traditional nuclear armed missiles, but precise hypersonic missiles (which travel at least five times the speed of sound) equipped with conventional warheads. Moscow and Beijing have already invested in the development of hypersonic systems.
India too has an effort underway on hypersonic missiles — part indigenous and part in collaboration with Russia to build on the supersonic Brahmos missiles that travel more than twice as fast as sound. But as the US conflict with Russia deepens, Delhi’s partnership with Moscow on advanced military systems will come under increasing scrutiny and pressure. It would be right to assume that the recent controversy over the acquisition of S-400 from Russia is just the beginning of a trend. Meanwhile, Russia’s tightening military embrace with China also casts a shadow over defence ties between Delhi and Moscow.
Delhi, then, will have to think long and hard about its missile programme by focusing on the urgent need to ramp up the domestic effort as well as diversify its international collaboration on hypersonic weapons. India needs a significant force of hypersonic missiles to better control escalation to the nuclear level if there is another Doklam-like military confrontation with China. Delhi will also have to cope with the inevitable proliferation of hypersonic systems in its neighborhood.