The United States, now unbound from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia, plans to deploy ground-launched missiles to counter China’s growing arsenal and deter potential conflict, according to the heads of the State Department and the Pentagon.
Following more than a decade of violations by Russia, the United States withdrew from the treaty on Aug. 2. While Washington and Moscow remained formally bound by the treaty from flight-testing or possessing intermediate-range, ground-launched missiles, China aggressively developed these weapons, a strategic gap that has long been a concern for the Pentagon.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told reporters that the Pentagon’s position is to deploy non-nuclear INF-range missiles systems “sooner rather than later.” Esper specifically noted these systems’ importance to the Asia-Pacific region. He hoped to have a deployment within “months” but noted that “these things tend to take longer than you expect.”
“So, the best answer is, sooner rather than later, we want to develop this capability and making sure we can have long-range precision fires, not just for that theater, but for the theater that we’re deploying to as well, because of the importance of great distances we need to cover, and how important an intermediate-range conventional weapon would be to the Asia Indo-PACOM theater,” Esper said.
Deploying ground-launched missiles in Asia would require the cooperation of America’s allies. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Aug. 4 that deterrence is the ultimate goal of deployment and that the United States will deploy systems with the consent of allies and “with respect to their sovereignty.”
“Remember why it was created. It was created with a vision of deterrence,” Pompeo said of the treaty. “That’s always been our mission set and it will continue to be so.”
One-third to one-half of China’s ballistic and cruise missile arsenal would violate the treaty if Beijing was bound by the treaty, according to a U.S. assessment. The bulk of the missiles carry conventional, non-nuclear warheads. These missiles are Beijing’s “ace in the hole” when it comes to military capabilities, according to Ian Williams, the associate director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. As a result, Beijing “would be very loath to give that up” as part of any future arms pact.
“This is the bulk of their military capabilities. Their navy is still not—it’s getting there—but it’s still not quite up to being able to stand toe-to-toe to the United States. Their air force is large, but also questionable as to their ability to stand up to the U.S. and Japan, for example. So, what is their kind of ace in the hole? It’s all of these intermediate-range missiles they have, that they can fire from mainland China out,” Williams said.
When President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal from the treaty in October last year, he said he would be open to an arms-control pact that included China and other countries. Pompeo, in his official statement on the withdrawal, offered China and Russia to engage in creating a multilateral arms control treaty.
Considering China’s reliance on its conventional intermediate-range missile arsenal, any viable treaty would have to be limited to nuclear-capable missiles.
Trump told reporters at the White House on Aug. 2 that he has spoken to the leaders of Russia and China about a potential nuclear arms deal. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping were both “excited” to discuss the issue, the president said.
“So, Russia—we have been speaking to Russia about that—about a pact for nuclear—so that they get rid of some, we get rid of some. We’d probably have to put China in there,” Trump said.
“Right now, we’re No. 1, Russia is No. 2, and China is No. 3. But China is quite a bit down, in terms of nuclear. China is much lower. But we would certainly want to include China at some point.”
Williams noted that a potential treaty that focused on limiting intermediate-range nuclear weapons would have the greatest chance of getting both Russia and China on board.
“That may be a better way to go if you’re trying to make progress,” Williams said. “You might even get Russia back in, because they don’t want to see new U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. The Chinese don’t want to see a reintroduction of U.S. nuclear weapons in Asia.”
Trump said that Russia’s violation of the INF led him to exit the treaty to maintain the United States’ global military supremacy.
“The particular pact you’re talking about that expired as of today, they weren’t living up to their commitment,” Trump said.
“And I said, if they’re not going to live up to their commitment, then we always have to be in the lead.
“I’ve redone our nuclear. We have new nuclear coming. I hate to tell that to people. I hate to say it because it’s devastating, but we’ve always got to be in the lead.”
The United States fields a number of sea- and air-launched alternatives to the formerly banned intermediate-range missiles, but ground-launched missiles have a number of strategic advantages in a potential conflict. As a result, China wields a substantial strategic advantage.
“It’s not Russia that we’re concerned about. We’re concerned about China, which has developed a whole class of missiles that we were not permitted to have,” said Gordon Chang, author of “The Coming Collapse of China.”
“It’s given China an enormous advantage now and what we need to do in very short order is to develop and deploy.”
With the gap closed, the United States may have the leverage needed to compel China to enter an arms control pact or at least to prevent the Chinese Communist Party from wielding its missile arsenal as a club over less-powerful nations.
“You have to have leverage with the Chinese always in order to get them to agree to anything,” said Peter Huessy, the director for strategic deterrent studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “And leverage from us is deploying missile defenses in Asia, and missile forces, and a capable aircraft and navy.”
The United States attempted to bring China into the treaty on at least three occasions, failing each time. According to Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, exiting the treaty is only the first step in the process of bringing China to the table for a potential arms pact.
“Leaving the INF treaty is really only part of what is necessary to get China’s attention,” Fisher said. “And yes, we have China’s attention, but in order to really get their attention so that they finally come to the table to consider even minimal steps towards arms control, what we also need—for good or for bad—is a good old arms race.”
Esper, in an official statement upon withdrawal from the treaty, said that the Pentagon has been researching and developing intermediate-range cruise and ballistic missiles since 2017.
“Because the United States scrupulously complied with its obligations to the INF Treaty, these programs are in the early stages,” he said.
“Now that we have withdrawn, the Department of Defense will fully pursue the development of these ground-launched conventional missiles as a prudent response to Russia’s actions and as part of the Joint Force’s broader portfolio of conventional strike options.”
Esper told reporters that the Department of Defense was researching a long-range precision missile, the range of which could be extended upon exit from the treaty. Extending the range would take approximately 18 months, he said.
Speaking to the press in Sydney on Aug. 4, Esper and Pompeo emphasized that deterrence is the ultimate goal of the planned deployment.
Esper noted that the missiles deployed would be armed with conventional, not nuclear, warheads. The weapons will give the United States the strategic posture to “deter conflict in any region in which we deploy them in consultation with our allies and partners,” he said.
While aircraft and Navy combat vessels remain the image of America’s military might, missiles play a major role in deterring U.S. adversaries, due to their unique qualities.
“A missile very much focuses the thinking of our potential adversaries,” said Fisher. “A missile travels very fast. It can be very accurate and it’s very difficult to counter or shoot down a missile. When we bring lots of missiles to a theater, our adversaries usually take notice and become much more serious about moderating their behavior.”
“Today, the United States simply does not have enough missiles to cause our adversaries to reconsider aggressive and threatening behaviors.”
Building up its missile arsenal will allow the United States to erase the imbalance that currently threatens stability in Asia.
“Getting out of the INF treaty has created a legal basis for the United States to now develop and deploy the kind of deterrent capabilities that we require to keep our kids out of war for most of the next decade,” Fisher said.
“Yet, at the same time, the Trump administration is trying to interest China and Russia in new arms control treaties, and I think this is just basic Diplomacy 101. But the most consequential agenda of the Trump administration today is to redress a fundamental missile gap that holds the prospect for destabilizing Asia and drawing Americans into war.”
Chang said the United States should center its missile deployment on China “because China actually poses as a conventional risk.”
“When people think about war, they don’t think about Russia. They think about China. We should be developing our missiles and thinking about our strategies in relation to what the Chinese might do,” Chang said.
The media have focused most of the coverage on criticizing the United States, parroting official Russian and Chinese talking points to criticize Trump for withdrawing from the treaty. Both Russia and China said the United States will be to blame for escalating “tensions.” Huessy said that China is the sole source of tensions in the region.
“The tensions in this part of the world are generated almost solely and entirely by China. We’re interested in trade, we’re interested in getting ships moving in and out. We’re investing, we’re interested in investment. We’re interested in economic growth. We’re interested in the protection of intellectual property,” he said.
“That’s not what China’s interested in. They’re interested in controlling all of that by their own rules and destroying other people’s ability to compete with them.”