08/01/2013 10:12 am ET Updated Oct 01, 2013

The INF Treaty and Regional Missile Threats

The 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed by President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev was a diplomatic watershed that signaled the beginning of the end of the Cold War. For the first time, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to eliminate an entire class of weapons. Almost 2,700 land-based, intermediate-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles (with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km) were scrapped along with their launchers and other support systems. Development and testing was banned to prevent reconstitution of these forces, and an intrusive monitoring regime (including on-site inspection) was implemented. The Treaty created a basis for security and stability in Europe and contributed to the peaceful resolution of the 50 year superpower rivalry.

Some defense experts have questioned whether the INF Treaty continues to serve U.S. security interests. They are not alone. In 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to withdraw from the Treaty, largely out of frustration with planned U.S. ballistic missile defenses in Central Europe. But Putin's threats also highlighted a more basic concern: the spread of intermediate range missile forces (also known as "theater missiles") around the globe. These types of weapons have emerged in the arsenals of known proliferators like Iran and North Korea, as well as nuclear-armed regional rivals like India and Pakistan.

Perhaps most importantly for the United States, China has engaged in an expansive modernization program centered on short- and intermediate-range conventional missiles. These weapons could significantly undermine the ability of the United States to effectively respond to a Taiwan crisis by placing U.S. forward bases and naval assets in the region at risk. If the conventional balance continues to shift in China's favor, the perceived effectiveness of the U.S. deterrent may decrease, potentially inviting provocation and eroding stability.

The question that arises is whether the United States requires its own conventional theater missiles to effectively respond to these pressing regional threats, and thus consider withdrawing from the INF Treaty. The short answer is "no." Given its overwhelming conventional military superiority, increasing missile defense capabilities, and guarantees to key allies, the United States does not require these missiles to deter Iran or North Korea. In addressing the challenge posed by China's military modernization, the deployment of a new generation of conventional theater missiles could enhance U.S. conventional offensive capabilities in the region, but such a program would also be costly and limited by a lack of feasible basing options. Moreover, Washington possesses other means to effectively address this challenge, and can continue to leverage U.S. advantages in the development of extended-range munitions, air power, surface combatants and submarines over the longer-term.

At the same time, the potential implications of a U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty would likely be far-reaching. First, an American withdrawal and the subsequent deployment of U.S. missiles is unlikely to alter the course of China's military buildup and will likely exacerbate tensions between Washington and Beijing, reinforcing the perception that the United States is a threat to China's rise. This only makes the task of deterring China more difficult in the future, decreasing the stability of a critically-important region and complicating the policies of key U.S. allies like Japan, South Korean and the Philippines.

Second, with a new generation of potentially nuclear-armed intermediate range missiles, Moscow's assertions of influence in its traditional "near abroad" will have much more force behind them. For our NATO allies, this would be troubling. A unilateral U.S. withdrawal could seriously undermine the alliance, exacerbating tensions between Western and newer Central European members and calling into question U.S. leadership and Washington's commitment to collective security. Russia has also engaged in a dispute with Japan over the Kurile Islands and the deployment of Russian missiles in its Eastern territories would provide Moscow with a new capability to compel or bully Japan. At the same time, Russia will continue to be suspicious of Washington's longer-term motives after this clear reversal of longstanding arms control and nonproliferation policies.

In general, given the existing Chinese program and the newfound capacity of Moscow to develop theater missiles, it should be expected that proliferation of missiles and associated technologies will increase, undermining the successes of various bilateral U.S. diplomatic efforts and multilateral initiatives, like the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) or the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). Such a policy would also seem to be detrimental to ongoing U.S. investments in missile defenses.

Maintaining the Treaty will avoid many of these diplomatic and security problems. Over time, Washington may be able to leverage Russian concerns about China's modernization to engage Beijing in negotiations on expanding the Treaty as well as other interested states like India and Pakistan. Working with Russia to maintain and expand the treaty is a prudent diplomatic strategy. Conversely, undertaking a unilateral diplomatic action that could dramatically alter the security environments of some of America's closest allies seems risky and potentially damaging for U.S. interests.