07/19/2013 11:57 am ET Updated Sep 18, 2013

The U.S. Does Not Need New Theater Missiles

One of the more ambitious and controversial programs associated with the Pentagon's emerging Air-Sea Battle concept is a new generation of conventional land-based, intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM). Ideally, these missiles would be deployed in significant numbers in diverse bases throughout critical regions where adversaries confront the United States with significant Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities, which may undermine or blunt America's ability to effectively conduct offensive operations in the event of a conflict. Several countries, including Iran, North Korea, and China, have invested in short- and intermediate-range missile ballistic missile programs which hold U.S. forward bases and regional allies at risk.

While this "in-kind" response to ballistic missile proliferation may seem attractive, the development and deployment of land-based IRBMs (also known as "Theater Missiles") would have important and far-reaching consequences for U.S. policy for two reasons. First, the new missile may not be the "silver bullet" solution advocates suggest. Second, the U.S. would have to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which prohibits the United States and Russia from possessing these missiles. This would be a major diplomatic act, with significant potential costs and risks.

In assessing the potential contribution of new U.S. missiles, a critical (and dubious) assumption is that the United States would disperse them among several secure bases in each region of concern. This is an extremely problematic assumption in East Asia or in the Middle East. Asking allies to deploy highly provocative, offensive weapons would require major diplomatic efforts that could ultimately prove futile and potentially damaging to important relationships. As the experience of the "Euromissiles" of the late 1970s illustrates, states are often very reluctant to host offensive weapons that would likely make them priority targets in the event of a conflict.

Another important consideration is that these new missiles are likely to be quite costly. The requirements for penetrability, range and accuracy (particularly for a conventional warhead) are likely to demand a high-end system with high unit costs. Also, considering industrial base issues--the United States has simply not made these types of weapons in three decades -- technical expertise and institutional knowledge may be difficult to find. We can build them, but they will not be cheap!

The issues of basing and cost only underscore the argument that a new generation of U.S. missiles may not be the optimal policy choice, particularly in a time of constrained defense budgets. Some regional powers have developed niche capabilities and these present significant challenges for Pentagon planners. However, considering U.S. proficiency in the development of airpower (manned and unmanned), precision guided munitions, undersea warfare capabilities, and shipbuilding there may be a range of existing and viable future weapon systems that are more operationally flexible and also more cost-effective than land-based IRBMs.

Existing platforms like the Ohio-class guided missile submarine (SSGN) and B-1 bomber armed with Tactical Tomahawk cruise missiles can be deployed to enhance the firepower available to U.S. commanders in a given region, thus supporting deterrence -- as needed -- in the short-run. Over the longer-term, a next-generation penetrating bomber or family of bombers (whether manned or unmanned) to succeed the B-2 may be a logical priority for investment. In the medium-term, revisiting concepts like the Arsenal Ship, a relatively small, lightly armored stealthy vessel, full of longer-range standoff munitions may be prudent, as are continued investments in programs like the hypersonic cruise missile that could leverage the capabilities of deployed U.S. strike aircraft.

Finally, the argument for new U.S. theater missiles overlooks or ignores the potential diplomatic and political-military implications of a requisite U.S. abrogation or cooperative dissolution of the INF Treaty with Russia. Considering that the Treaty has quietly served to maintain stability in Western Europe since the end of the Cold War, it seems highly unlikely that our NATO allies would greet its demise with great enthusiasm. Russia continues to have a de facto nuclear first-use policy and openly worries about its deterrent capabilities. Deploying a new generation of intermediate-range missiles against NATO or against Japan would greatly enhance Moscow's perceived leverage and only complicate U.S. strategy (and that of its allies) in two critical regions. This would likely be the tip of the iceberg in a post-INF world.

In short, the implications of a U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty could be significant, far-reaching, and harmful to U.S. security interests around the globe.

The successful landing of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) from the deck of the USS George Bush last month clearly illustrates the U.S. capacity to innovate has not declined. New missiles may indeed alter the conventional balance in critical regions in the favor of the United States, but at what cost? Particularly when considering existing and future alternative programs, it is difficult to conclude that the expected military benefits of deploying new conventional land-based intermediate-range missiles would outweigh the costs and risks of leaving the INF Treaty.