ZOiS Spotlight 30/2019

The end of the INF Treaty: what does it mean for Europe?

by Ulrich Kühn 31/07/2019
Ergebnis der Abstimmung über die Suspendierung des INF-Vertrages in der russischen Duma. © imago images / ITAR-TASS

On 2 August 2019, a key chapter in European security draws to a close when the US and, soon afterwards, Russia withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty after more than three decades of successful nuclear disarmament. The demise of the INF Treaty will lead to a massive loss of military transparency and predictability and potentially trigger a new arms race, focused mainly on Eastern Europe.

Military logic, military build-up

There has been a great deal of speculation about the reasons for the collapse of the INF Treaty, signed in 1987. From the NATO countries’ perspective, the position is clear: Russia violated the Treaty by developing a banned cruise missile. According to Western intelligence sources, up to 80 new SSC-8 Screwdriver missiles have been deployed by Russia in the European region of the country and in Asia. With that, the focus of joint military planning shifts back to Europe – and particularly to Eastern Europe, where NATO has been engaged in a build-up of conventional armed forces since 2016. After the failure of all the various diplomatic initiatives to salvage the INF Treaty in the face of Russian and US intransigence, the military are back in the driving seat for now.

The end of the INF Treaty opens the door to new land-based missile systems. The US Department of Defense has already announced plans to test a ground-launched version of the Tomahawk in August this year. This new cruise missile will have a range of around 1,000 kilometres and could be deployed by early 2021. But that’s not all: the US is also planning to test two new surface-to-surface ballistic missiles in 2019, one of which – the replacement for the Army Tactical Missile System, with a planned range of 700 km – could be deployed as early as 2023. The other – a ballistic missile with a much longer range (3,000-4,000 km) – will not be ready for deployment until 2025. A fourth type of missile is currently at the planning stage.

The focus shifts to Eastern Europe

For Europe, and especially for the east of the continent, this does not bode well. At the Warsaw Summit in 2016, NATO leaders took the decision to deploy multinational battle groups to the Baltic countries and Poland as a response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They were subsequently reinforced by additional US troops on a rotational basis, accompanied by a forward presence and more general efforts to increase operational capability. This was followed by the Pentagon’s recent decision to deploy more troops to Poland. However, it would be wrong to infer that the development of the SSC-8 is linked to NATO’s 2016 decision. In fact, Moscow has been complaining about the US missile defence bases in Romania and Poland for years. With the SSC-8, Russia now has a system which, in a crisis scenario, could be deployed not only against the new NATO units in Eastern Europe but also against the US’s regional missile defence system.

So how is NATO likely to respond? In all probability, its preferred option is to upgrade one or more of the aforementioned systems in Europe. Due to the ranges that the missiles will have to cover, this shifts the focus back to Alliance territory in Eastern Europe. The Pentagon is attempting to calm the resulting jitters by constantly emphasising that none of the planned missiles are nuclear systems. Nevertheless, in 21st-century military logic, the boundaries between hypothetical conventional and nuclear conflict scenarios are fluid. The fact is that in combination with other standoff missiles, the latest generation of conventional high-precision weapons pose a growing threat to secured second-strike capability – a real worry, particularly for Russia. There is also the technical dimension to consider. The US Air Force’s latest air-based standoff missile appears to be a dual conventional/nuclear system – and a conventional cruise missile can apparently be armed with a nuclear warhead with very little effort. It is very probable that Russia’s SSC-8 cruise missile has this dual capability as well.

Initially, though, the arms race that is expected will not unfold according to the classic Cold War model. It would not involve the two sides’ nuclear weapons systems, and numbers are unlikely to run into hundreds or thousands. But this latest round of military muscle-flexing would be no less hazardous for that. Low-flying cruise missiles, particularly the new camouflaged types, are very difficult for generic radar to detect, and despite their relatively slow speed of travel, there is no guaranteed defence against them. Medium-range ballistic missiles, by contrast, move at high velocity and can potentially hit targets with less than five minutes’ warning. The new and upgraded US systems would thus reduce crisis stability and arms race stability in Europe.

Ways out of the crisis?

There are really only three ways out of this scenario. First of all, there is a chance that Russia will scrap its SSC-8 cruise missile and thus prevent a fresh twist in the arms spiral before it really gets started. For that to happen, however, the Kremlin would have to set aside the “positive arguments” in favour of a new arms race. With a president like Trump in the White House, some European allies’ motivation for upgrading their weapons systems is likely to be limited. The ensuing tensions within the Alliance would certainly be welcomed in Moscow.

A second option is for the US Congress to upset the Trump administration’s funding plans by refusing to give its approval for this new big-budget military hardware. For that to happen, however, the legislature would have to ignore any geopolitical arguments relating to China, given that the Trump administration’s rationale behind its decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty was based on concerns about the rising military tensions with the Chinese.

And then there is the issue of arms control. Under a proposal from the Bundestag, Russia would pull back its banned missiles to behind the Urals, while NATO would hold off upgrading its missile systems. The challenges associated with verification of this type of loose agreement could presumably be addressed using modern technology.

As things stand, however, all three are fairly unlikely scenarios. Mutual distrust weighs too heavily. Europe therefore seems to be heading for a new arms race, setting the stage for a New Cold War with Eastern Europe yet again at the epicentre.

Ulrich Kühn is Deputy Head of the Arms Control and Emerging Technologies Program at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, and a Nonresident Scholar with the Nuclear Policy Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.