What to Do About Russia’s Weapons Development Push

by Reihan Salam

In March of 2012, President Obama met with his then-counterpart, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, to discuss a number of issues, including European missile defense. The meeting was memorable primarily because an open mic caught a candid exchange between the two heads of state, which David Nakamura of the Washington Post recounted in detail. Obama sought to reassure Medvedev that “on all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it’s important for him,” meaning incoming Russian president Vladimir Putin, “to give me space.” Medvedev was receptive — “I understand your message about space. Space for you …” — and Obama went on to make himself even more explicit: “This is my last election,” he explained. “After my election, I have more flexibility.” And Medvedev promised to “transmit this information to Vladimir.” 

But how will the president use the flexibility he has gained by virtue of his reelection? Among conservatives, the prevailing view is that the Obama administration will use this flexibility to weaken the U.S. strategic position vis-à-vis Russia. Yet the president could also use his flexibility, and Russia’s blundering intervention in Ukraine, to strengthen the U.S. position by revisiting the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

This idea came to mind as I read Elbridge Colby’s new Foreign Affairs article on Russia’s apparent decision to flout INF, which bans the use of missiles, whether armed with nuclear or conventional weapons, that operate in the range of 500 to 5,550 kilometers. Though we don’t have conclusive evidence, Colby claims that we do have reason to believe that Russia has developed a cruise missile prohibited by INF and that the Russian military “has been keen to escape the INF straightjacket for years.” As Colby reports, a number of conservatives see Russia’s (alleged) violation of INF as an opportunity to abandon it, a position endorsed by National Review. In February, the editors made the case that INF raised the risk of conventional war in Europe in the waning days of the Cold War, and they note ominously that while the INF prevents the U.S. from developing intermediate-range weapons, it does nothing to prevent other states, including North Korea and Iran, from doing so.

Colby sees the INF Treaty as valuable insofar as it prohibits Russia from deploying missiles that could reach U.S. allies in Europe and East Asia, as well as other states within intermediate range of Russia’s borders. This is far more constraining for Russia than for the United States, as the U.S. can rely on its aerial and naval assets for its military striking power. Yet Colby also acknowledges that the U.S. might have some use for intermediate-range missiles:

On the one hand, INF does not endanger the United States’ current military effectiveness; U.S. forces can launch accurate strikes from air and sea and can operate drones as needed. On the other hand, INF does prohibit the United States from exploiting at least some attractive options to fill holes in its military posture. Some experts, including Jim Thomas, the vice president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, argue that such systems would fill a rather large gap in the United States’ ability to strike quickly with accurate and effective conventional weapons. Likewise, the Department of Defense has reportedly identified a number of major unmet requirements in the prompt conventional strike mission that at least some in DOD think could best be met through INF-prohibited systems.

This argument has special force because U.S. conventional strike capabilities — and thus the United States’ ability to project power writ large — are under increasing strain. At the broadest level, this stems from the fact that the world is witnessing the unveiling of daunting anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) networks by China and Russia and, increasingly, North Korea and Iran. These networks are designed to blunt American military power and include highly sophisticated air and missile defense systems tailored to block the United States’ preferred ways of operating and striking. These networks will create increasingly, and in some cases dramatically, more challenging environments for U.S. forces.

At the same time that the defensive challenge to U.S. strike capabilities is growing, however, the U.S. conventional strike arsenal is shrinking and aging. For instance, a number of the key weapons and systems that underpin U.S. military supremacy are set to retire, and it is uncertain what will replace them. For example, the United States will soon phase out its Ohio-class SSGNs, which are the stealthy ballistic missile submarines converted to carry and launch conventional cruise missiles. The United States depends heavily on these submarines, each of which carries well over 100 cruise missiles. Yet they are scheduled to be gone by the end of the next decade, and have no clear replacement.

And so he concludes that rather than abandon INF outright, the U.S. and its allies ought to (a) devote more research and development effort to understanding the potential uses of INF-banned systems; (b) punish the Russian government if it is indeed violating INF; and (c) craft a fallback option that might replace INF’s outright bans with less-stringent limits on missile development and deployment.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.