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The Intermediate Range Nuclear Force Treaty

Preamble:  While I was on my hiatus the United States and Russia abrogated the Intermediate Range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty.  This is a treaty that I was involved in negotiating so I provide some insights today.

In1987 INF Treaty was agreed to between the US and the Soviet Union.  The negotiations had their genesis in the NATO Dual Track Decision of 1979. In December 1979, the United States and its NATO allies adopted a long-term strategy to remove the threat posed by new Soviet intermediate-range missiles.

The Dual Track Decision was built on “two parallel and complementary approaches.” First, the United States agreed to deploy intermediate-range missiles of its own to Europe. European nations—Germany, Italy, the UK and Belgium agreed to have either ground-based long range cruise missiles or modernized Pershing missiles—Pershing IIs (PIIs)– stationed on their territory.  Second, it would leverage these new missiles in an arms control negotiation with Moscow with the aim of convincing the Soviets to dismantle their weapons. The negotiations both within the US government and those with our NATO allies were extremely divisive.

In fact, as a participant in the intra-governmental activities I can attest to the issues involved.  One short vignette might make the point.  In 1979 the US and NATO were involved in the Mutual Balanced Force Reduction (MBFR) negotiations where the allies were seeking to reduce Soviet conventional forces in Eastern Europe.  Part of the offer from NATO included the removal of nuclear capable Pershing I (PIs) missiles for a Soviet Tank Army.  The Army Staff had been unsuccessful in convincing the Carter Administration that it was impossible to negotiate away Pershing Is (PIs) in MBFR and PIIs in the INF negotiations that were to be.  Finally we took a model of a PI and a bag of parts over to the State Department.  We tore the PI model apart and then using the bag of parts we build a model of a PII.  Finally the light came on in Foggy Bottom.

Within Europe there were numerous anti-nuclear demonstrations.  It was necessary to have multiple nations basing the new systems to insure that alliance resolve was maintained.

After 8 years of negotiations the resulting treaty required the United States and the Soviet Union to eliminate all of their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. The treaty marked the first time the superpowers had agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals, eliminate an entire category of nuclear weapons, and employ extensive on-site inspections for verification. As a result of the INF Treaty, the United States and the Soviet Union destroyed a total of 2,692 short-, medium-, and intermediate-range missiles by the treaty’s implementation deadline of June 1, 1991.

Like all arms control agreements between the US and the Soviet Union there were continual claims of treaty violations by both sides. The United States first alleged in its July 2014 Annual Compliance Report to Congress that Russia was in violation of its INF Treaty obligations “not to possess, produce, or flight-test” a ground-launched cruise missile having a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers or “to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.” Subsequent State Department assessments in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018 repeated these allegations. In March 2017, a top US official confirmed press reports that Russia had begun deploying the noncompliant missile. Russia has denied that it is in violation of the agreement and has accused the United States of being in noncompliance.

In December 2017 the Trump administration released an integrated strategy to counter alleged Russian violations of the treaty, including the commencement of research and development on a conventional, road-mobile, intermediate-range missile system. In October 2018, President Trump announced his intention to “terminate” the INF Treaty, citing Russian noncompliance and concerns about China’s intermediate-range missile arsenal. Then in December, Secretary of State Pompeo announced that the United States found Russia in “material breach” of the treaty and would suspend its treaty obligations in 60 days if Russia did not return to compliance in that time. In February the Trump administration declared a suspension of US obligations under the INF Treaty and formally announced its intention to withdraw from the treaty in six months. Shortly thereafter, Russian President Vladimir Putin also announced that Russia will be officially suspending its treaty obligations as well.

Last August the United States formally withdrew from the INF Treaty.

The formal stated reason for withdrawal from the Treaty may have been Russian Non-Compliance, however in the second Obama Administration the US began its tilt away from the major threat being in Europe towards concern about the Chinese threat in the Pacific.  One of the problems with defense in the region was that the US was prohibited from basing ground based intermediate nuclear forces on the littorals of China because they could range into Russia.  Many work arounds were considered such as basing cruise missiles on barges—hence technically not ground based.  Elimination of the treaty has solved this problem.

The US Army has been working on developing the hardware that would have the Army fighting a long range defense of islands in the Pacific without significant naval support.  Strange task organizations of limited maneuver forces, but layered air/missile defense and engagement means out to 500 miles to engage a hostile naval force and attrite it without naval or air support have been looked at.  If I were a sceptic I would suggest that this is the Army seeking to remain relevant in the Pacific Theater.

The Russians’ paranoia about being invaded from the expanded NATO (its Eastern European buffer seized after World War II is gone) is the reason for the basing of longer range nuclear forces in Eastern European Russia.  The Russians perceive a strategic need to base intermediate range nuclear forces in the old treaty area to be able to deter the much expanded NATO.  Can there be a new INF Treaty?  Will the international dynamics be such as to create a win-win situation for the two sides?

Is a new cold war on the horizon?

I have recently been reading the Dagger Brigade posts (2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, which the author once commanded) as it moves around Eastern Europe training with allies as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve—a program to demonstrate NATO resolve to deter the Russians for dramatic attacks and conquest of its previous kingdom (satellite countries).

Atlantic Resolve and other NATO activities in Eastern Europe and the pledged increase in force capabilities seem to assume a conventional force attack by the Russians.  This approach is called into question by current Russian activities.

Russia is aggressively building up its nuclear forces and is expected to deploy a total force of 8,000 warheads by 2026 along while modernizing its deep underground bunkers, according to reports citing Pentagon officials.

The Russian force build up implies several aspects of its view of future warfare.  The 8,000 warheads will include both large strategic warheads and thousands of new low-yield and very low-yield warheads. These will circumvent arms treaty limits.   Russia’s new doctrine is one of using nuclear arms early in any conflict.

This new doctrine as it evolves seems to combine the use of low and very low yield nuclear weapons in conjunction with attacks by tactical ground forces.  Simultaneous it seeks to maintain strategic deterrence by having a modernized mobile strategic arsenal.  The mobility of the strategic forces enhances their survivability.  Part of this deterrence effort includes fortification of underground facilities for command and control during such a nuclear conflict.

The United States and NATO are watching this alarming expansion as to determine if Russia is preparing to break out of current nuclear forces constraints under arms treaties, including the 2010 New START and 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaties. Russia has already violated the INF accord by testing an illegal ground-launched cruise missile.

This Russian nuclear arms buildup is among the activities being studied by the ongoing Pentagon major review of US nuclear forces called the Nuclear Posture Review.  The conclusions of the review are expected to be disclosed early next year—possibly coinciding with state of the union address by the president:  He is on the record as saying: “I want modernization and rehabilitation… It’s got to be in tip top shape,”

The current posture review reverses the views of the Obama administration which called for reducing the role of nuclear weapons and the size of the arsenal. The cut back in nuclear forces by Obama was based on assessments—now considered false by many officials—that nuclear threats posed by Russia and other states had been lowered significantly, and that Moscow and Washington were no longer considered enemies.

The Obama administration based its strategic nuclear deterrence and warfare policies on the incorrect and outdated assumption that the prospects of US.-Russia military confrontation had been reduced sharply. However many have noted that since 2010 Russia, China, and North Korea have been engaged in steadily building up their forces with new nuclear arms and delivery systems, while Iran remains an outlier that many experts believe will eventually decide to build a nuclear arsenal. The Obama administration did not react to this changing strategic situation.

The Pentagon’s new posture review is based in part on a reversal of the outdated Obama-era assessment.  Most likely it will include:

  • Recognition of an increased global nuclear threat
  • Recommendations on increasing the US nuclear force modernization—warheads and delivery vehicles
  • A recommendation to revise US and NATO warfighting doctrine, tactics and techniques.

To many this may result in a modernized version of the Reagan era capability gap and a cry for almost drastic efforts to close the gap.  This will be a major fight for resources that President Trump could lose based upon liberal intransigence and an unwillingness to accept the threat.  Will the US and NATO react in time and with appropriate responses?

Is NATO’s Atlantic Resolve soon to be an inappropriate activity when the Russian nuclear threat is considered? OR can it or should it be modified to include the artillery battalion in the deployed brigade combat teams (BCTs) have nuclear warheads available?  Should the deployed artillery battalions train for the conduct of nuclear operations?  Should the ground forces train for operations in a nuclear environment?  Should additional nuclear capable systems be deployed with the BCTs?  These are all questions that NATO and the US need to consider as the efforts to deter Russian aggression continue.

Is the cold war returning?