A fortnight before Christmas, Washington dispatched a most unwelcome gift toward Russia and China. It streaked high over the Californian desert, arched into the darkness of space, then, having traveled 500km, plunged into the Pacific Ocean. It was the US’s first intermediate-range ballistic missile (ICBM) test since withdrawing from the treaty that banned their use. Three weeks later, the world’s embryonic arms race accelerated further. The Avangard— Moscow’s cutting-edge new missile system which is supposedly impossible to be shot down—also entered combat duty.
Consequences Of America’s Withdrawal From The INF
Just six months ago the Americans’ test would’ve been forbidden. The Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), signed in 1987, prohibited the firing of land-based missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500km. The pact survived the fall of Soviet Russia, Eastern Europe’s shift westward, and the ascendancy of Vladimir Putin, but within two years of taking office, US President Donald Trump had it scrapped.
Some heralded Trump’s move, saying that it allowed cheaper, more flexible land-based launchers to be developed, freeing the US Navy and Air Force to pursue other priorities. Indeed, having now conducted two successful tests—the first, in August, involved a cruise missile—America’s military brass is keen to advance their “intermediate-range capabilities” further, a Pentagon spokesman said recently.
Not All American Politicians Are Onboard With The New Arms Race
But US lawmakers aren’t wholeheartedly behind the program. Days prior to the December 12 test of the new ICBM, Congress at last reached agreement on the National Defense Authorisation Act (NDAA). Incensed at Trump’s INF withdrawal, Democrats had pushed for new missile production to be sidelined. Republicans, unsurprisingly, took an opposing view, warning of their global adversaries’ own military expansion. A compromise was reached, allocating substantial funds to armament research, but preventing the delivery of new intermediate-range missiles before October 2020.
US Missile Program Focus: Countering Russia And China
When combat-ready, these weapons will meet the Russian threat—but only if they’re within range, which means regional deployment. The Kremlin’s new Avangard system is classified as intercontinental, putting Western Europe within easy reach. Combined with Moscow’s increased willingness to flex its military might in recent years, America’s European allies have good reason to fear their easterly neighbor. An emphasis on defensive measures (that is to say, not land-based missile batteries) is therefore the continent’s preferred path forward.
Washington’s Asian allies take a similar stance with China. Having never signed the INF, Beijing has, in recent years, become the world leader in short and medium-range weaponry. In August, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said that he’d like to see new American missiles dispatched to Asia and the Pacific “sooner rather than later”.
But a sizeable diplomatic hurdle stands in the way of speedy deployment, with South Korea, Japan and Australia each refusing to play ball. Their rationale is clear, says Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association: housing American missiles could put them on China’s—or even North Korea’s—“target list.”
There’s no sign of the Oval Office changing course, however. The last of the major US-Russian arms control pacts, 2010’s New START Treaty, is due for renewal in little over a year, ut Trump has refused to rule out letting it lapse. For the Kremlin, which supports the accord’s renewal, this is a diplomatic gift. While the White House skips around the issue, Russia can push ahead with its weapons program, delivering new missiles (like the Avangard) while acting as the good guy who would favor future agreements if not for US obstructionism.
The truth is, when it comes to international security, there are no good guys. Nations are guided by their undying drive for self-preservation. Often, that means reaching accommodation with global adversaries. But it can also mean rearmament and escalating militarism. For better or worse, that is the direction we’re headed.