The U.S. has had a brief respite from nuclear apocalypticism after that brief period when Donald Trump seemed pretty likely to start a war with North Korea via Twitter. But this being Trump, the power of the U.S. nuclear arsenal has never seemed very far from his mind, and on Saturday he announced the country will be leaving the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF)—a landmark Ronald Reagan-era treaty between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union (now Russia) that eliminated all nuclear and conventional missiles with a range between 310-3,240 miles (not including those based at sea).
Leaving one of his interminable campaign rallies in Nevada, CNN reported, Trump told reporters that “Russia has violated the agreement. They’ve been violating it for many years”:
“And I don’t know why President Obama didn’t negotiate or pull out. And we’re not going to let them violate a nuclear agreement and go out and do weapons and we’re not allowed to,” he said. “We’re the ones that have stayed in the agreement and we’ve honored the agreement.
“But Russia has not, unfortunately, honored the agreement. So we’re going to terminate the agreement. We’re gonna pull out,” he said of the agreement, which was signed in December 1987 by former President Ronald Reagan and former USSR President Mikhail Gorbachecv.
As the New York Times noted, the treaty had long been seen as effective until Russia violated the treaty in 2014 by testing a new ground-based cruise missile. Some 2,692 missiles were destroyed as a result of the pact, and most of them (1,846) belonged to the Russians instead of the U.S. (846).
In response, then-President Barack Obama initially opted for a cautious diplomatic response that was later superseded by hawks in Congress who urged the U.S. develop their own treaty-violating systems, as well as implemented provisions the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists described as an “exit strategy.” Yet as the Times noted, leaving the treaty would not only potentially escalate relations with Russia, but China, which is not a signatory to the INF and would likely interpret U.S. abandonment of the treaty as a prelude to encroachment on their sphere of influence:
But the pact has also constrained the United States from deploying new weapons to respond to China’s efforts to cement a dominant position in the Western Pacific and to keep American naval forces at bay. Because China was not a signatory to the treaty, it has faced no limits on developing intermediate-range nuclear missiles, which can travel thousands of miles.
... The Pentagon has already been developing nuclear weapons to match, and counter, what the Chinese have deployed. But that effort would take years, so, in the interim, the United States is preparing to modify existing weapons, including its non-nuclear Tomahawk missiles, and is likely to deploy them first in Asia, according to officials who have been briefed on the issue. Those may be based in Japan, or perhaps in Guam, where the United States maintains a large base and would face little political opposition.
Reuters noted that China has invested heavily in intermediate-range conventional missiles “as part of an anti-access/area denial strategy.”
According to the Times, the White House said that no formal decision has been made yet, but sources said such a declaration is likely to happen soon. One likely option in the short term will be to develop new versions of the Tomahawk cruise missile, which is currently launched by ships, for deployment on land.
Hans M. Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told the Times, “The collapse of the treaty would likely open up a missile race in Europe and elsewhere. It would signal a new phase where countries would compete to deploy and counterdeploy weapons.”
The Guardian reported that the demise of the INF is likely the brainchild of national security adviser John Bolston, “a longstanding opponent of arms control treaties,” and that he and National Security Council arms control adviser Tim Morrison are also pushing for the end of the 2010 New Start agreement that limits the U.S. and Russia to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear missiles. That agreement will end in 2021 if it is not extended.
While it’s tempting to worry exclusively about the specific individual whose fingers are aching to hit that big red button right now, arms experts are concerned that the demise of the treaty could bring back the Cold War-era nuclear arms race—which is very bad news no matter who ends up sitting behind the Resolute Desk.
Deputy director general of the Royal United Services Institute Malcolm Chalmers told the Guardian the situation was more serious than at any time since the 1980s, adding, “If the INF treaty collapses, and with the New Start treaty on strategic arms due to expire in 2021, the world could be left without any limits on the nuclear arsenals of nuclear states for the first time since 1972.”