The better solution to the problem of which INF Treaty withdrawal is a symptom is to reach a sustainable peace between Europe and Russia over the boundaries, economy, trade relationships and military position of Ukraine. Unless and until that is done, Europe will continue being armed to the teeth at the whim of two Superpowers in a replication of the perils and omens of the Cold War.
By Matthew Parish
There is a problem with placing nuclear warheads on cruise missiles. It is very serious indeed. To understand why the United States has recently declared its intention to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (the “INF Treaty” as it is called), it is imperative to understand the nature of this problem and just how grave it is.
Modern cruise missiles are guided missiles that fly, typically at low altitudes and relatively high speeds (more than Mach 1), over intermediate ranges to hit terrestrial targets. All major military forces have them. They can be fired from warships, submarines, aeroplanes or surface-based vehicle or installations. They can be very accurate. They might have a range of a few hundred kilometres: for example up to 500km, although there are no set rules in this regard.
The INF Treaty effectively prohibits the nuclear powers from affixing nuclear warheads to cruise missiles that are launched from land-based silos. There is good reason for this. Unlike intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM’s), long-range missiles that travel at speeds of up to Mach 23 (in the case of the US “Minuteman” missiles stored in silos in the western United States) and that carry only nuclear warheads, cruise missiles are used routinely in conventional warfare. In observing this rigid distinction between the different sorts of warhead deployed to different types of missile, one nuclear power can be tolerably certain whether the use of a missile by another nuclear power is a declaration of nuclear war or merely a use of conventional weaponry. The test is easy: you measure the speed, using radar, of the missile. If it is travelling at Mach 23, it is a nuclear weapon and World War Three is about to begin. If it is travelling at Mach 1, it is a cruise missile with a conventional payload, and it is merely an index of conventional warfare (or the testing of a cruise missile; the technological consensus is that missiles need to be tested if they are to be accurate).
It follows from this that one would be foolish ever to fire an inter-continental ballistic missile if the missile did not have a nuclear warhead on it. That is because the assumption of other nuclear powers would be that a missile travelling at the speed typical of an ICBM does indeed carry a nuclear warhead, and the fact that such a missile is travelling anywhere at all might credibly engage the second nuclear power’s so-called “second strike” capacity. This is an essential component of the nuclear deterrent that is the only rational motivation for possessing nuclear weapons in the first place. Nuclear deterrent is the ability to guarantee that if another nuclear power uses nuclear weapons first, a state will be able to strike back with immediately available nuclear weapons before the first set of nuclear weapons hits their targets and wipes out the ability to retaliate. If all nuclear powers have a second strike capacity, then the nuclear peace will be kept through the threat of “mutually assured destruction”. Hence every nuclear power needs the capacity to identify incoming nuclear warheads and immediately to return the same.
Because ICBM’s are so expensive, costly and unwieldy to be used for any purposes except nuclear armageddon, there is no need for an international treaty prohibiting the affixation of non-nuclear warheads to ICBM’s. Any such treaty would be self-enforcing. Indeed the stockpiling, testing and firing of ICBM’s is extremely restricted by treaty, again for self-enforcing reasons: any nuclear state that fires one stands a high risk of its activity triggering a rival nuclear state’s second-strike capacity.
The same logic ought to apply in reverse for cruise missiles, except that it doesn’t work because the relative pay-off from “cheating” is so much higher. Nobody cheats when it comes to ICBM’s. There is no point cheating – affixing a conventional warhead to an ICBM – because the likely result of cheating is nuclear wipe-out. On the other hand, cheating on cruise missiles might enable a nuclear state to acquire a so-called “first strike” capacity: namely the ability to use nuclear weapons against an opponent that can strike without one’s opponent have the opportunity between launch and detonation to retaliate. This is because cheating when it comes to cruise missiles involves firing missiles with nuclear warheads that ordinarily would be used for conventional military purposes, and that would be expected to detonate their nuclear warheads within a much shorter period of time of launch than ICBM’s. Hence the nuclear state that does not fire first would be at grave risk of missing the fact that a nuclear warhead had been fired at them until it was too late for their second-strike capacity to kick in.
Cruise missiles (or other intermediate-range ballistic missiles) with nuclear warheads can be located very close indeed to the territory of rival nuclear powers. Russia can locate such nuclear warheads in Cuba or Venezuela. The United States can place them in Turkey or Poland. The dangers associated with intermediate-range or cruise missiles affixed with nuclear warheads led to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The Soviet Union sought to send such missiles to Cuba. The first-strike capacity this presented to the United States was considered so dangerous that the United States blockaded the entire island of Cuba to prevent the Soviet ships with the relevant missiles aboard from getting through. The world held its breath, as we waited to see whether we were on the edge of World War Three.
To prevent recurrence of events in the nature of the Cuban Missile Crisis, towards the end of the Cold War it was agreed by international treaty not to affix nuclear warheads to ground-launched cruise missiles. Monitoring is relatively straightforward. Spy satellites do it. The enforcement mechanism ought to be automatic: if one party cheats, then the other party will cheat as well and hence we will have lots of mini Cuban Missile Crises as well as an effective ban upon the use of cruise missiles because all nuclear states will have to create mechanisms automatically to fire ICBM’s (or retaliatory nuclear-tipped cruise missiles) immediately whenever a cruise missile is launched. That is because it will be impossible, upon mere launch, to establish whether the cruise missile is tipped with a nuclear warhead and hence the preservation of second-strike capacity requires perpetual overkill.
There are some nuances. The INF Treaty, that the United States has declared its intention to pull out of, bans all ground-launched intermediate range missiles, whether or not they have nuclear warheads affixed to them. But the point of the treaty is that it is too easy to affix nuclear warheads to such missiles to avoid the consequences explained above. The INF Treaty dates from 1987. The question is why this ostensibly self-enforcing treaty is suddenly falling apart now. Arguably the principal answer, as with so much recent European geopolitical hostility, is Ukraine.
In 2014 Russia annexed Crimea and then Russian-backed militias occupied the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine. As a result, a number of regional NATO members – in particular the Baltic States and Poland – expressed their fears of further Russian regional aggression. Poland starting angling for the deployment of US missile bases on its territory. NATO initiated military exercises in the Baltic Sea, involving ships (and potentially submarines) carrying cruise missiles. Russia then re-began a programme of ground-launched intermediate ballistic missiles in the region, with the capability to carry nuclear warheads. The United States then announced its intention to withdraw from the INF Treaty, and to locate intermediate-range nuclear-armed missiles in central Europe to counter and deter the Russian threat.
The INF Treaty assumed regional European peace in the late years of the Soviet Union. It was an unrealistic treaty while Europe remained a potential theatre of war. That is because intermediate-range ballistic missiles, armed with nuclear warheads, are a principal organ of deterrence against the commencement of such a war given that any such conflict would inevitably be fought at close quarters. The reason concerns about such a war have been heightened are by reason of military clashes in Ukraine, a buffer state between Russia and the European Union. Given the escalation in tensions, both sides were likely to arm each against the other and hence the INF Treaty was likely to end up dead in the water.
It does not matter in principle whether one formally withdraws from a self-enforcing treaty. That is just a piece of symbolism. What matters is whether the treaty is self-enforcing in the sense that both sides are observing it. If they are, then the treaty does not need to be in force at all. If they are not, then the existence of a formal treaty is palpably making no difference. Once one side ceases to observe it, such a treaty has manifestly ceased to be self-enforcing and hence it remains of scant value unless the incentives to make it self-enforcing can be reinstated.
In circumstances of escalated tension, there is a perverse logic to abandoning the precepts of the INF Treaty. Because war is likely, the parties engage in an arms race in the region where the tensions exist, and this serves as its own version of second-strike deterrence. If a region is armed to the teeth with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, then arguably the likelihood of war is decreased because the consequences of there being a war or further confrontation are rendered so dramatically more grave. Maybe abandoning the INF Treaty, in substance (as with Russia) or in form (as with the United States), may be a tool on the way to redeeming the peace in Ukraine. Nobody dares escalate any further. So they would be better advised looking for de-escalatory solutions.
On the other hand, this kind of escalation increases the risk of accident; and increases the potentially devastating consequences of accident. Ukraine, and central Europe more generally, is too small a theatre to serve as the basis for an isolated arms race. A return to a divided Europe as it was during the Cold War, by virtue of escalation in Superpowers’ capacities to blow Europe to pieces with nuclear weapons, is barely attractive. Europe was an unsafe place then. It risks becoming so again. Moreover the consequences of accident are more likely to be for the Russians to bare than for the Americans, because Russia is so much more proximate to the region now being re-armed. The Russians also have less money to invest in a new European arms race than does the gigantic military-industrial complex of the United States.
Hence the American approach of formal withdrawal from the INF Treaty, while ruthlessly unsavoury, is rational in the face of Russian determination not to observe the spirit of the treaty in the first place. The better solution to the problem of which INF Treaty withdrawal is a symptom is to reach a sustainable peace between Europe and Russia over the boundaries, economy, trade relationships and military position of Ukraine. Unless and until that is done, Europe will continue being armed to the teeth at the whim of two Superpowers in a replication of the perils and omens of the Cold War.
Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He has published two books and over 250 articles on the subject. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and he has was listed as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is currently a candidate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for appointment to a position of Under Secretary General of the United Nations with an agenda for institutional reform.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.