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Rethinking Missile Treaties

It is time that politicians ask the military what political objectives are achievable through use of force and what are the risks involved.

Progressive turbulence in global geopolitics seems fated to be a hostage to the law of cruelty, which, while describing the reality that often prevails in human affairs, states: “When you have something, you don’t want it and when you want something, you don’t have it”.

Proponents of arms control have postulated that improvement in political relations is a necessary condition for effectiveness. This is, however, also the period when the necessity for arms control is minimal. So, during the different stages of the cold war, and reflective of positive swings in US-Soviet relations, several bi-lateral and multi-lateral arms control measures became feasible. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF Treaty) were the major agreements that fostered strategic stability and facilitated significant cutbacks in both deployed and undeployed nuclear weapons.

In 2002, the United States unilaterally pulled out of the BMD Treaty stating the need to counter missile threats from countries described as the ‘axis of evil’ – Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Retrospectively, their anti-missile systems deployed in Europe have not made any value addition to Europe’s security. Instead, they have been a cause of friction with the Russians, who perceive them as weapons that could be converted for offensive purposes. Iraq is no longer a threat, and Iran has agreed to eschew nuclear weapons through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which is a multi-lateral treaty that is still in force. This is despite the Trump administration unilaterally pulling out citing concerns that the agreement is insufficient to ensure that Iran will not acquire nuclear weapons in the future.

In the last couple of years North Korea has demonstrated its missile and nuclear potential that could even target the United States. There now exists scarcely any political logic for  North Korea to threaten Europe, since it can threaten the United States. In hindsight, the threats projected to exit the BMD treaty have proven to be illusionary, and even worse, they have provoked counter-moves that have produced diverse technological products to overcome the BMD systems like decoys, MIRVs and hyper-glide vehicles. In the context of inter-state conflict, BMD effectiveness, though it may capable of providing some defense against a very limited attack by non- state actors appears to be ineffectual.

In October 2018, when the United States announced its intention to withdraw from the INF treaty, history seems to be repeating itself. The bi-lateral treaty which was anchored in the European context and entered into force on 01 June 1988, during the dying stages of the Cold War was reflective of the improvement in political relations. The treaty mandated the elimination of ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 to 5500 kms and by 1 June 1991 both parties had destroyed a total of 2692 missiles, overseen by an elaborate verification process.

Once again, the primary rationale for withdrawal is mutation of threats. Russia has been blamed for violation of the treaty and posing threats to Europe by the deployment of banned missiles. But even if the missile in question is non-compliant, the scale of deployment does not indicate that it poses a major threat that warrants the demise of the treaty. Russia has denied the accusation of violation and accused the United States instead of deploying anti-missile systems that can be converted for offensive purposes. That there has been no concerted effort by either side to resolve the issues can be attributed to the state of political relations. However, in all likelihood it is the threat posed by China’s missiles in the Western Pacific that maybe the primary reason for United States deciding to withdraw from INF treaty.

In the last couple of years, The United States military has asserted that the phenomenal growth of China’s missile capability demands that the United States frees itself from the constraints posed by the INF treaty and develop a ground-based intermediate and short-range missile capability. There are, however, alternate views that maintain that specific to the Western Pacific, deploying missiles on ships, submarines or aircraft that are not banned by the INF treaty would suffice. In addition, ground-based systems in the territory of Allies would be problematic.

There is also a suggestion to bring China into the treaty. For China, this would entail giving up about 85%-90% of its arsenal which therefore makes it a non-starter. Once the United States withdraws from the INF treaty, it can be expected to boost the momentum of the arms race in the Western Pacific, South China Sea and East Asia. Within the United States military, there would also be competing demands between the sea, air and land components which can expect to be boosted by the military-industrial complex.

During the Cold War, threats born of military imagination captured the political logic of both sides, resulting in the creation of astronomical numbers of delivery systems and warheads that can best be described as madness. This time, it is a trilateral context between United States, Russia and China. The military imagination still believes in the fiction that limited conventional wars can be fought between nuclear powers, and that limited nuclear wars can be controlled. Once again, imagined military threats that are abstracted from political contexts and viable political outcomes seem to be gaining ground in the strategic conversation of global powers especially within the United States.  It is time that politicians ask the military what political objectives are achievable through use of force and what are the risks involved.

An escape from the law of cruelty requires educating the political leadership on the existential dangers that inheres in our thinking on the utility of force in the context of nuclear armed powers. While the creation of military power in the name of deterrence maybe a necessary condition for war prevention but it is insufficient. The United States withdrawal from the INF treaty is symptomatic of a politically abstracted military thinking masquerading as lethal threats, and prevailing over political prudence.

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About the author

Lt Gen Prakash Menon

Lt. Gen. (Retd) Prakash Menon is the Director of the Strategic Studies Programme at The Takshashila Institution. He was the Major General General Staff of the army’s Northern Command responsible for operations in J&K and the Commandant of the National Defence College, New Delhi. After his retirement in 2011, he continued in government as the Military Advisor and Secretary to Government of India and from 2015 as Officer on Special Duty in the National Security Council Secretariat.He has a PhD from Madras University for his thesis “Limited War and Nuclear Deterrence in the Indo-Pak context”. He was appointed by the Union Cabinet as a member of an expert group for the creation of the Indian National Defence University.