War Stories

The New Missile Gap

Trump isn’t returning us to a Cold War–era arms race. It’s more senseless than that.

Demonstrators with Putin and Trump masks face each other with rocket models.
Demonstrators with Putin and Trump masks face each other with rocket models on Pariser Platz in Berlin
Photo by Paul Zinken/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

The Pentagon is about to engage in the sort of arms-race antics that it abandoned long ago and, before then, only rarely indulged, even at the height of the Cold War.

A year ago, President Donald Trump charged the Russians with violating the Reagan-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which barred the testing or deployment of any U.S. or Russian missiles having a range of 500 to 5,000 kilometers (310 to 3,100 miles). Therefore, he announced he would soon withdraw from the accord. Last week, the United States officially pulled out. That same day, the new secretary of defense, Mark Esper, released this statement:

Now that we have withdrawn, the Department of Defense will fully pursue the development of these [once-outlawed] ground-launched conventional cruise missiles as a prudent response to Russia’s actions and as part of the Joint Force’s broader portfolio of conventional strike options.

In other words, the Russians are building these kinds of missiles; therefore, we will build them too.

I recently asked a knowledgeable Pentagon official what the mission of these new missiles would be and where they would be based. He replied that no “operational concept” had yet been devised and that no discussions had yet been held with allies on basing.

Esper said the missiles would probably be aimed at China, which was never party to the INF Treaty and which has built hundreds of conventional (i.e., non-nuclear) missiles of this range, enabling them to hit South Korea, Japan, and U.S. forces in the Pacific. The new missiles would fill a gap in our defenses.

However, this makes no sense. If Pentagon officials had ever believed that China’s missiles needed to be countered with similar missiles of our own, they could have developed them at any time and placed them on ships or submarines. The INF Treaty banned only land-based missiles of that range; it placed no restrictions on missiles at sea.

Nor is it clear, even after talks with allies take place, just where the new land-based missiles would be stationed. Japan and South Korea are extremely unlikely to allow the new American missiles—which China and North Korea would view as provocative—on their soil. European allies have made it clear, for several years, that they have no desire for such missiles either.

These new missiles, unlike the ones we dismantled after the treaty was signed, will not be armed with nuclear weapons. However, they could later be modified to carry nukes—one reason allies don’t want to take them. The INF Treaty banned conventional and nuclear missiles of this range because it was impossible to verify which kind of weapons they might be carrying.

In short, the secretary of defense is keen to test a type of missile that no one has requested for more than 30 years, without knowing where it would be stationed or why it’s particularly needed. Its only rationale seems to be that other countries are building one, and now, legally, so can we.

It’s a shallow reason, and one that the Pentagon has rarely invoked. In 1961, the Soviet Union tested a 50-megaton nuclear bomb—but the United States didn’t match the feat. We had the technology to do so, but there was no need for a bomb that big (and, in fact, the Soviets never did put it on an airplane or a missile). In the mid-to-late 1970s, the Soviets built three types of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying multiple warheads—the SS-17 carrying four warheads, the SS-19 with six warheads, and the SS-18 with 10. The United States had already fielded one type of multiple-warhead missile—the Minuteman III, with three warheads apiece—and not even the Air Force pushed for any more, because they weren’t needed.

In the early 1980s, as the Soviets deployed a large number of these missiles, the Pentagon did build a 10-warhead model called, in a Strangelovian touch, the Peacekeeper. But after building 50 of the missiles, President George H.W. Bush abandoned the project and dismantled those that had been deployed, in part because a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, called the Trident II, carried enough warheads to execute the nuclear war plan.

Throughout the U.S.-Russian arms race, each side has responded in some way to what the other was doing (or what it believed the other was doing). But rarely has one side simply duplicated the other’s move for its own sake.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty in 1987, as a landmark in the waning days of the Cold War and an era of new détente. It was the first arms-control treaty that eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons, 2,692 missiles in all: the Soviet Union’s SS-4, SS-5, and SS-20 missiles, based in Russia, capable of striking targets throughout Western Europe; and the U.S Ground-Launched Cruise Missiles and Pershing II ballistic missiles, based in Western Europe, capable of striking targets in Russia. (A little more than two-thirds of the missiles eliminated were Russia’s.)

For several years now, the Russians have been testing a cruise missile, known as the SSC-8, that falls within the range banned by the INF Treaty. President Obama raised concerns about the missile in the forum set up to discuss compliance issues. The Russians always denied the charge. Trump’s emissaries warned in October that it would withdraw from the treaty unless Russia changed course. Russia didn’t; Trump withdrew.

The irony is that Trump handed Moscow a gift. Russian officers hated the INF Treaty from the moment Gorbachev signed it. When George W. Bush was president, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov pleaded with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at least three times to make a deal allowing both sides to get out of the treaty. Rumsfeld ignored the request, knowing that there was no appetite in the Pentagon, the Congress, or within NATO for bringing back the Ground-Launched Cruise Missile or Pershing II. In other words, scuttling the treaty would help only the Russians.

At a level unmatched since the Cold War, the Pentagon is sating a bottomless appetite for whatever weapons it can manage to get funded. And the president—who regards weapons as the stuff of parades and defense budgets as tokens of power, the bigger the better—is imposing no limits, regardless of what’s really needed or whether he might be helping to fuel a new arms race.