The Trump administration’s planned withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Treaty is a major win for the U.S. Army, which has made the development of missiles and artillery its top priority in preparing to counter threats from Russia and China. Yet the deployment of those weapons in Europe is politically fraught, experts warn, and could expose a rift in the NATO alliance.
Major NATO allies, like Germany, strongly object to the deployment of noncompliant missile systems in Europe. Nonproliferation experts fear that the Trump administration could bypass NATO’s formal decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, and make a bilateral deal with states in Eastern Europe, like Poland.
“That would fundamentally shake the confidence from the rest of the alliance that the United States is any longer willing to hear them,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “If that were to happen, then we’re in entirely new territory.”
Under the NATO framework, decisions about the deployment of weapon systems typically bubble up through a series of military and political committees. The concern, experts say, is that the U.S. and Poland could cut a direct bilateral agreement, angering other NATO members and undermining the collective security framework.
Poland has been “fishing” for ground-launched Tomahawks and other noncompliant missile systems for some time, said Rachel Ellehuus, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the former principal director for European and NATO policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Nothing in the collective defense framework prohibits such deals, but European member states could make them less appealing through indirect pressure.
“There would be a lot of pressure … on the Poles,” Ellehuus said. “It could come bilaterally through Germany and France; it could come through the EU in terms of that budget. I think a lot of countries would pull levers to prevent Poland or the Baltic states from getting systems that may make Poland feel more secure but really … put a big red target on the entire region.
“Now that the treaty is scrapped, we need to have a discussion [about] what is the security environment we want and what does it take to feel secure … in terms of broader arms control,” Ellehuus added.
Under the Cold War-era treaty, Russia and the U.S. may not “possess, produce, or flight-test” ground-launched cruise or ballistic missiles capable of flying between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The U.S. has announced it plans to withdraw from the treaty because of Russia’s development of the 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile. Russia, meanwhile, has alleged that the U.S. deployment of the Aegis Ashore missile-defense systems to Poland violates the INF. Both Russia and the U.S. are set to formally withdraw from the treaty in six months.
Even before the withdrawals were announced, the U.S. had begun research on noncompliant systems—ground-based missiles capable of flying between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Research on noncompliant systems is allowed under the treaty.
“The logic is very simple: You cannot verify research,” said Nikolai Sokov, a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies who worked for the Soviet negotiating team on the treaty. “The presumption here is that nobody will deploy a full weapon that has not been tested.”
For the Army, those systems fall under the umbrella of the long-range precision-fires program. The planned Strategic Long-Range Cannon, for example, and a future hypersonic ground-launched missile would be capable of flying 1,000 and 1,400 miles, respectively. The Army’s planned Precision Strike Missile is currently capped just under the treaty’s 500-kilometer limit but could be modified to fly further.
In fact, the quickest way the Army could field noncompliant systems would be to modify existing sea-launched and air-launched systems to launch from the ground. Such systems include the Air Force's JASSM, and the Navy’s LRASM and Tomahawk missiles. The Army might also modify its existing Tactical Missile System to fly further.
“[This] could mean changes to the propulsion system to give it more thrust and throw weight; it could mean a larger fuel tank so that the burn rates are longer so as to extend the range,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
“There can be a fair bit of commonality with past programs and airframes and booster stacks,” said Thomas Karako, director of the CSIS Missile Defense Project. “We launch from the sea, we launch from air platforms, and while launching from the ground is different ... there’s presumably some commonality there.”
Russia, meanwhile, recently announced plans to modify the Kalibr, a sea-based cruise missile similar to the Tomahawk, and hopes to build a hypersonic missile capable of penetrating NATO defenses.
Most experts were skeptical that the Army’s ground-launched missile systems were preferable to existing, more mobile sea- and air-launched systems. The Army’s missiles would also have to be conventional, at least in the short term, because its nuclear capabilities were phased out in the 1990s.
But the Army is pushing hard for the new weapons.
“The more you can outdistance your adversary, the more capability that you have that you could, with impunity, strike them and impose costs on them,” Army Secretary Mark Esper told the American Enterprise Institute in November, when speaking about long-range fires. “And so the more range you have, better.”
Democratic presidential contenders oppose the development of the systems. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders, and Kamala Harris cosponsored legislation last month blocking research and development until the Defense secretary submits a report to the armed services and foreign affairs committees in both chambers verifying, among other things, what their proliferation would mean for U.S. national security. If the weapons were to be deployed to Europe, the legislation states, NATO’s principal political body must concur with the decision.
Yet, while senior administration officials have maintained that Russian noncompliance drove the U.S. to leave the treaty, the Army may actually be focusing on a bigger threat: China.
“I wouldn’t rush to think about Europe; first, think about the Asia-Pacific,” Karako said. “China is the pacing threat, as they say, and that’s where a lot of overmatch on the part of China might currently challenge our forces.”