It’s Not About Trust

Why Russia's missile mischief shows that the United States needs to think differently about arms control.

The New York Times reported today that the United States this month informed its NATO allies that it had discovered that Russia had tested a ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the landmark 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which permanently banned Russia and the United States from possessing ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles. Nor, evidently, is this the only such Russian activity along these lines: Bill Gertz reported in October that Russia had flight-tested its RS-26 missile -- which it claims is an intercontinental ballistic missile -- to intermediate ranges. Some regard this as an outright violation of the treaty, although the New York Times reported that "Western officials" consider this to be a "circumvention" rather than a straight violation of the INF Treaty.

What does all this mean? Well, let's put it in perspective first. Russia's apparently rather blatant flouting of the INF Treaty doesn't jeopardize America's nuclear deterrent or even really do much to the overall nuclear balance. Moscow already wields nuclear weapons that can hit the United States and also has plenty of nuclear weapons of varying ranges (including intermediate-range air­-launched forces) that can hit Europe. Indeed, the capabilities Russia appears to be working on don't even really increase the threat to the nuclear forces of America's British and French allies, both of which now rely on submarines at sea for survival and retaliation.

So why should Americans care about what appears to be a violation of a seemingly abstruse arms control agreement from another era, especially a violation that doesn't really pose a particularly new threat to the U.S. defense posture?

The answer is that we should care because of what it tells us -- about Russia, about arms control, and about how we should look at America's own nuclear deterrent.

First of all, it tells us that Moscow seems to have decided that, when it suits its purposes, it will, if not ignore, then effectively circumvent the legacy arms control architecture inherited from the Cold War. This is interesting, given that Russia apparently at least considered a more open and legally-minded approach to getting out of what it regarded as a nettlesome arms control regime. According to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's recent memoir, Moscow proposed jointly terminating the INF Treaty to the Bush administration in 2007, but was rebuffed. And, if the Bush administration wasn't interested, the Obama administration has definitely not been interested in dismantling existing arms control agreements. Evidently, observing Washington's resistance to ending INF, Moscow has decided simply to circumvent rather than go through the bother of abrogating it. This suggests that, in the future, we can expect Russia will be prepared to, at the very least, play fast and loose with inconvenient arms control agreements rather than withdraw from them (as the United States did in the case of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002).

More broadly, Russian violations and circumventions only lend further strength to growing doubts about Moscow's reliability as a constructive partner. As demonstrated by the Syrian chemical weapons negotiations, Russia may be willing to work with the United States on specific points when interests overlap, but the higher hopes of the "reset" should certainly be laid to rest for the time being -- the current regime in the Kremlin is not one to trust without a good dose of verification. Needless to say, this is unfortunate and should not be taken as a permanent state of affairs; but it nonetheless is the only conclusion that seems prudent about the current government in Moscow.

Beyond bilateral relations, Russia's activities tell us something about Moscow's threat perceptions and strategy. As Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2007 when proposing the termination of the INF Treaty, Russia is building up its ground-launched intermediate missile forces -- not so much to deal with the United States and NATO but for threats from points South and East that fall within the 500 to 5,500-kilometer range covered by treaty: namely, China, Iran, and Pakistan. Moreover, while Russia may be intending to use such weapons in conventional variants, it seems reasonable to infer that Moscow expects to have to continue to relying to a significant degree on its nuclear forces in dealing with these unpredictable neighbors -- and above all with China. Indeed, especially when coupled with the increasing clamor from top Russian strategic thinkers about the possibility that the PRC's nuclear forces are much larger than conventional wisdom would allow, one can see these developments as an indirect indicator of rising anxiety in the Kremlin over Beijing.

But Moscow's actions also speak to more than just the peculiarities of Vladimir Putin's Russia. Rather, they tell us some interesting things about arms control and nuclear deterrence. Above all, Moscow's behavior shows that arms control agreements -- even such cornerstone deals as the INF, which had achieved a near-totemic status in arms-control lore -- can't be seriously relied on for our security. This is doubly so because the INF was probably the most intrusive and exhaustive arms control agreement of the Cold War -- perhaps ever. Though it included mind-numbingly detailed provisions for verification and monitoring, it also simply eliminated many of the usual problems by banning a whole class of weapons. So if an agreement that is as long-lasting and as exhaustively elaborated as the INF can be flouted in a period of moderate tension, can we really expect such agreements to hold in periods of far more serious tension, let alone conflict?

It would seem imprudent to expect so. That means arms control is no substitute for deterrence. Ultimately, the United States needs to rely on the credible threat of decisive military power when it makes calculations about security.

But this doesn't mean that it shouldn't pursue arms control. Quite the contrary, Washington should pursue arms control -- but of a different kind than we've been led to expect over the last years. Rather than seeing arms control agreements as way-stations on the way to disarmament or as permanent masterworks never to be altered or surpassed, we should see them in a much more limited but practical light: as utilitarian means to shave off the unnecessary sharp edges of military competition and political tensions between countries that have real differences. Arms control agreements aren't pledges of fidelity; they're things you negotiate with states you don't trust -- or sometimes even like -- to dampen tensions and minimize the chances of unnecessary war due to miscalculation or misperception.

Thus, while the administration needs to hold Moscow to account for its violations, it also shouldn't miss the forest for the trees: the United States should continue to seek ways to find agreements with Russia that increase its security -- for instance, by trying to constrain Moscow's development of a new heavy intercontinental ballistic missile, or persuading them that American missile defenses are not a reason to put their forces on a hair-trigger alert, and the like. (Note that reducing numbers is not a part of that agenda.)

We can work with potential adversaries to mitigate risks and reduce tensions, but Moscow's infidelity is another reminder that competition and the threat of conflict is endemic to international relations. Arms control will always be, at most, a useful ancillary aid but never a reliable foundation of security.



The Arms Race Goes Hypersonic

Why China's new ultrafast missile has Moscow and Washington scrambling.

With grainy photographs of China's new drones and manned stealth fighters trickling onto the Internet every few months, Beijing's rapid military modernization has become a reliable source of anxiety in Western capitals. But there's one area of military technology you've probably never heard of, where a new and potentially dangerous arms race is brewing and where a crisis could touch off rapid and uncontrollable escalation.

The arena for this contest is the obscure military technology of ultra-fast, long-range -- or boost-glide -- weaponry. Such weapons are designed to be launched -- or "boosted" -- by large rockets. All U.S. tests, for example, have used repurposed long-range ballistic missiles that, in a former life, were used to threaten the Soviet Union with nuclear warheads. But instead of arcing high above the Earth like ballistic missiles, boost-glide weapons re-enter the atmosphere quickly and then glide at incredibly high speeds, potentially for thousands of miles.

It's old news that the United States is currently developing boost-glide weapons as part of the Pentagon's Conventional Prompt Global Strike program. As originally conceived a decade ago, this program was intended to produce non-nuclear weapons capable of reaching a target anywhere in the world within an hour. The Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, on which the lion's share of funding is currently focused, would not meet this goal. But with a range of roughly 5,000 miles, it would still have a much longer reach than any non-nuclear missile the United States currently possesses.

It now appears that China and Russia are following the United States' lead.

China conducted its first test of a boost-glide weapon, dubbed WU-14 by the U.S. Department of Defense, on Jan. 9. This test was not entirely unexpected. Surveys of the unclassified Chinese technical literature (such as this one by Lora Saalman and this one by Mark Stokes, both of whom are American experts on Chinese military research) reveal that theoretical research into boost-glide weapons has been going on for some time. Still, very little information about the test itself is publicly available. The Chinese government has stated that it took place "in our territory." Elsewhere, it was reported that the missile was launched from Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in Shanxi province.

If these two claims are correct -- and that's an important caveat -- then together they imply that the total flight distance must have been no more than about 1,800 miles (the distance from Taiyuan to the farthest point still inside China.) The upper end of this range would represent an impressive technological breakthrough. But it is also possible that the WU-14 flew a shorter distance and is simply a souped-up version of its existing anti-ship ballistic missile -- the infamous DF-21D, which has recently sparked concern in the U.S. Navy -- suggesting that the Chinese approach to boost-glide weapons development is evolutionary. In general, the scope and ambition of the Chinese program are unclear, including whether the goal is the delivery of nuclear or non-nuclear warheads -- or both.

As always, Russia wants a piece of the action too. In December 2012, in his annual State of the Nation address, President Vladimir Putin gave a shout-out to the U.S. Conventional Prompt Global Strike program and announced a Russian response that would include future "advanced weapons." Given recent statements from other senior Russian officials explicitly threatening to develop precision-guided weapons systems with "practically global range, if the U.S. does not pull back from its program for creating such missile systems" and evidence of Russian flight tests, such advanced weapons almost certainly include boost-glide systems.

The implications of these developments for stability -- particularly in Northeast Asia -- could be profound. If Beijing decides to field a boost-glide weapon -- and it would probably take at least a decade from now for it to do so -- there is little doubt that its primary target would be U.S. and allied forces. Meanwhile, in a potentially dangerous symmetry, U.S. officials have indicated that they are considering acquiring boost-glide weapons to defeat China's advanced defensive capabilities, including the DF-21D, and its anti-satellite weapons.

So what would the addition of boost-glide weapons mean for a potential showdown with China? On the one hand, fear of U.S. capabilities could deter China from attempting to change the territorial status quo by force. On the other, in the event of a conflict, the existence of boost-glide weapons could make it much harder to manage.

One risk -- practically the only one currently discussed in the United States -- is that, after further developing its early warning capabilities, China might misidentify a Conventional Prompt Global Strike weapon as a nuclear weapon and initiate a nuclear response. But there are other, more likely pathways to escalation that have barely been considered. For example, boost-glide weapons might enable the United States to attack Chinese command and control facilities that are buried too deeply to be threatened by other non-nuclear weapons. However, China reportedly uses the same command and control system for its conventional and nuclear missiles. A U.S. attack on this system for the purpose of disabling Chinese conventional missiles could, therefore, be misinterpreted by Beijing as an attack aimed at suppressing its nuclear capability. Rapid, uncontrollable escalation could result.

But the risks associated with developing boost-glide technology are not purely hypothetical. Even though these weapons do not yet exist, their specter is already influencing the nuclear policies of Russia and China. For example, fear of American conventional weapons has sparked an internal Chinese debate about whether Beijing should abandon its long-standing policy not to use nuclear weapons first.

Meanwhile, various Russian officials have repeatedly indicated a lack of interest in negotiating further nuclear reductions because they worry that doing so would make their nuclear forces more vulnerable to American conventional weaponry. In fact, this fear is actually leading Russia to diversify -- not contract -- its nuclear forces. In December 2013, the Russian military announced that it would start work on designing a new rail-mounted nuclear missile as a direct response to Conventional Prompt Global Strike.

These dynamics present Washington with a complex policy problem that has no obvious solutions. While halting the Conventional Prompt Global Strike program would mitigate some risks, it could also enhance others if these weapons turn out to have a unique ability to prosecute key military missions.

Perhaps the only thing that's clear is that ignoring the problem isn't going to make it go away. For this reason, it's deeply worrying that boost-glide weapons are being developed with minimal public or congressional scrutiny in the United States, and with no scrutiny in Russia or China. It's equally worrying that these weapons are not being discussed at a governmental level in either Sino-American or Russian-U.S. dialogues (non-nuclear boost-glide weapons, moreover, don't fall under any existing treaties). The implications of these weapons should be seriously considered now -- not after they're fielded. Their implications for international security -- particularly in the event of a U.S.-China conflict -- are simply too profound to leave the debate to the handful of wonks that have heard of them today.