INF Treaty Pullout Could Be Boon for Missile Makers
Photo: Defense Dept.
The United States’ withdrawal from a landmark arms control agreement could open up major opportunities for the defense industry as the Pentagon seeks to counter Russia and China.
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which was brokered in 1987, prohibits the United States and Russia from deploying land-based nuclear or conventional missiles — both ballistic and cruise — with ranges of 500 to 5,500 km. However, Washington is accusing Moscow of cheating.
“Russia has violated the agreement, they’ve been violating it for many years,” President Donald Trump told reporters after a political rally in October. “So we are going to terminate the agreement and we are going to develop the weapons.”
U.S. withdrawal from the treaty could be a boon for missile manufacturers, said Todd Harrison, director of the aerospace security project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“For decades, we’ve been operating within the design constraints imposed by the INF Treaty,” he said. “It opens up a whole range of possible design options for missile forces that previously had not been available” in terms of range and flight trajectory.
The price tag for a new arsenal is difficult to estimate, Harrison said.
“The cost of the Pershing II — I think that’s as close an analogy as we have right now, but that was a long, long time ago,” he said, referring to intermediate range, nuclear-armed ballistic missiles that the United States deployed to Europe in the 1980s.
The Pershing II program cost $692 million for research, development, test and evaluation, and $1.76 billion to procure 247 missiles, according to the Government Accountability Office. A conventional ground-launched cruise missile, the GLCM, that was deployed at that time cost $383 million for RDT&E, and $2.72 billion to procure 442 missiles.
The Pentagon could potentially modify Tomahawk cruise missiles — sea-based weapons that cost about $1.5 million each — to provide an interim intermediate range, ground-based capability, Harrison said.
Harrison said he is not aware of any existing ballistic missile systems that could be modified to have an intermediate range.
“Because you’re looking at some new-start programs, I think that there are opportunities for new companies to get into this market,” he said. “But we’re not talking about revolutionary technologies, … so the big incumbents will have an inherent advantage because they will leverage missiles and propulsion systems they already have developed.”
Harrison noted that he doesn’t expect ground-launched, intermediate range nuclear weapons to be deployed by the U.S. military in the foreseeable future, partly due to political constraints.
The United States would likely have difficulty getting allied nations to agree to host them on their soil because it would be politically controversial, he said.
The arms control community is trying to generate opposition, arguing that developing such weapons would be costly, unnecessary and destabilizing.
“Trump’s move to blow up the INF Treaty … could lead to an unconstrained and dangerous nuclear arms competition,” Arms Control Association analysts Daryl Kimball and Kingston Reif wrote in an issue brief, “Trump’s Counterproductive Decision to ‘Terminate’ the INF Treaty.”
Harrison said there would also be strong opposition among congressional Democrats to building new types of nuclear weapons platforms.
Acquiring new conventional missiles, on the other hand, wouldn’t be as tough a sell, he said. “I don’t really see that there would be a lot of opposition to that because it’s not that different than the types of missiles we’re already building. It’s just a different range,” he added.
Long-range precision fires is the Army’s top modernization priority. The service should seriously consider acquiring new systems that previously would have been prohibited by the INF Treaty, Harrison said.
“These types of missiles are attractive in terms of their capabilities, in terms of imposing costs on Russia and China,” he said. “I think in the long run we will end up developing and fielding large numbers of missiles that fall within this class.”