Twenty years ago this December, President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the only treaty in history that eliminated an entire class of weapons -- shorter- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
The treaty commonly referred to as the INF -- Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces -- Treaty, resulted in the two countries destroying a combined 2,692 ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of about 300 miles to 3,400 miles. It was unique among disarmament treaties in that it did not establish ceilings for such weapons but instead eliminated them from the world’s two largest arsenals.
Two decades later, the treaty has become a danger to Russian and American security interests and must either be expanded or eliminated.
In a world in which potential adversaries are pursuing intermediate-range missiles, neither the United States nor Russia has the capability to effectively counter them. Although no senior official in the United States has openly advocated withdrawing from the INF Treaty yet, Russian leaders have been talking about it for some time.
Last February, then-Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov became the first senior official to recommend repealing the treaty, calling it a “Cold War relic.” Last week, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with their Russian counterparts to discuss missile defenses, President Vladimir Putin claimed that “it will be difficult for us to keep within the framework of the [INF] treaty in a situation where other countries do develop such weapon systems.”
Short- and medium-range missiles, which are in the arsenals of many nations including China, Pakistan and India, provide the ability to attack with only minutes of warning and can be countered only with missile defenses or by attacking the missile launchers in enemy territory. U.S. missile defense efforts are much more developed than in 1987 but still too expensive and rare to secure bases and forces operating abroad. As a result, the Pentagon, without its own intermediate-range missiles, must counter enemy missile systems with air raids -- a very ineffective means. During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the U.S. flew dozens of airstrikes against mobile Iraqi Scud missile launchers, but destroyed none.
Nations such as Iran, North Korea and Syria noted the survivability and reach of missiles in that war and invested heavily in acquiring and improving them. Syria has amassed hundreds of missiles, including Scud-Ds with a range of more than 300 miles, able to reach well into Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. During the 2006 war in Lebanon, Hezbollah rockets struck Israel constantly; counterattacks by Israeli aircraft only confirmed that no country can mount the number of raids necessary to eliminate hundreds of mobile missile launchers. To deter a first strike, or to attack intermediate-range missile launchers after they fire and before they relocate, a nation needs its own intermediate-range missiles.
There is, however, an alternative to rejoining the missile race. The United States and Russia could use their combined diplomatic power and talents to persuade the rest of the world to join the 1987 treaty. Expanding the treaty would not eliminate all missiles, but it would place an upper limit on their development. Addressing the specific issue of intermediate-range missiles could also lay the groundwork for reducing and eliminating other categories of missiles.
It may seem unlikely that the U.S. and Russia could cooperate so closely at this time, but we should remember that the INF Treaty came at the height of Cold War tensions, with Russian SS-20 missiles and American Pershing IIs deployed in a nuclear standoff throughout Europe. There are some encouraging signs that leaders may be moving to deal with this problem.
Putin last week called for the INF Treaty to become “universal in nature.” In the U.S., at least one presidential candidate, Barack Obama, has called for eliminating intermediate-range missiles globally. This month, one of the crafters of the INF Treaty, former Secretary of State George Shultz, will host a disarmament conference at Stanford University. In December, Gorbachev will gather with international experts at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government to discuss ways to build on the treaty toward global nuclear disarmament.
President Bush should accept Putin’s challenge and set a goal to offer the INF framework to other nations before the end of 2008. If we are not prepared to eliminate these missiles globally, then for our own security we should heed Russia’s advice and abandon the treaty.
Retired Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan is a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former chief of staff of the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command.