Can the U.S. Military Survive in the Missile Era?

Andrew Fair

On January 8, 2020, over a dozen Iranian missiles rained down on two American military bases in Iraq, highlighting the threat posed by the proliferation of intermediate-range missile systems among America’s most likely adversaries. In response to this threat, the U.S. Army is developing its own intermediate-range missiles capable of striking targets (such as enemy missile launch sites) hundreds of kilometers away, providing ground forces with improved deep strike capability and capacity while reducing dependence on costly and dispersed Air Force and Navy strike platforms. 

Yet the U.S. Army’s pursuit of intermediate-range fires capabilities recently met an unexpected challenge in the form of the United States Congress and the now-defunct Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Within the text of the FY 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), approved in December 2019, Congress imposed restrictions upon the Defense Department preventing it from procuring or deploying ground-based intermediate range missiles—the type of weapons formerly banned by the INF Treaty. Driven by House Democrats, these restrictions are a mistake that risk hamstringing the military as it seeks to develop effective counters to Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and North Korean missile capabilities. At best the language in the NDAA reflects a short-sighted and ill-conceived effort at promoting arms control; while the final NDAA also includes language regarding the New START Treaty (arguably the most important standing arms control agreement), coupling concerns over the future of New START with an effort to revive the dead-and-gone INF is misguided and ill-timed. Although the constraint on procurement does not immediately impact ongoing efforts to test and develop post-INF capabilities within the U.S. Army, it represents a major political hurdle for the Army’s top modernization priority and suggests that the future of these efforts may hinge on the election in November.

The NDAA-imposed restrictions come on the heels of a successful sub-INF range test of a prototype for the Army’s Precision Strike Missile (PRSM) program, part of the broader Long Range Precision Fires modernization effort. An intended replacement for the short-range Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), a once-capable missile now outclassed by a variety of Russian equivalents such as the Iskander-M, PRSM is meant to reach targets as far out as 500 kilometers using a conventional (non-nuclear warhead). Now formally unburdened by the INF Treaty, Army developers have stated that future developments of PRSM could push the range even further, in addition to a separate Army project to develop a strategic fires system. Despite the misgivings of some in the arms control community, the Trump administration’s final withdrawal from the INF Treaty should have cleared the path for these Army programs, yet the language of the NDAA presents a potential roadblock. The Defense Department must now provide Congress with an “analysis of alternatives” to missiles like PRSM as well as basing options with American allies. While these requirements are not show stoppers, it suggests that the Defense Department and the Army have ground to make up in terms of the critical Congressional support needed to fund new missile programs.

Why Congress decided to relitigate the INF Treaty in the first place is not fully clear. Arguments against ground-based intermediate-range missiles have continued even after America’s formal withdrawal from INF and may have informed Congressional thinking. These arguments tend to focus on three issues: the impact on American allies, the de-stabilizing impacts of intermediate-range missile proliferation, and the practicality of ground-based missiles versus existing air and sea-based alternatives. The first issue is an important consideration, but there’s little reason to expect that America’s key allies will not support the basing of ground-based missile launchers. Several NATO allies permit the storage of tactical nuclear bombs on their soil, and the United States has deployed ballistic missile defense systems (also deemed by some as destabilizing) in both Europe and Asia. The second and third issues together reflect both the mistaken belief that the INF Treaty itself (and the weapons they banned) is particularly critical to the current strategic balance and outdated assumptions regarding America’s military capabilities and superiority. These perspectives present a broad challenge that Defense and Army officials must now overcome in gaining Congressional support for PRSM and other new missile systems.

While the INF Treaty was certainly a landmark agreement in the history of arms control, its significance is wrapped up in the specific times and context in which it was devised. In the latter years of the Cold War standoff, intermediate-range missiles, such as the Soviet SS-20 and American Pershing-II, represented a distinct threat to the nuclear stability of mutual assured destruction. On both sides of the Iron Curtain, fears arose that intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles, with their shorter flight times and lower trajectories, would enable decapitating first strikes with minimal warning. For the USSR. in particular, missiles like the Pershing-II and Ground Launched Cruise Missile were considered an even greater threat because they could strike deep into the Soviet heartland, while Soviet intermediate-range missiles could only hit America’s European bases and allies. In short, intermediate-range nukes, rightly or wrongly, instilled fears of a first-mover advantage—or more critically, an American advantage. Whether this was true or not, the anxiety engendered by this class of weapons helped bring the superpowers to the negotiating table and set forth the path to further arms control initiatives including Open Skies and START. Yet the INF Treaty never banned all missiles in the 500-5000km range, only those launched from ground-based platforms. The United States and USSR continued to develop and field air and sea-launched cruise missiles, such as the venerable Tomahawk or Russia’s modern Kalibr.

The Iranian strike merely underscores the extent to which the world has changed since 1987. During the Cold War, the United States had only one real rival, the Soviet Union. As the Soviet empire withered and died, the American advantage in air and sea-launched cruise missiles not covered by the treaty grew rapidly. Additionally, in the era of post-Cold War force design shaped by the perceived lessons of Operation Desert Storm, the United States assumed it’s naval and air forces would remain preeminent and operate virtually uncontested. So-called rogue states like Iraq, Iran, and North Korea continued to develop intermediate-range missiles, but lacked (at the time) nuclear capabilities; moreover, the perceived success of the Patriot missile system and ungainly performance of Iraqi SCUDs during the Gulf War suggested that conventionally armed missiles were a manageable threat. The resurgence of great power competition—driven by Russia and China, but also regional powers like Iran—is challenging those assumptions. So-called anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) weapons, including modern integrated air defenses, long-range artillery, and stand-off missiles (both land attack and anti-ship varieties), are greatly increasing the perceived cost of operating naval and air forces close to enemy territory. A2/AD as a defensive posture is further enabled by the offensive potential of new classes of intermediate-range missiles fielded by Russia and China—the former in violation of the INF Treaty and the latter never a party to it. Likewise, the recent crisis with Iran has highlighted its own intermediate-range own missile capabilities, to include both cruise and ballistic missiles.

To help counter Russian, Chinese, as well as Iranian or North Korea anti-access/area-denial strategies, the U.S. military is looking for longer range, more survivable strike options. Systems like PRSM underwrite the Army’s new Multi-Domain Operations concept which seeks to develop methods for penetrating and disintegrating the anti-access/area-denial umbrella, enabling not only maneuver on the ground, but also in the aerospace and maritime domains. Perhaps counter-intuitively, mobile ground-based launchers like PRSM are a logical answer, capable of both augmenting and enabling the traditional American advantage in air and sea-based systems. Despite being glued to terra-firma, mobile launchers are exceptionally hard to target, and, perhaps more importantly, are far less expensive than an F-35 or a guided missile destroyer. Ground-based missiles can also enhance deterrence posture; forward stationed launchers in Europe or the Southwest Pacific would instantly increase American strike capabilities against Russian and Chinese offensive forces, raising the costs of any efforts at a “fait accompli” military operation. Of course ground-based missiles are not a panacea, but they add significant flexibility to the force at a cost far below new fighters or warships.

As others have argued, the demise of the INF Treaty is an unfortunate harbinger of increased geopolitical competition and conflict, yet its resurrection is both improbable and impractical. Absent dramatic shifts in both Russian and Chinese (as well as Iranian and North Korean) national security policy, the United States has little option but to develop comparable strike capabilities. In the long run, the development of these weapons could help drive a new round of arms control talks, much as the Pershing-II and GLCM did in the 1980s. Until that time, rather than upsetting the strategic balance, the Army’s new class of intermediate-range missiles are essential to maintaining it. Congress has not completely shut the door; the language of the new NDAA, suggests a window of opportunity exists for the Army and DoD to present their case. Congress has time to consider the changing strategic context before the next NDAA and should remove procurement restrictions before they impede the Army’s fielding timelines for PRSM and other strike systems. Efforts to protect arms control are well intentioned and should continue, but the now-dead INF is an obsolete treaty that the United States rightly withdrew from—let it rest in peace.

Andrew Fair is an Army Strategist serving as a planner for an operational headquarters. He is a graduate of the George H. W. Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M University where he earned a Master of International Affairs degree, as well as a graduate of the Army’s Command and General Staff Officers Course at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and the Basic Strategic Arts Program at the U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. The views expressed here are his own.

Image: Wikipedia.

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