Why the US Wants to End a Cold War Nuclear Missile Treaty

The Soviets deployed hundreds of mobile SS-20 intermediate force missile launchers in the 1980s — with three nuclear warheads on each missile and reloads for each launcher. These were targeted against Western Europe, China, and Japan. The highly accurate SS-20 had great mobility when field deployed to ensure survivability. (Image: Edward L. Cooper / Defense Intelligence Agency / Public Domain)
The Soviets deployed hundreds of mobile SS-20 intermediate force missile launchers in the 1980s — with three nuclear warheads on each missile and reloads for each launcher. These were targeted against Western Europe, China, and Japan. The highly accurate SS-20 had great mobility when field deployed to ensure survivability. (Image: Edward L. Cooper / Defense Intelligence Agency / Public Domain)

On Oct. 20, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his intention to end a Cold War-era treaty that was designed to make nuclear war less likely by eliminating intermediate ballistic missiles (IRBMs) from the American and Soviet arsenals.

Speaking to reporters, Trump maintained that the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was no longer effective because the other major member state, Russia, had violated the agreement and because China — which possesses a growing stockpile of IRBMs — is not a signatory to or limited by the treaty.

The INF Treaty was signed in 1987 by then-U.S. and Soviet heads of state Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. It banned the deployment, development, and production of all ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5500 km (310-3,418 miles) — that is, the kind of missiles most likely to be used in a nuclear war in Europe, which was then divided into communist and democratic alliances on either side of the Iron Curtain.

President Trump told reporters that Russia, the successor state to the Soviet Union when it broke up in 1991, has “been violating [the INF Treaty] for many years.”

In 2014, the Russian military deployed the nuclear-armed SSC-8 missile, and by 2017 had two battalions of the weapons in service, according to a New York Times report. The SSC-8 was developed from an anti-ship missile and has a range of up to 3,400 miles.

Trump also cited concerns about the fact that the People’s Republic of China is not a signatory to the INF Treaty as one of his reasons for wanting to end it.

“If Russia’s doing it and if China’s doing it and we’re adhering to the agreement, that’s unacceptable,” Trump said.

Ten years before the signing of the INF Treaty, the U.S. and Western European governments were alarmed by the Soviet Union’s 1977 deployment of the SS-20 (or RSD-10) ballistic missile. The SS-20 had enough range and accuracy to hit most targets in Europe from locations hidden deep in Soviet territory.

In addition, the SS-20 could be fired by mobile launch trucks, giving the Soviet military the ability to launch a sudden tactical strike against critical NATO installations. The missile’s deployment became a potent symbol of heightened tensions in the late Cold War.

Though China tested its first nuclear bomb in 1964 and acquired ballistic missiles in the decades following, Beijing has always claimed a much smaller arsenal than that of the United States or Russia.

However, the Chinese regime maintains a large force of IRBMs and other medium-range missiles, thousands of which are directed at Taiwan and other targets in East Asia. Most recently, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deployed the Dongfeng-26, an IRBM with a range of 4,000 km (2,500 miles). Its range and accuracy give it the ability to hit Guam, a U.S. island that serves as an important base in the second island chain of the Pacific. This capability has earned the DF-26 the nicknames “Guam Killer” and “Guam Express.”

Dongfeng-16 medium-range ballistic missiles appear in a Beijing military parade. (CCTV via Central News Agency)

Dongfeng-16 medium-range ballistic missiles appear in a Beijing military parade. (Image: CCTV via Central News Agency)

Many experts suspect that the PLA possesses thousands, not hundreds of nuclear warheads as is officially acknowledged. In 1995, Chinese state-run CCTV reported that China had an underground nuclear weapons infrastructure, and more was revealed about the constructions by China National Defense News in 2009.

Then in 2011, Tokyo-based website The Diplomat ran an article detailing an underground “nuclear great wall.” This subterranean network reportedly consists of thousands of miles of tunnels complete with road and rail links throughout the country. An estimated 3,600 nuclear warheads and missiles could be deployed in the “nuclear great wall.”

Per the report, the “nuclear great wall” project began in 1965 under the auspices of Zhou Enlai, China’s then-premier. It is buried at least 100 meters (about 300 feet) below ground level at all points. There are at least seven major bases involved with the network, the largest of which is located in the Taihang Mountains in the northern Chinese province of Hebei.

As noted by China hand Peter Navarro in his book Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World, the PLA’s underground “great wall” makes the Chinese regime a formidable nuclear threat as the arsenal cannot be detected from space and missiles can be launched from a variety of locations with little to no prior warning.

Chinese state-run media and the communist regime have chastised Trump’s concerns about the INF Treaty, saying that he was using China as an excuse to end the treaty.

“It is completely wrong to bring up China when talking about withdrawal from the treaty,” Hua Chunying, the Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, said on Oct. 22 in response to Trump’s remarks. Many Chinese-language media spoke of Trump opening a “door to hell” with his proposal.

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