Will the INF Treaty do any good?

Philip Towle

The treaty abolishing intermediate-range nuclear missiles, signed on 8 December 1987, should lead to the destruction within three years of 2800 ground-launched missiles with ranges of between five hundred and five thousand kilometres. But if the facts are not in dispute, the implications of the agreement in terms of the military and political relationships between the super-powers are still far from clear.

Arms-control treaties are supposed to serve three ends: to reduce the destructiveness of war should it take place, to minimise the cost of defence, and to increase the odds against war breaking out. The INF Treaty can be largely dismissed as a way of lessening the destructiveness of nuclear war. The USA has some 13,800 strategic warheads and the Soviets over ten thousand. Even the disappearance of 2800 missiles will not remove Soviet and American ability to lay waste most of the Northern hemisphere. Only if the superpowers succeed this year in agreeing on the strategic arms-limitation treaty in which they plan to halve the number of their warheads will they substantially reduce their nuclear firepower.

The economic effects of the INF Treaty are more difficult to discern. Since both the USA and USSR were planning to manufacture more missiles of the now prohibited types, they will be able to save on the procurement of these particular weapons, as they will on the completion of airfields where the missiles were to be stationed, and on the forces which would have operated them. On the other hand, the actual process of destroying the INF will be costly, as will the monitoring teams which will spend the next 13 years making sure that all INF have been destroyed and not replaced. A small army of inspectors is going to be needed and they will have to be provided with the facilities to case their task. To take one example out of hundreds: the Hercules Company near Utah, which has been building engines for Pershing missiles, will have to build a new road all the way round the plant so that the Soviets can patrol it and ensure that no engines are being smuggled out.

Much more important is the question of whether the states involved will produce other weapons to take the place of the disappearing INF or simply re-deploy their forces. They might, for example, maintain the level of nuclear forces around Europe by sending more aircraft, such as F111s, from the USA or by keeping a nuclear role for their aircraft, as the Dutch plan to do with their F16s and P3s, which they would otherwise have abandoned. They might also locate more air and sea-launched cruise missiles in Europe, since it is only ground-launched missiles which are banned. Whether this could entail considerable further expense would depend on whether it would mean re-deploying existing weapons or whether extra ones would be manufactured.

Each side could also conclude that the INF agreement requires them to spend more on their conventional or dual-capable forces. As far as new weapons are concerned, the difficulty in each case is to decide whether they would have appeared even without an INF treaty. Newspapers have already suggested that US F15E aircraft might come to Britain in 1992 to replace the cruise missiles from Greenham Common and Molesworth. Would these be additional aircraft, or would they simply be ones which the USA would have bought anyway, but would otherwise have kept on the far side of the Atlantic? After the INF agreement the British and French Governments talked about developing an air launched cruise missile to extend the range of Mirage and Tornado aircraft. But such a weapon would very probably have been funded even without the disappearance of cruise and Pershing missiles. Warsaw Pact airfields are now so heavily defended that the RAF long ago recognised that it would be unwise for Tornados to drop their bombs while over the targets. Some sort of stand-off weapon was needed: INF has probably only strengthened the case, and perhaps increased the urgency of the decision.

In the end, we shall never know how much money, if any, the INF agreement has saved, just as we don’t know how much money, if any, was saved by previous arms-control agreements. In the Twenties, when the Great Powers agreed to reduce the number of their battleships and aircraft-carriers, they concentrated on improving their cruisers, submarines and other unlimited weapons. The British and Americans undoubtedly reduced their naval expenditure, but it is impossible to say by how much. In the Seventies the superpowers agreed to severe limitations on the number of their anti-ballistic missiles. Without the first SALT agreement they might have entered into a furious ABM-building race. On the other hand, there were serious doubts about whether ABMs really could destroy large numbers of ICBMs in flight, and thus the USA has not even produced the ABMs allowed under the treaty. One cannot prove beyond all doubt that SALT I actually saved money.

The INF’s most important test is whether it achieves the third motive for arms control and reduces the likelihood of the outbreak of war. Politically, the treaty symbolises a change from the ‘new cold war’ which lasted from 1975 to 1982, and which was brought about by exaggerated expectations about what the previous period of détente would mean. On, the Soviet side, there was disappointment that it did not lead to more trade and exchange of technology through the negotiation of a ‘most favoured nation’ treaty with the USA. Soviet leaders also apparently felt that détente was something the Americans were forced to accept because of the growth of Russian military power. In the event, that growth was interpreted by Washington as a betrayal of the spirit of détente. It was under Brezhnev that the Soviets for the first time permanently stationed warships on all the world’s oceans, that they caught up with the USA in strategic forces, and that they built up their conventional forces to some five million men at a time when US forces were dropping from three and a half to two million as a result of the ending of conscription. Similarly, the Americans were angered by Soviet support for Cuban military adventures in Africa and by the belief that Moscow was breaking the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty.

The question now is whether the new period of ‘dèente’ will prove more durable than the last. The process by which possible enemies turn into friends and vice versa is one of the most unpredictable in international relations. It can also be very fast. In the 1890s, Britain saw France and Russia as its most likely enemies and the British fleet was designed to fight their navies. In 1905, Britain negotiated a rapprochement with France and two years later with Russia. Within ten years, government and press had come to see Germany as the most feared and hated state and France and Russia as allies. In recent decades, the perception of China has changed from that of a land run by fanatics, who were prepared to risk millions of deaths in a nuclear war and were fomenting revolution everywhere from Oman to Angola, into a cautious, even conservative member of the international system. But with China in the Seventies as with Russia and France before 1914 the process of rapprochement was aided by the way in which these countries became possible allies against another threat – the USSR in one case, Germany in the other. There is still no similar threat, apart from general instability in the Third World, to bring the Americans and Russians together.

The extent to which a rapprochement can be brought about will depend more on what happens within the two super-powers than on arms-control agreements, such as the INF Treaty, though agreements of this type can further the process. On its side, the USA is reeling under the combined effects of massive budget and balance-of-payments deficits, and there must be doubts about the extent to which it will continue to bear most of the West’s political, economic and military costs. Within the Soviet Union, the strength of the opposition to Mr Gorbachev can hardly be exaggerated. The bureaucracy, the Armed Forces, the KGB, the existing managers of inefficient plants will all oppose the changes which he is trying to bring about. If Gorbachev is replaced by a much more conservative figure as Khrushchev was before him, then Western disappointment may well mimic the previous disenchantment with détente. Conversely, if revolt were to break out in one of the countries of Eastern Europe which espouses glasnost too enthusiastically, the pressures on Gorbachev to intervene may become irresistible. Khrushchev’s thaw encouraged the 1956 revolt in Hungary; Mao Tse Tung’s efforts to liberalise in China in the Fifties led to the Hundred Flowers movement and to bitter criticisms of the Communist Party. National antagonisms between Hungary and Rumania, Yugoslavia and Albania, Bulgaria and Turkey are already becoming plainer and perhaps fiercer as Soviet domination is reduced. It would be wise for the West to plan now how it would deal with Soviet efforts to maintain order in Eastern Europe, rather than respond over-hastily in the heat of the moment.

Crisis management is one area where the new treaty should generally have constructive results. Soviet leaders had bitterly criticised the Pershing II missiles stationed in West Germany because of the short time it would take them to hit the Soviet homeland and to destroy some of their command centres. Consequently, they threatened to launch their own missiles ‘on warning’ of an attack. Now the threat will be lessened and Soviet leaders may be given more time to respond carefully and cautiously. Moreover, the super-powers agreed in 1987 to establish risk-reduction centres in Moscow and Washington to improve their communications in crises. As most analysts are agreed that dangers are far more likely to arise from misunderstanding than from deliberate aggression, such measures can only be welcomed.

The INF Treaty will probably reinforce the trend towards greater reliance on conventional rather than nuclear forces. Nuclear deterrence has very obviously come under increasing attack. On the left, the Peace Movements have argued that it has led to an unstable arms-race which can only end in disaster. On the right, commentators such as Lord Carver, Enoch Powell and Robert McNamara have argued that deterrence means that nuclear weapons would never be used even if war broke out. Thus the threat to unleash them is increasingly incredible. As Mr Powell put it, ‘the crucial question is whether there is any stage of a European war at which any nation would choose self-annihilation in preference to prolonging the struggle ... the probability, though not the certainty, but surely at least the probability, is that no such point would come whatever the course of the conflict.’ Mr McNamara has told us that when he was Secretary of State for Defence, he urged Presidents never to use nuclear weapons, even though Nato’s plans called for their employment if its armies were defeated in Europe.

It was largely to restore the ‘credibility’ of a Western nuclear response to Soviet aggression in Europe that Nato agreed in 1979 to base cruise and Pershing missiles in the region. Since these could hit the Soviet Union, they would make it more difficult for Moscow to hope that a nuclear war could be prevented from spreading to its own territory. They would also provide a steady gradation in nuclear weapons from the very short range ones on the battlefield through INF to the strategic level. Critics argue that, as a result of the INF Treaty, this gradation will be seriously weakened, and it is this fear which may encourage the transfer of more F111s and sea-launched cruise missiles to Europe. What the INF Treaty will also do is to increase the importance of the British and French nuclear forces. Collectively, the nuclear weapons in the area seem more than sufficient to deter any state from precipitate action.

At the same time, developments in technology mean that many of the military tasks which formerly could only be carried out by nuclear weapons can now be performed by conventional munitions. Missiles and aircraft are far more accurate than they were and some types of conventional warheads are more powerful. Consequently, unless they are heavily defended, bridges, ports and other targets can now more easily be put out of action by conventional weapons. There are, however, several factors which stand in the way of placing ever greater reliance on conventional forces. First of all, many would fear pushing nuclear weapons so far into the background that deterrence disappeared altogether. Secondly, some of the new ‘smart’ conventional weapons would have been delivered by the very cruise and Pershing missiles which are now to be abolished. Substitutes, such as air-launched cruise missiles, may be found, but the cost, as for all weapons of this sort, will be high. The USA may be in no position to spend the funds needed to procure them, while the Western publics as a whole will be less likely to support high defence spending after December 1987 than they were before. What can be said with confidence is that concern about the credibility of nuclear deterrence has led to a renaissance in thinking about conventional strategy as shown by FOFA, General Rogers’s plan to defeat a Warsaw Pact attack by destroying its reinforcements.

Even more futuristically, there is the Strategic Defence Initiative, President Reagan’s programme to replace deterrence with a system of defence based in space. US interest in the field began in the late Seventies when some commentators began to argue that the Soviets were pouring funds into beam weapons which would destroy ICBMs. President Reagan was influenced by such claims, but even more by the conviction that defending the USA against nuclear attack would be ethically more attractive than threatening retaliation. The Soviets reacted to his enthusiasm with intense suspicion. Commentators have speculated endlessly on whether this was because they really had made a breakthrough in the area and did not want the Americans to emulate it, feared the spin-off in other aspects of defence, were afraid of the offensive capabilities of beam weapons based in space, or were simply trying to avoid another vastly expensive arms race with the USA. We cannot tell, nor can we tell why they suddenly reversed their negotiating position and agreed that it was unnecessary to ban SDI before the INF Treaty was signed. Perhaps they felt that US financial difficulties, together with the technical problems encountered by the programme, made it a distant threat which could be discussed with the next US Administration, since Reagan would never abandon SDI. What can be said is that few US strategists or scientists believe with Mr Reagan that SDI could protect the US people. More believe that it could at best give some protection to US ICBMs against a surprise attack, although at great economic and political cost.

Every arms-control agreement is a compromise, and probably no group has achieved all its aims in the INF Treaty. The Soviets would have liked to abolish all Western INF while keeping some of their own weapons and simultaneously negotiating a ban on SDI. They failed in both aims but have removed the Pershing threat to their control centres. Nato’s strategists would have liked to keep some INF to preserve the gradation in nuclear forces and to enhance the credibility of deterrence. On the other hand, they have achieved the removal of much greater numbers of Soviet missiles than they had to sacrifice. The European Peace Movement can rejoice over the removal of the missiles against which they had campaigned so vociferously, but large numbers of other types of nuclear weapon remain to preserve deterrence. President Reagan achieved the ‘zero option’ to which he had clung for so long and maintained the SDI programme to which the main threat is now the state of the US economy. On the other hand, it is Mr Gorbachev who is perceived by the public as the great peace-maker.

Is the world going to be safer or more prosperous after the INF Treaty than it was before? The hope must be that after forty years of alternating periods of détente and confrontation, the super-powers are increasingly finding common interests – in improving their industries to compete with Japan rather than spending on defence, in creating some degree of order and stability in the Middle East, in Korea and in South-East Asia. But the movement has far to go, and any number of unpredictable events could reverse the process towards reconciliation. It would be a brave man who would forecast that the omens would be as favourable in December 1988 as they are today in the aftermath of the INF Treaty.