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National Security

American INF Withdrawal Will Help Contain China

Withdrawing from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty ranks as one of Trump's smartest moves.

Harold Hutchison · Aug. 13, 2019

Those who criticize the withdrawal of America from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty cite the new arms race with Russia as a big negative. The thing is, that is too small a view. There is another major power that we should be thinking about: the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

PRC arguably has a huge edge in sub-strategic nuclear warfare. This is because while the 1987 INF Treaty required the United States and Soviet Union to get rid of any land-based missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,000 miles, China was not a party to that deal. That meant it not only got to keep its current missiles (at the time) but it could develop and deploy more modern missiles over the 32 years that treaty was in force.

This is why American carriers now face the highly hyped Chinese DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile, among other threats. While China may not have a lot of these missiles, what it does have already forces America to make some real adjustments.

The good news: The United States Navy uses the RIM-161 Standard SM-3 missile, which has been very successful in tests. It can reliably knock down missiles like the DF-21. But that is where the good news ends for the Navy.

To take out an incoming target, it’s not always a case of firing one missile and scoring a hit. Usually, to guarantee a hit, standard operating procedure is to fire two or more missiles, as the USS Mason (DDG 97) did when fired upon by Iran’s Houthi stooges in 2016.

Suppose a hostile country had 24 of these missiles. If you assume three missiles fired per incoming missile, the initial salvo would consist of 72 missiles. While an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer has a total of 96 missile cells, those are used to do more than just shoot down ballistic missiles.

Burke-class destroyers also provide anti-aircraft defenses, which require surface-to-air missiles like the RIM-66 Standard SM-2 and the RIM-174 Standard SM-6. It will also need point-defense missiles like the RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile or the RUM-139 Vertical-Launch ASROC for anti-submarine missions. Then, of course, there is the BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missile.

All of a sudden, 72 SM-3s seem like a bit much for one ship to have. That’s even before one considers the risks of putting all those eggs in one basket. There is the option to spread out the missiles among other ships (either Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers or other Burke-class destroyers), but then each ship has its other missions compromised.

The thing is, the U.S. can turn that around on the Chinese. Imagine if they could develop new ground-based cruise missiles — say, versions of the Tomahawk (or a replacement) for land-attack roles. Base those in South Korea, Vietnam, and Japan, and China would then have a whole new set of problems. In a similar vein, a ground-launched version of the Navy’s AGM-158C based on Palawan Island or near Haiphong would give Chinese ships in the South China Sea something to worry about. That wouldn’t even include the United States having mobile intermediate-range ballistic missiles deployed in the region as well.

The deployment of land-based missiles in Poland, Norway, Romania, and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania could have the same effect on Russia as it does on China — especially with the Navy having a huge shortage of hulls in the water.

The fact is, withdrawing from INF ranks as one of President Trump’s smartest moves. In today’s lawless world, arms-control treaties are increasingly just a sucker’s game that is as effective on the international stage as gun control has been in cities like Chicago and Baltimore.

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