This evening I watched President Trump’s State of the Union address with doubts and concern mixed with curiosity about just what he would choose to address. Major news organizations with far more time and resources than I have will be reviewing in detail over the next few days. However, I thought I would comment on an area he mentioned in which I have some experience and knowledge, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Force Treaty of 1987.
There have been complaints for the last few years of Russian violations of this treaty. But, rather than pursue a resolution using the mechanism setup in the treaty itself or addressing those concerns by negotiations with Russia (who had threatened to withdraw before) and other affected countries like China (whose missile developments are of concern to the Russians), President Trump chose to withdraw from the treaty first, and was followed by a Russian withdrawal. This followed the pattern of Iran and North Korea, where he complained about the nuclear treaty with Iran but rather than negotiate a better one with North Korea and then negotiate matching changes to the Iran treaty, he unilaterally withdrew from the treaty with Iran and merely shook hands with the leader of North Korea.
Since the treaty was ratified in 1988 and the destruction of weapons was completed in 1991, many of us have forgotten about this whole class of nuclear weapons systems although some of North Korea’s missiles fall into this class. But in the 1970’s they were a major threat to our NATO allies and U.S. forces deployed in Europe.
In March 1976, while I was still serving on a Titan II missile crew, the Soviet Union began deploying its new RSD-10 Pioneer (or SS-20 Saber) with a range of 4700-5000 kilometers, just below the 5500 kilometer minimum for intercontinental weapons set by the SALT treaties. And, unlike their predecessors, the SS-4 and SS-5 which were launched from a fixed site, the SS-20 was a mobile and concealable system that also featured 3 independently targetable RV nuclear weapons. To counter these, the U.S. and NATO only had a small number of shorter range Pershing 1 missiles. So, the U.S. and NATO responded with a planned deployment of 100 Pershing 2 missiles to West Germany and the deployment in several countries of the BGM-109G Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM).
My first thought on hearing this in the SOTU address was “are we going to send the GLCM launchers back to Sicily?” In fact, I really don’t know what President Trump plans do in the absence of the treaty other than to give Russia an excuse to do what they had been threatening for some time. But, I do have some peripheral knowledge of the GLCM, so let us discuss that.
In the early 1980’s, I worked on some technical analyses of various nuclear forces. A big concern was the ongoing replacement of older, less accurate Soviet ICBM’s with newer and more accurate systems like the SS-18 and SS-19. These had sufficient accuracy to threaten our land based missiles in their hardened silos and more warheads as well. Part of the U.S. response was the development of a land-based version of the Navy’s Tomahawk cruise missile system, the BGM-109G. For more information on the history of the GLCM, I suggest this article from Air Force Magazine.
In its own way, the GLCM may have been the most successful weapons system in history. By spending money on building a new base in Sicily and beginning training and deployment of the system, the U.S. gained leverage to talk the Soviets into withdrawing an entire class of nuclear weapons and eventually destroying 1846 weapons systems in exchange for 846 by the U.S./NATO. And it established a basis for transitioning from limiting strategic arms to reducing them.
So where do we go now? As Bob Dylan would say, “things have changed”.
First, although the U.S. and Russia still dominate the strategic arms field, we are no longer in a bilateral situation. The Soviet Union has split up into several successor states with nuclear forces and not all of them have signed onto the INF.
Second, China was never a signatory and their nuclear forces and missile capabilities are much greater than they were in the 1980’s as evidenced by their current lunar exploration activity.
Third, smaller nuclear or nuclear-potential states like North Korea and Iran are a very real threat with the ability to threaten our allies or friendly nations like South Korea and Japan, Iraq and Israel. Part of our response has been to develop defensive systems. But these also threaten the stability of the INF agreement, even if it were still in place.
So, what is clearly needed is ongoing serious negotiations among the many involved parties on a framework for a stable and safer agreement.
But, will any of the leaders involved step up to the plate and accept the challenge?