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Theater Nuclear Forces
By Peter O’Brien

Two weeks ago President Trump announced the US will withdraw from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Force Treaty (INF) - pursuant to Article XV, para 2 of the treaty. While the media paid little attention, this is a significant and important action.

The INF, signed by President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev in December 1987, was the first international treaty to eliminate an entire family of nuclear weapons; the US eliminating all Pershing IRBMs (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles) and Ground Launched Cruise Missiles, and the Soviets eliminating SS-20, SS-4 and SS-5 missiles; that is, all land-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

However, after more than 4 years of Soviet violations - which were ignored by the previous administration - it has become clear that something needed to be done.

The essence of the problem is that Russians have been testing (and may have deployed) a cruise missile (the 9M729) that is a clear violation of the treaty. It’s worth noting that China has also developed a number of classes of missiles – so called theater weapons, with ranges less than 5,550 km, both ballistic and land launched cruise missiles, capable of carrying either conventional or nuclear warheads. These weapons are in the same category as those banned under the INF. China is not a party to the agreement, but the logic of deterrence demands the threat from China be considered as well as that from Russia.

Some analysts have chosen to interpret this as Trump making the world more dangerous. They couldn't be further from the truth.

Deterrence is a tricky subject, often misstated. Conventional deterrence generally exists when one side has the capability to escalate a problem further, and more quickly than the other side. In such a situation a country (or transnational group) would choose to not attack if they understood the consequences of an attack would be a response that far exceeded whatever benefits they might achieve with the initial attack. This is well captured in the movie "The Untouchables," "He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He puts one of us in the hospital, we put one of his in the morgue."

But nuclear weapons don't work that way. Herman Kahn, writing 60 years ago, about the problem of nuclear escalation - which you would want to avoid (no one wants a nuclear weapon dropped on them), noted that there is a tragic logic to gradual escalation. He referred to it as a ladder, a series of gradually climbing levels of violence, a "tit for tat" that, if left unchecked, would lead to a full-scale nuclear exchange. The goal is to avoid that exchange, to "get off the ladder.”

Thus, intermediate range forces now reemerge as a requirement.

Here's why: The key to nuclear deterrence is credibility. If all you have is very large yield weapons (several hundred kilotons weapons (for comparison, the weapon dropped on Hiroshima was about 15 kilotons)) then you’ll have a higher threshold for use. In short, you won’t use a 200-kiloton weapon if it means a gigantic amount of meaningless damage. The threat of use of the weapon becomes "not credible." And a "not credible use" weapon undermines nuclear deterrence. Thus, if one side has a host of weapons that are short range, and low yield (which is reportedly what the Russians are building), then there is a "window" of scenarios in which they could use those weapons and the likelihood of a nuclear response by the US would be very low. This would mean that the likelihood of Russian nuclear use would actually increase.

On the other hand, if the US possessed weapons of a similar capability as the Russians, there is a more credible case to be made that Russian first use would be met by a nuclear US response. Which would, in turn, reduce the likelihood of Russian first use. In short, making the nuclear force more capable in terms of a wider range of missiles and warheads actually would reduce the probability of a first use by Russia (or China).

This requires that the US develop and deploy a class of theater weapons, weapons specifically designed to counter the Russian and Chinese intermediate range weapons. That is an unfortunate reality.

There is, of course, a way out of this: the Russians and Chinese could agree to dismantle their intermediate range weapons. There are no other viable options.


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