Jack Harding, Head of Political Risk

Global nuclear arms control was dealt a major blow in early February when both the US and Russia suspended their involvement in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The INF Treaty, signed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, is an agreement between the US and Russia to abolish all ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 – 5,500 km (“shorter-range” to “intermediate-range” missiles).

Donald Trump’s stated objective is for the US to develop a nuclear arsenal that is the ‘top of the pack’ with an estimated cost of $1.2tn over the next 30 years according to the Congressional Budget Office. Meanwhile, Russia has announced it will invest in the technology to produce new intermediate missiles within two years. This includes a hypersonic missile capable of travelling at five times the speed of sound and a ground-launched version of the precision naval-launched Kalibr cruise missile.

Although the US and Russia have attracted most of the media attention, China has been developing increasingly sophisticated intermediate missile technology for a while and is not restricted by any international arms control agreements. They recently showcased the Dongfeng-26, an intermediate–range missile that has been dubbed the “Guam Killer” given that the US military bases on the small Pacific island are well within its range.

Beijing had previously called on the US to reconsider the suspension of its involvement in the treaty fearing that the move was as much directed at China as it was at Russia; unrestricted US nuclear missile development could act as a strategic deterrent to Chinese activities in the region if ground-based missiles were to be installed in Guam or Japan. Given that US-China trade talks are scheduled to resume this week, it is likely that the suspension of the INF Treaty will undermine progress in any bilateral dialogue that occurs, particularly given Trump’s frequent conflation of trade interests with US national security.

Although these developments will potentially come as good news for Lockheed Martin (developers of the US’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system – THAAD) and Raytheon (developers of the Patriot and Tomahawk missiles), the apparent demise of the INF treaty has also fuelled concerns of a global arms race; particularly since New START (the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) expires on 5 February 2021. If New START is not extended, in just two years’ time the world will lose the last safety net for controlling and limiting the arsenals of nuclear states. Expect the issue of nuclear arms control to feature heavily in the dialogue between the great powers over the coming weeks.