Now that the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has officially been dissolved on August 2 following the expiration of the obligatory six month term following official notification of withdrawal by the United States, both Moscow and Washington will be able to overtly continue the development and fielding of ground-launched ballistic missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. As both countries embark on the process of bringing this particular class of missiles back into their arsenal, the question of how exactly they will apply these weapons is becoming more prominent.
One of the primary reasons for the demise of the INF Treaty has been the disparity between missile arsenals of the US and Russia on the one hand, and China on the other. Beijing, unbound by any treaties similar to those between Washington and Moscow, has built a considerable short and intermediate range missile force during its expansion of military capabilities over the past two decades. For this very reason, and both the US administration and the Kremlin have claimed this is their intent, East Asia would be the most likely theater where new Russian and American short to intermediate range missiles will be deployed.
Russia and the US already have a significant arsenal of nuclear armed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), as well as shorter ranged air- and sea-launched nuclear armed ballistic missiles, compared to a relatively small Chinese nuclear force in comparison. This means the incentive to start deploying new shorter range missiles with a nuclear payload is rather limited. Despite this, the new missiles could still have a notable impact on the balance between all three great powers in the Asia Pacific region.
The treaty also ruled out the existence of ground-based conventional armed missiles of these ranges within their arsenal, and this type of deployments could have a much greater effect on the conventional military balance in East Asia. Compared to currently existing conventional short to intermediate range missiles in the US and Russian arsenal, consisting of sea- and air-launched cruise missiles, new intermediate range ballistic missiles would fly at much greater speeds and thus reach their targets much faster. This means that in case of a breakout of hostilities, such missiles would be able to more rapidly strike against high priority targets or mobile launchers. Until now, China has held an advantage in this capability due to the restrictions of the INF Treaty that affected the United States and Russia.
Against the backdrop of increasing tensions between the United States and China, a deployment of new ground-based ballistic missiles to Asia would allow Washington to close that capability gap. For Russia it is less important to balance directly against China, due to their current amicable relationship. Because of the expected concentration of Chinese and American ballistic missile capabilities in the Asia Pacific theater, however, Russia will likely be compelled to deploy missiles of its own in order to maintain a level of deterrence in its easternmost regions.
For the time being, both the Kremlin and the White House have indicated they have no intent to deploy such missiles to the European theater. Adhering to this would not only allow them to maintain the current balance in Europe, avoiding a potentially expensive and escalatory arms race there, but it also allows Russia and the United States to focus their resources on rectifying the existing imbalance with China instead. Regardless, Europe still represents one of the main theaters of contention between Russia and the United States, and further escalation of the geopolitical competition between them could still cause them to change their position on this in the future.
Of course, regardless of the exact locations of initial deployments of these missiles, their very existence will already contribute to the military capabilities of Russia and the United States develop against each other. Apart from a select number of scenarios that would see an extremely rapid breakout of hostilities between them, existing launchers and missiles could still be redeployed when a crisis emerges. Both powers will also continue to improve the technology of their short and intermediate range ballistic missiles. Even the first generation of post-INF missiles is already several steps beyond the capabilities of those missiles that were destroyed after the signing of the treaty in 1987, and further improving on them will be just as important a tool in the struggle for supremacy as the deployment of additional quantities of missiles.
This does not necessarily mean that the demise of the INF Treaty is an irreversible evolution, or that other forms of strategic arms stability treaties will continue to collapse, but the current state of great power competition provides extremely challenging conditions under which restoration of the INF Treaty or safeguarding other existing treaties becomes a daunting task. The way that the post-Cold War world has evolved has dramatically altered the context within which these treaties were initially developed. Replacing or upgrading the deteriorating strategic arms stability treaties at a time of intense global competition, and with the involvement of an additional actor in the form of China, makes for a much more complex challenge than the one presented when most of these treaties were signed during the late Cold War.