The Oryol nuclear-powered missile-carrying submarine after a naval parade rehearsal in Kronstadt. Photo: AFP

US President Donald Trump’s intention to abandon the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which prevents the United States and Russia from producing and installing ground-based missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, has raised fears of an arms race in East Asia, with some speculating that Washington wants to deploy this kind of projectile in Japan or at Guam to face China’s strategic threat.

But the quality and quantity of sea-based US missiles already in the region, coupled with the probable reluctance of concerned countries and communities to host nuclear land-attack projectiles, make experts believe Trump’s annoucement about the INF pact actually has little to do with military strategy.

INF weapons are already at sea in such quantities that the agreement really only has symbolic value at this point,” Lyle Goldstein, a research professor at the US Naval War College, told Asia Times. However, he pointed out that symbols did really matter, and along with many other signs, the US withdrawal did seem to signal a ramping up of Cold War tensions, including in the nuclear domain.

Trump accuses Russia of violating the INF accord, which the United States and the Soviet Union signed in 1987 during the end days of the Cold War. Particularly, the US government says Russia has deployed the Novator 9M729 land-based cruise missile on their soil since 2016.

For its part, the Kremlin counters that the future deployment of two US-manufactured Aegis Ashore anti-missile batteries in Japan would constitute an infringement of the INF treaty, just like their installation in Romania and Poland. Moscow argues that this platform is equipped with a launcher that can fire both missile interceptors and Tomahawk intermediate projectiles. “They only need to update the software and that’s it,” Russian President Vladimir Putin recently said.

The US government has repeatedly dismissed such accusations, emphasizing that the Aegis Ashore launcher can only fire interceptors, as it does not have the needed software and fire-control hardware, as well as supplementary support equipment and infrastructure, to fire land-attack missiles.

But while the US President lashes out at Moscow, the real target of his INF move is likely China. Indeed, Trump says the treaty creates a military asymmetry between the United States and the Chinese giant, which is not an INF signatory and has a considerable arsenal of medium-range and intermediate-range cruise and ballistic projectiles.

The question is now whether Trump’s critical stance on Beijing’s missile weaponry will have a material impact on East Asian security, notably on Japan’s regional role.

Sufficient US missile capability in East Asia

Tomonori Yoshizaki, director of policy simulation at the National Institute of Defense Studies of Japan, expressed skepticism about Washington’s future positioning of INF missiles in East Asia. He said that Washington’s Nuclear Posture Review, released in February, “highlighted the survivability of its retaliatory forces, such as submarine-launched cruise and ballistic missiles, and did not refer to the land-based system at the theater level.”

Yoshizaki noted that “unlike the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization’s decision to ‘couple’ European security with land-based systems in 1979, the US deterrence in the Asia-Pacific region now faces no pressing need to reconfirm its commitment with INF deployments.”

Goldstein also doubts that the US would actually take up the financial, military and very serious diplomatic challenges of fielding medium-range ballistic missiles in either the European or Pacific theaters. He suggested it would be much less costly and more survivable to simply restart the old program of placing nuclear warheads onto sea-based Tomahawks, primarily aboard submarines. 

The US scholar referred to the Tomahawk land-attack missile-nuclear, or TLAM-N, which Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama retired following the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. “I would not be at all surprised if the TLAM-N program had already started up a few years ago and was just awaiting full implementation,” Goldstein insisted. “Setting the legal and political conditions for that change in the US Navy’s policy and strategy is likely the whole point of this business, as it has some implications for nuclear strategy.”

He admitted that one very troubling consequence of this program’s reboot is that China would have free reign (and incentive) to deploy its own TLAM-N aboard both nuclear and conventional submarines. “In a few years, that could actually be the biggest threat to the US homeland,” he said.

US allies in the region might take issue

Aside from technical considerations, the Trump administration may have the problem of persuading its allies in the region to deploy INF weapons. “The US would have the ability to field shore-launched, nuclear-tipped cruise missiles in East Asia if it desired. There are no real technical hurdles. They are rather political in nature,” Goldstein said. 

According to him, it is unlikely that any country in the western Pacific wants to house these weapons, even when it comes to Japan. “People on Guam may also be reluctant to take on such overt nuclear deployments,” he added.

In this regard, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sounded the alarm bell. He said on Tuesday that the United States’ departure from the INF treaty would be an undesirable development, given its importance to the disarmament process.

Despite Abe’s concerns, Yoshizaki said that Japan’s policy of combining “deterrence by punishment” and “deterrence by denial” would be unchanged even after Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the treaty. That said, he thinks the redeployment of ground-launched cruise missiles or equivalents, banned under the INF treaty, is not a viable policy option for the US from a strategic point of view.

America already had a bitter experience in the mid-1980s when the deployment of intermediate-range, nuclear-armed US missiles in Western Europe triggered anti-nuclear movements across the continent, which eventually paved the way for the INF treaty,” he warned.

The US government is certainly aware of these political obstacles, as well as the fact its Seventh Fleet has currently sufficient missile capability to destroy Chinese defenses. For this reason, Goldstein views Trump’s plan to exit the INF treaty as “mainly a ‘political stunt’ intended to assure Washington’s many hard-liners that the US is making a robust response to new threats, both from Russia and also China.”

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