A NATO Strategy for a Post-INF World
August 27, 2019
Throughout the decision-making process for the United States to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, Washington viewed NATO unity as essential. The first unified NATO message came at the NATO Foreign Ministerial in December 2018, where NATO members released a joint statement stating that Russia was in material breach of the INF Treaty and that the United States was in compliance with its INF obligations. At the NATO Defense Ministerial in June 2019, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made clear that NATO “will respond” should Russia fail to return to “full and verifiable compliance” with the INF Treaty. NATO members urged Russia to return to compliance up until the United States formally withdrew from the treaty after the August 2 deadline.
Where does NATO go next in a post-INF world? On August 2, Stoltenberg again took to the podium, asserting that Russia bears the sole responsibility for the demise of the INF Treaty and that there will be a “balanced, coordinated, and defensive response from NATO.” This response will likely include adjustments to exercises; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities; air and missile defenses; and conventional capabilities. Longer term, the challenge for NATO will be to maintain member cohesion and resolve while adapting a deterrence and defense strategy, which includes nuclear and conventional capabilities, to offset any Russian advantages gained through Russia’s continued violation of the treaty.
It is also unclear what the future of arms control and non-proliferation negotiations holds, particularly related to extending the New START Treaty. A day after the United States’ formal withdrawal from the INF Treaty, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced that he was in favor of deploying short-range ground-based missiles to Asia in response to China’s expanding arsenal of a similar range. Then, on August 18, the United States tested a modified ground-launched version of the Navy’s Tomahawk cruise missile off the coast of California. While these moves could be an attempt to draw China to the negotiating table on arms control with a view to a three-way arms control negotiation, they could also trigger a new arms race.
NATO Enhanced Opportunity Partner Sweden has also expressed concern about the likelihood of a new arms race. Sweden recently decided not to endorse the UN’s Nuclear Ban Treaty due to concerns that it: undermines the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); could prevent Sweden from working with NATO given NATO’s status as a nuclear alliance; and does little to effectively advance nuclear disarmament since nuclear-weapon states are not part of the agreement. Sweden’s decision increases pressure to instead strengthen the NPT, which is up for its five-year review in spring 2020.
As NATO and its partners consider the future of transatlantic deterrence and defense, to include how it could be complemented by a revised arms control and non-proliferation agenda, a graduated approach along the following lines could be achieved:
Demonstrating Resolve: As previewed by Secretary General Stoltenberg, NATO in the short term will likely increase its exercise program, air and missiles defense capabilities, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, and its conventional capabilities. It will likely deploy these measures in a proportional, graduated way, starting with those that can be affected using existing capabilities, and shore up NATO’s current deterrence and defense posture. For example, NATO could step up surveillance of Russian missile sites and reposition sea-based missiles already in the region. Ideally, the European Union, which released its own statement on the INF Treaty this month, would follow suit in terms of political and economic measures. In fact, so long as Russia understands that the punishment is a direct result of its INF breach, political, economic, and diplomatic means could prove more effective than military ones because they stem from areas of clear EU and U.S. dominance.
Such a graduated response is useful for demonstrating resolve and biding time for NATO to complete the more important task: a complete NATO assessment of its nuclear and conventional posture and capabilities. This should aim to determine whether these capabilities and posture are sufficient to meet NATO deterrence and defense requirements in a post-INF world—and seek agreement on changes if they are not. As Russia has already broken several international treaties (e.g., Chemical Weapons Convention, Conventional Forces in Europe, Budapest Memorandum), credible deterrence must be maintained. While there may be costs in terms of a Russian counter-response, the cost of inaction is greater, eroding deterrence value.
Assessing and Adjusting NATO’s Posture: NATO may need to adjust its nuclear and conventional posture and capabilities and consider using modern deterrence tools—such as measures in the economic, cyber, and space domains—to create additional leverage.
In terms of nuclear capabilities, NATO members have concluded that NATO can meet its security needs within the confines of the INF Treaty and does not need to deploy non-INF compliant systems. This is also because NATO’s air- and sea-launched missiles can achieve the same effect without needing new land-based systems. As such, member countries have ruled out the deployment of new land-based nuclear missiles in Europe. Instead, the consensus is that NATO must focus on implementing the adaptation of its nuclear posture that NATO heads of state and government endorsed in the 2016 Warsaw Summit and 2018 Brussels Summit, to include steps to improve NATO’s nuclear planning and readiness.
These NATO efforts can be augmented by the recommendations of the 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and relevant modernization plans for the independent strategic nuclear forces of the United Kingdom and France. In the case of the United States, the NPR calls for the modernization of U.S. strategic nuclear delivery systems, such as the long-range, stand-off system (LRSO), which is capable of penetrating Russian air defense systems. It also recommends deployment of a low-yield, submarine launch ballistic missile warhead (SLBM) to hold at risk locations inside Russia as a means to deter Russian attempts to “escalate to win.” By matching Russian low-yield capabilities, the United States signals that it can mirror any escalatory measure by Russia, thereby negating any advantage Russia hopes to gain from such a move (and thus deterring it). Thanks to their stand-off nature, these systems protect North America and Europe without the need to deploy them to the European continent, which could prove difficult politically and divide the alliance.
In terms of conventional capabilities, there is not yet consensus in NATO as to whether a Russian military build-up post-INF would require new non-nuclear, conventional capabilities. What is clear is that NATO must be able to deter and defend against conflict in multiple regions, possibly concurrently, to demonstrate the credibility of Article 5. Given this requirement and the anti-access/aerial denial challenge presented by Russian conventional capabilities, several NATO members argue that NATO must consider limited deployment of non-nuclear air- and sea-launched conventional systems that are capable of holding Russian assets at risk (e.g., long-range precision fires, JASSM-ER). Ideally, such systems would be procured by non-U.S. allies, both in the spirit of burden-sharing and to demonstrate that the unity and solidarity of European NATO allies are an integral part of any military response. If Russia’s breach of the INF treaty gives it an asymmetric advantage, NATO can counter through an asymmetric advantage of its own, namely the involvement of NATO members which have been peripheral in such conflicts in the past.
Longer term, should Russia continue to develop and position new systems that increase the threat to U.S. and allied forces and populations across Europe, NATO might consider the deployment of new missile defense systems to counter the Russian threat. While this option should not be discarded, it should not be chosen lightly. Such a change in NATO’s Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) posture, which is not oriented toward Russia, would be significant. In addition to being politically difficult, a Russia-oriented BMD system would pose technical challenges for NATO, as Russia has sufficient numbers of missiles to overwhelm any NATO BMD system.
On the exercise front, future exercises should approach the Black Sea region, the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom-Norway (G-I-UK-N) gap, North America, and the Nordic-Baltic region as a single, coherent space. NATO might also increase the frequency of nuclear Dual Capable Aircraft exercises and conduct some of them separate from, but concurrent with, conventional exercises in order to demonstrate readiness and resolve.
Building a Comprehensive Approach: Once an updated conventional and nuclear posture is in place, NATO members should consider how the integration of modern deterrence tools—such as cyber, space, and economic measures—might help prevent the escalation of conflict, both vertically and horizontally. This is an ideal area for NATO-EU cooperation, given the European Union’s many economic and other levers that complement those of NATO (e.g., strategic communications, energy policy, military mobility, civil-military cooperation). For NATO members to effectively respond to Russia’s use of asymmetric tactics, NATO requires a system for clear, quick attribution and coordinated response; resilience in critical civilian and military infrastructure; and integrated whole-of-society defense plans—something the Baltic states, Norway, and partner countries Sweden and Finland do very well. Non-military deterrence measures can be quite powerful, so it is important to consider their cumulative impact and calibrate their use accordingly.
NATO was founded as a nuclear alliance based on strong deterrence and defense capabilities, transparent and verifiable arms control regimes, and, most importantly, the principle of transatlantic unity. Maintaining this will require compromise and investment on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as new efforts toward a more comprehensive arms control regime that includes not only Russia but also China and other actors.
Rachel Ellehuus is deputy director and senior fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
This work is presented within the Security and Defense in Northern Europe research program, which is funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Defense and is a collaborative effort of the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies (IFS), the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), and the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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