Cotton Defends U.S. Withdrawal From INF Treaty: Russia Understands 'Iron Will and Brute Force'

March 14, 2019

Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) on Wednesday praised the American withdrawal from a Cold War treaty, describing it as a necessary step in countering China and Russia.

Speaking on "The Indo-Pacific after INF" at the Heritage Foundation, the senator explained that the treaty's end promises "an opportunity" for the United States "to seize the strategic initiative once again."

The United States and Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in December 1987. Both countries agreed to eliminate any existing or future ground-launched missiles with a range between 312 and 3,438 miles. The final agreement allowed either country to withdraw with six months’ notice.

The agreement followed years of concern from the Carter and Reagan administrations about Soviet deployment of nuclear-capable SS-20 Saber missiles. The missiles had a short flight time and could reach major European cities, but not the United States.

Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, however, Moscow has flagrantly violated the treaty without consequence.

"Moscow long ago developed land-based intermediate-range missiles that can strike all of Europe," Cotton said. "Russia hasn’t complied with the treaty in more than a decade."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has consistently refused to be constrained.

Russia "cannot accept a situation that would put the strategic deterrent system out of balance and make our nuclear forces less effective," Cotton said.   

After years of documented Russian noncompliance, the State Department under President Barack Obama confirmed the reality in 2014, but remained committed to the agreement.

In September 2015, Russia tested a ground-based cruise missile with a strike range prohibited by the INF. The Obama administration underwent pressure from Republicans in Congress to respond to the INF violation, which "rattled nerves among NATO allies concerned by a major buildup of Russian nuclear forces and public threats by senior Russian officials to use nuclear weapons," the Washington Free Beacon reported at the time.

Following the Russian test, John Bolton, President Donald Trump's national security advisor who was a private citizen at the time, took issue with American inaction. "Like most arms control aficionados, Obama never seems able to say the word ‘violation,’" he said. "Now would be a good time to learn."

Cotton was more direct Wednesday. "Russia understands one thing: iron will and brute force," he said. "Only when the cost we impose on their missile deployments exceed the benefits they perceive will Russia stand down."

Though he described Russian noncompliance as reason enough to leave the INF, Elbridge Colby, director of the Center for a New American Security defense program, warned that China should be part of any intermediate-range missile discussion. "It's been a European-focused conversation and that needs to change," he said.

Cotton agreed. "China is of equal concern."

For years, China’s military buildup has heavily focused on ground-based intermediate weapons platforms. Since China is not party to the agreement, it violates no law in doing so, while the United States is constrained in its response.

"Beijing has stockpiled thousands of missiles that can target our allies, our bases, our ships, and our citizens throughout the pacific," Cotton said. "Yet we don’t have the weapons to match either threat, because for 10 years we have been the only nation on earth that has constrained itself from producing medium-range land-based missiles."

China has some 1,600 such missiles, noted Eric Sayers, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

"China has the arsenal to match its hegemonic ambitions," Cotton warned. "Beijing has thousands of ground-based missiles, many deployed "within striking distance of our allies, particularly, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea."

Cotton warned that continued INF compliance would jeopardize Indo-Pacific security as it had in the European theater. "Just as in Europe today, we have no comparable ground-launched missiles," he said.

American military officials have long warned that the INF limited American operational flexibility in the face of the two adversaries.

In March 2018, then-Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris told the Senate Armed Services Committee that American forces were voluntarily giving China the upper hand. "We are at a disadvantage with regard to China today in the sense that China has ground-based ballistic missiles that threaten our basing in the western Pacific and our ships," he said. "We have no ground-based capability that can threaten China." Harris is now the United States Ambassador to South Korea.

In October, Trump announced the United States would no longer be party to the INF, given Russian and Chinese development of the prohibited technology. "The United States has fully adhered to the INF Treaty for more than 30 years," Trump said in a statement. "We cannot be the only country in the world unilaterally bound by this treaty, or any other. We will move forward with developing our own military response options and will work with NATO and our other allies and partners to deny Russia any military advantage from its unlawful conduct."

Speaking at an Alexander Hamilton Society event in October, Bolton offered reproof for the previous administration’s otiose response to Russian belligerence. "The response by the Obama administration was zero," he said. "So what encouragement does that give to our adversaries? It says, ‘cheat and succeed; don’t enter into treaties with the United States and succeed.’"

Bolton promised a different approach. "Anybody else who want to sign a treaty with the United States is going to adhere to it," he said. "Or there will be consequences."

Cotton described the next step as one of technological advance. "Now we must rapidly develop the weapons necessary to overcome the strategic imbalance that’s emerged between us and our rivals, China and Russia," he said.

In November, Army Secretary Mark Esper described missile defense as a top Army priority once again. Since the INF banned only intermediate-range missiles which were ground-based, missile defense had in many respects become a part of war-fighting left to other branches. No longer. "We want to be able to outrange and outgun them," Esper said. "The more range you have the better because you can strike with impunity with great effect and that's what we want to achieve against any adversary is overmatch."

In December, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman explained the decision strengthened American security. "This does not mean we are walking away from arms control," he said. "But we need a reliable partner and we do not have one in Russia on INF, or for that matter on other treaties it is violating."

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned earlier this month that Western forces might soon face a situation "without the INF Treaty, with more Russian missiles." Days later, on March 4, Russia officially signed a decree suspending its participation in the INF, blaming American violations for the move.

The decision to withdraw from the agreement has received some pushback from the House Democratic fringe, Cotton noted. "Some House Democrats have recently introduced legislation that would lock the United States into the treaty by itself, since the only other party of the treaty has violated it for a decade," he said. "Apparently, they are fine with prohibiting the United States from building a weapon that literally every other nation on earth can build."

That bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) , Barbara Lee (D., Calif.), Mark Pocan (D., Wis.), Jim McGovern (D., Mass.) and Raúl Grijalva (D., Ariz.).

"Boy that list is a doozy," Cotton said.

In the years following American withdrawal from the INF, Cotton hoped for more "mobile" platforms and system siting on allied territory. He expected America’s Indo-Pacific partners would comply. "No country of any consequence in the region prefers to be a vassal state to Beijing as opposed to an American military partner," he said.

In the short term, Cotton called for the military to "quickly close the technology gap" with the Chinese. In response to a question from the Washington Free Beacon, Cotton expressed confidence in the defense industry and its work to rapidly fill the systems need.

Colby, who was previously deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development, agreed. He noted "incremental advantages matter" if the United States seeks an "effective defense" against China.

Wednesday night's event was moderated by Jeff M. Smith, a South Asia Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

The Department of Defense plans to conduct test flights in August of two missiles banned under the INF, the Associated Press reported late Wednesday night. The planned tests would involve a cruise missile with a 600 mile range and a ballistic missile with a range of roughly 2,000 miles, according to unnamed Pentagon officials. Neither would carry a nuclear payload.