Lessons from an INF Anniversary


2012-12-10 By Richard Weitz

Recently we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the signature of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The accord prohibits Russia and the United States from developing, manufacturing, or deploying ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500-5,500 kilometers. It includes an unprecedented set of intrusive verification measures, including on-site inspections. The negotiations ended one of the most dangerous periods of the Cold War, the so-called “missile crisis” of the early 1980s, when Soviet and American missiles faced each other across the old east-west divide in Europe.

On December 7, the Brookings Institution hosted a discussion of the INF negotiations and what lessons might be learned for future nuclear arms control negotiations.

The panelists included three former senior U.S. government officials who were closely involved with the issue— former Ambassadors Avis Bohlen and John Woodworth, and Major General (USA, Ret) William F. Burns. Brookings Senior Fellow Steven Pifer moderated.

The INF negotiations and treaty was noteworthy for eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons. To achieve this result, NATO had to compel the Soviet Union to eliminate many more weapons than the alliance.

The Pershing-II and SS-20 missiles exhibited here are two of more than 2,600 nuclear missiles banned by the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in December 1987. Credit: Smithsonian Museum 

The U.S. negotiators attributed this surprisingly unbalanced result to the strong solidarity of the NATO governments, who assumed an important role in shaping and implementing the alliance’s 1979 decision to base improved U.S. ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCM) and intermediate-range Pershing ballistic missiles on West European soil in an effort to induce the Soviets to negotiate limits on their ongoing deployments of SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

They continued with the U.S. counter-deployment decision despite widespread public protests to the new Pershing IIs and GLCMs in Europe and skillful Soviet propaganda.

The allied governments then stuck to the “zero option” despite the continuing protests and the worries of many strategic experts about U.S. nuclear “de-coupling” from NATO if all these U.S. nuclear weapons left Europe. The zero option allowed Washington to argue persuasively that we needed to go ahead with the deployments to have some bargaining leverage.

NATO governments encountered severe domestic opposition as they sought to carry out this dual-track policy, which many critics considered excessively provocative. The deployment’s opponents tended to blame the Reagan administration, which they considered hostile to arms control, for the deadlock in the Soviet-American negotiations.

The British government played an especially prominent role. During this period, Soviet negotiators argued that all Britain’s nuclear weapons, and not just the American intermediate-range missiles deployed on British soil, should be included in any calculation of the Euro-strategic balance.

Shortly before the U.S. missiles arrived on British soil in late 1982, Soviet officials proposed to limit their own SS-20s based in Eastern Europe to the total number of nuclear launchers of Britain and France. The Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher rejected the Soviet proposal to include the United Kingdom’s submarine-based force in the intermediate-range nuclear arms control negotiations. British government representatives argued that their function was that of basic, if last resort, deterrence against Moscow rather than a bargaining instrument, which was how NATO governments often characterized the GLCMs and Pershing missiles.

The French, American, and German governments also rejected the Soviet offer, which would have “de-coupled” the U.S.-Soviet strategic balance from the Euro-strategic balance. They feared that such separation would imply that Washington might not automatically commit its strategic nuclear deterrent against Moscow in case of a nuclear war in Europe.

Nevertheless, leading British political opposition politicians supported various proposals to constrain or reduce Britain’s Polaris submarine-based deterrent, which London had always committed to NATO’s defense against a possible Soviet attack and was undergoing a major upgrade at the time.

The Soviets deployed hundreds of mobile, SS-20 intermediate force missile launchers in the 1980s–with three nuclear warheads on each missile and reloads for each launcher. These were targeted against Western Europe, China, and Japan. The highly accurate SS-20 had great mobility when field deployed to ensure survivability. Credit: DIA 

Many British experts also evinced little enthusiasm for the Reagan Strategic Defense Initiative, which, if emulated by the Soviets, could have led to the demise of the ABM Treaty and potentially undermined the capability of the smaller British nuclear deterrent to penetrate Soviet missile defenses. Prime Minister Thatcher also told the Soviets after the 1986 Reykjavik summit—where Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev almost agreed to eliminate many of their nuclear forces—that Britain planned to remain a nuclear weapon state indefinitely.

Following the failure of Moscow’s confrontational tactics to prevent the deployment of U.S. missiles, however, the new Soviet leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev yielded and agreed to adopt a “zero-option” for Soviet and U.S. mid-range (500-5,500km) ballistic missiles throughout the world under the terms of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

The elimination of the INF systems in turn increased interest among the Western arms control community in reducing shorter-range nuclear systems, which have a range of less than 500km and fall outside the 1987 accord, commonly referred to as tactical nuclear weapons (TNW). Even 25 years after the INF Treaty, these TNWs remain ungoverned by any formal arms control treaty.

Another reason for the success was the importance of Gorbachev, the new Soviet leader who had a new way of thinking about these issues. He wanted to improve relations with the West, China and Japan in order to concentrate on domestic restructuring and political and economic reform. The Soviet Union could never do so if it had any missiles—even 100, which became an initial fallback position—pointed at any of them.

The Kremlin deliberations have now been made public and we can read how Gorbachev berated his generals for wasting all their country’s money on weapons. Gorbachev told them that the USSR could never win an arms race against the West.

Once they achieved an end to the arms race, the need for Soviet militarism at home as well as abroad ended as well, which made Gorbachev comfortable making more radical internal reforms, which then got out of control and destroyed the Soviet Union.

Brookings has also released an accompanying paper on “The Treaty on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces: History and Lessons Learned.”

Some of these include:

  • Never shut the door on negotiation (but don’t be afraid to ask for what you want)
  • Alliance solidarity and buy-in are critical (even in bilateral negotiations)
  • It is important to have a bargaining chip (something NATO lacks now in its efforts to have Russia eliminate all its tactical nuclear weapons)
  • Be careful what you ask for (the zero-zero option was initially proposed by arms control opponents within the Reagan administration as a means of blocking an agreement)
  • Arms control expertise matters. (The Soviets and Americans over the years developed a common language for talking about nuclear weapons and a broad understanding of the other side’s concerns—something that we have yet to achieve with the Chinese)