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Cotton to Heritage Foundation: Leaving INF Crucial to Regaining Strategic Advantage in Indo-Pacific

March 13, 2019

Contact: Caroline Tabler or James Arnold (202) 224-2353

Earlier today, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) spoke to the Heritage Foundation on why U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty will advance U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific region. Click here to watch his remarks in full. Below are his remarks as delivered:

Thank you. Thank you, Jeff, for that kind introduction. It's good to be back at the Heritage Foundation to speak today about the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty-or I should say, the former INF Treaty.

I had to grin last week when Vladimir Putin "officially" suspended Russia's obligations under the INF Treaty-since Russia hasn't complied with the treaty for more than a decade. Say what you will about Vladimir Putin, he has perfected the art of gaslighting the West.

Moscow long ago developed land-based, intermediate-range missiles that can strike all of Europe. And the title of this forum-the Indo-Pacific after the INF-rightly suggests that China is of equal concern. Beijing has stockpiled thousands of missiles that can target our allies, our bases, our ships, and our citizens throughout the Pacific.

Yet we don't have the weapons to match either threat, because for ten years we've been the only nation on Earth that has constrained itself from producing medium-range, land-based missiles.

But not anymore. The United States has suspended our compliance with the INF Treaty and will withdraw from it later this summer. We announced this policy with the full support of our NATO allies due in no small part to Russia's repeated and flagrant violations. But withdrawing from this outdated treaty is only a first step. Now, we must rapidly develop the weapons necessary to overcome the strategic imbalance that's emerged between us and our rivals, China and Russia.

Let's remember how we got to this alarming moment, and see what we can learn from it. In the mid-1970's, Russia threatened Europe by deploying medium-range missiles that could reach London, Berlin, and Paris, but not the United States. The old communists thought they bolster their position in Europe and divide NATO. And they did for a while, ignoring high-minded petitions for peace.

Soon enough, though, Western actions spoke clearly. NATO made the "dual-track" decision in 1979, calling for arms-control negotiations but simultaneously deploying our own medium-range missiles to change the strategic balance of power in Europe. No amount of KGB disinformation or covert funding for anti-war protestors in the West could change the new hard facts for the Kremlin. NATO had called its bluff and hundreds of missiles were now minutes away from Moscow-all while the United States was held harmless.

So the Russians sued for peace and the result was the INF Treaty, which committed both nations to eliminate land-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. This happened not because of hosannas from the High Church of Arms Control, but rather because we outgunned our enemy, Russia.

But today it's the United States that's "outranged and outgunned" in Europe, as the Army Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley, puts it. While Putin's Russia spends a fraction of what the Soviet Union once did on its military, it compensates with a heavier reliance on missiles. We first discovered that the Russians were violating the INF Treaty in 2008, yet we sat on our hands until 2014, when the State Department finally declared that Russia was in fact violating the treaty. Unsurprisingly given this history, high-minded appeals to Russia went nowhere. Now, according to media reports, Russia has developed four battalions of road-mobile, intermediate-range missiles, with more surely to come.

China also has benefited from a quasi-theological devotion to the INF Treaty, because China was never bound by it in the first place. When the treaty was signed, China's military in general and its Rocket Force in particular were not significant threats to the United States. But today China has the arsenal to match its hegemonic ambitions.

China's defense budget grew by an average of 10% a year from 2000 to 2016. And a crown jewel of the People's Liberation Army is its arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles. China aims to dominate the region and prevent our military from operating in the Western Pacific, Indian Ocean, and South China sea. To achieve these aims, the PLA has deployed thousands of ground-based missiles capable of ranging U.S. bases and forces throughout the region-many in a matter of minutes. Most of these missiles are deployed on the Chinese mainland, within striking distance of our allies, particularly Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. Other missiles are deployed on China's artificial island military bases in the South China Sea.

Just as in Europe today, we have no comparable ground-launched missiles-we are again, to quote General Milley, "outranged and outgunned." And while some argue we can counter Chinese power with missiles launched from ships, submarines, and bombers, those air- and sea-based platforms are more expensive to operate than ground-based missiles, can't carry as many missiles, and they put more Americans in harm's way.

This imbalance of military power poses grave strategic challenges for the United States. Admiral Harry Harris, the former combatant commander of Pacific Command and now our ambassador to South Korea, testified last year that the INF Treaty has put our Navy "at a disadvantage in the western Pacific." He added the plain truth: "we have no ground-based capability that can threaten China."

If the conventional military balance continues to shift against us in the Indo-Pacific, the United States may find itself unable to credibly uphold its military commitments in the region. That's why it's imperative that we seize the opportunity provided by our imminent withdrawal from the INF and regain the upper hand over our rivals.

Yet despite the grave strategic situation and the support of our NATO allies, critics of the decision to withdraw remain. Some House Democrats have 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. The bill is sponsored by Representatives Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Barbara Lee, Mark Pocan, Jim McGovern, and Raul Grijalva. Boy, that list is a doozy. Apparently, they're fine with prohibiting the United States from building a weapon that literally every other nation on Earth can build.

Others would argue we should at least recommit to the INF Treaty and "give diplomacy a chance," as they put it. As though Russia will undergo a dramatic change of heart if we just say, "pretty, please" this time around. That was certainly the last administration's strategy. Yet all their imploring and communiques and demarche led to the predicament we face now-just the same hot air got the West nowhere in the 1970s. Russia understands one thing: iron will and brute force. Only when the costs we impose on their missile deployments exceed the benefits they perceive will Russia stand down.

The same goes for China and for all those who claim that instead of exiting the treaty, the United States should try to bring China into the treaty. This is an even more fantastic idea than the first. As I mentioned, a full 95% of China's ground-based missiles would be banned by the INF Treaty. The PLA has devoted 30 years to building this vast arsenal. They're not going to dismantle a centerpiece of their strategic doctrine just because we ask nicely. As with Russia, China will only change its ways when we impose sufficiently high costs-which we can do easily enough. Remember, China, like Russia, is vulnerable to our deployed medium-range missiles. But we are not vulnerable to theirs.

So now is the time to reclaim the strategic advantage in the Indo-Pacific. Our first step is pretty simple: quickly close the technology gap between us and the Chinese. In the short term, we ought to study how to match our existing missiles with mobile ground launchers. For instance, we could develop in fairly short order a land-based cruise missile, probably modeled on our current sea-based missiles. In the medium term, we ought to produce new mobile, ground-launched cruise missiles. Our forces don't have to mirror Chinese capabilities, but we ought to give our defense planners more tools-and our rivals' defense planners more things to worry about. And they'll worry a lot more about mobile missiles than fixed launchers, which are much easier to target and to take out.

We also must determine where in the Indo-Pacific region to base conventional INF-range missiles. Guam is probably the immediate answer for an initial basing site, but it's won't be enough for a long-term strategy. So we will also need to consult our allies about deploying medium-range missiles onto their territory as part of a serious plan to counter China.

Such deployments, though controversial to some, have great potential to enhance our network of allies and partners in the region. None of China's allies are blind to its ambitions, and no country of any consequence in the region prefers to be a vassal state to Beijing as opposed to an American military partner. Our withdrawal from the INF Treaty and development of new medium-range missiles will present us with new opportunities to engage those neighbors with arms sales, training exercises, and weapons co-development programs.

The INF Treaty was a creature of its time, when the world had split between superpowers. Russia was the only real threat we faced back then. Today, much as we might still focus on Europe, there's a gathering threat in the Far East, and the conventional balance of power is tilting slowly away from the United States. For too long our government stood paralyzed while American power eroded.

But in just a few months, that all stops. We'll have an opportunity to seize the strategic initiative once again. If we do, we can remind a revanchist Russia why it signed the INF Treaty in the first place. Likewise, we can show Beijing that its bid for dominance in the Western Pacific won't go unchallenged.

The task before us may be daunting, but events seemed no less daunting in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Back then, Cold War tensions seemed only to ratchet upward and the demise of the Evil Empire seemed like an impossible or at least a far-off prospect. Ronald Reagan's bold action to build America's military strength preserved the peace back then. We must be prepared to take such bold action today.

Thank you.