Asian Missiles on the March

In his Asian tour in August, US defense secretary Mark Esper said that he would like to deploy new ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in Asia as soon as possible. That same month, the Pentagon conducted its first test of such a missile since the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, banning such weapons, expired in August. Many Asian states have also been enhancing their missile forces in the region. The Chinese and Russian governments have warned that the appearance of new long-range ground precision-strike US missiles in Asia would threaten regional stability and jeopardize other arms control treaties. They have long made similar arguments against the missile defenses in Japan, South Korea, and the United States even as they augment their own offensive and defensive missile capabilities in the region. As President Trump observed when commenting on yet another North Korean test launch, “We are in the world of missiles folks, whether you like it or not.”1

Yet, the Asian-security situation is at a crossroads. Coming years could see, at worst an expensive and destabilizing missile arms race in Asia–reinforced by the North Korean missile buildup, the advent of novel hypersonic missile technologies, and improving missile defenses. Alternately, such threats could motivate governments to pursue at least limited agreements to bound regional missile competition. China, Russia, North Korea, and the United States are the four countries that could most determine whether Asia will see a perilous arms race, a negotiated arms control regime, or some intermediate scenario. This article assesses their policies as well as Japan and South Korea, which find themselves uncomfortably embedded in this missile competition. Though many scenarios are possible, the conclusion explores the paths towards either an unbridled and unprecedented multilateral missile arms race or a more stabilized arms control regime, Realizing the latter scenario will require changes in government policies that, though improbable in the next few years, will offer attractive opportunities for future reconsideration.  

Growing missile competition

The Asia-Pacific region is witnessing an unprecedented multilateral missile competition. China is deploying more missiles of ever-improving quality, aided by the growing Sino-Russian defense industrial partnership. The Chinese buildup, along with North Korea’s renewed missile testing and Russia’s alienation from Japan and the United States, is leading all East Asian military powers to acquire additional offensive and defensive missile capabilities. These developments have contributed to the collapse of longstanding arms control agreements. The Asian missile buildup threatens to weaken the region’s already fragile strategic stability.

The popularity of missiles for Asian militaries is unsurprising. They give countries critical strategic and operational capabilities. At the strategic level, offensive missiles can reinforce deterrence, by providing means to defeat attacks directly and by making threats of retaliation more credible. Having many missiles, especially those that are mobile, makes it hard for an adversary to destroy them all in a first strike. They can also undermine the credibility of security guarantees to allies and partners by providing means to defeat the guaranteeing country’s forces directly and by threatening credible retaliation against its national territory, denying the intervening state’s homeland sanctuary from retribution. Missile threats can weaken the resistance of rival states, which might coerce them not to host foreign missiles or missile defenses. At the operational level, anti-ship, anti-air, and land attack missiles can negate an opponent’s conventional advantages, preemptively destroy missile defenses and other military assets, and strengthen anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies aiming to keep potential adversarial forces away from the missile possessor’s territory.

Conversely, missile defenses can help deter and defeat attacks, reassure allies and partners, and counter missile proliferation if they degrade the value of offensive missile options. Modern interceptors employ kinetic hit-to-kill techniques rather than exploding munitions to destroy incoming missiles and warheads. Some strategists fear that an aggressor could launch a first strike with offensive missiles and then use its defenses to negate the weakened retaliatory punch of the target’s surviving missiles. The Chinese and Russian governments have long cited these considerations to depict US, Japanese, and South Korean missile defenses as strategically destabilizing even as they quietly strive to build such defenses themselves.

The increasing quantity and quality of missiles has contributed to the collapse of the Cold War-era arms control architecture. It was arguably the most important factor behind the recent demise of the INF Treaty, which had banned Washington and Moscow from possessing ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. On August 2, 2019, the US government withdrew from the pact, specifically citing Russia’s covert development and testing of a new ground-launched INF-range cruise missile, known as the SSC-8 or Novator 9M729, but also expressing concerns about China’s exclusion from the treaty. Russian officials have denied any wrongdoing and accused the United States of breaching the accord by deploying long-range drones, testing missile interceptors against intermediate-range ground-launched ballistic missiles, and deploying Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) systems around Russia capable of being converted into offensive missile launchers.

US objections to Russian non-compliance with the INF Treaty predated the Trump administration, as did the collapse of other Cold War-era arms control agreements. Geopolitical and technological developments previously undermined support for the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty (which severely constrained Russian and US BMD research and development), and other Cold War-era accords, as well as more recent agreements with North Korea and Iran. Putin and other Russian officials frequently cite the end of the ABM Treaty as the onset of the current missile competition, arguing that, without legally binding limits on US missile defenses, Russia and other countries have had to augment their offensive forces. The New START treaty, the latest in a long history of accords limiting intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), will expire in February 2021, unless Washington and Moscow agree to extend it. The Russian government has proposed a five-year extension, the maximum length permitted by the treaty’s protocol, but the Trump administration has not yet agreed. Instead, the White House is considering other options, such as seeking a broader accord that could include additional countries, especially China, and weapons systems, such as the new types of strategic delivery systems currently under development in Russia. Unlike previous presidencies, the Trump administration has become so concerned about China’s growing missile arsenal and other military power that the White House is pushing to include Beijing in all future strategic arms control agreements. US officials have expressed special concern about the PLA’s formidable arsenal of short- 9under 500km) and intermediate-range (500-5500km) land-based missiles.


Whereas the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) arsenal of intermediate-range missiles was miniscule when the INF Treaty was signed, China now fields more ground-launched missiles in the 500-5500km range than any other country, some two thousand ballistic and cruise missiles capable of delivering conventional or nuclear warheads against ground, ship, and air targets from Chinese land, sea, air, and sub-surface launching platforms.2 Since China is not a party to the INF or New START treaties, the PLA missile buildup has helped undermine support for these treaties, which apply only to Washington and Moscow.

At the operational level, China’s conventional ballistic and cruise missiles underpin the PLA’s challenge to US military primacy in the Pacific. They substantially bolster Beijing’s A2/AD capabilities designed to negate US power projection against Chinese forces or territory.3 The missiles can strike US bases and forces throughout the Western Pacific. and thereby sow doubts among US allies about Washington’s ability to intervene in a regional conflict involving these countries or their interests. China has brandished these capabilities in tense times through ostentatious missile testing in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.4

PRC officials have urged Washington and continue the INF and New START treaties, which is understandable since they leave China’s missile development unhindered while constraining those of the PLA’s two strongest rivals. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang termed the US pull out “regrettable,” insisting that the treaty remained important for “easing major-country relations, promoting international and regional peace, and safeguarding global strategic balance and stability,” while its loss would “trigger a series of adverse consequences.”5 Chinese officials and analysts have attributed Washington’s withdrawal to a desire to “give the US military more freedom in terms of the development and deployment of conventional and nuclear weapons,” which “jeopardizes not just Russia’s or China’s safety, but the whole world’s.”6

The Trump administration, joined by many allied governments, called on Beijing to join the INF Treaty to save it. The Chinese government insisted that, "China will in no way agree to making the INF Treaty multi-lateral" and accused Washington of "duty shifting," trying to displace its disarmament obligations onto other countries.7 Geng characterized multilateralization as impractical given how it would involve complex interlocking questions “covering political, military and legal fields, which draws concerns from many countries.”8 China has also refused to join the hitherto bilateral strategic nuclear reduction process, claiming that the PLA’s missile arsenal is defensive in nature, does not threaten any country, and is substantially less than those of the United States and Russia, with only a minimal nuclear deterrent needed for assured retaliation. For instance, the ambassador for disarmament affairs, Li Song, asserted earlier this year that China’s “nuclear force is always kept at the minimum level required by national security needs, which is totally not at the same level with that of the U.S. and Russia."9 Chinese officials also note that the PRC, unlike Russia and the United States, has a declared “No First Use” (NFU) policy, but this stance applies only to nuclear weapons, not missiles.

Beijing’s October 1 military parade, to mark the 70th anniversary of the PRC’s establishment, revealed an impressive array of new weaponry: advanced drones, strategic bombers, and a half-dozen advanced ballistic missiles.10 The large display confirmed that China will likely deploy an even larger and more diverse missile portfolio in coming years:

  • The single-warhead Dong Feng (DF)-31AG ICBM, a modified version of the DF-31A, can move on roads on a specialized transporter erector launcher (TEL), making it more difficult to target and increasing its potential launch points compared with a silo-based missile or one that moves along a fixed underground tunnel.
  • The DF-41 three-stage solid-propellant ICBM can move on roads (unlike the earlier DF-5B, a silo-based, liquid-fuel missile that was also paraded) and carry as many as ten multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV), allowing each DF-41 to deliver more nuclear warheads, to 12,000-15,000km, than any previous Chinese missile.
  • The DF-17 is an INF-range system (estimated 1500km) that carries a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), armed with a conventional or nuclear warhead, on a booster rocket into the upper atmosphere, where it separates and descends in unpredictable maneuvers toward earth, allowing the HGV to circumvent existing ballistic and cruise missile defenses.
  • The DF-26 is an INF-range missile that can carry nuclear or conventional warheads some 4,000km, allowing it to hit major surface combatants and other targets up to the second island chain.
  • The intermediate-range DF-21D has been specifically designed as a cost-effective anti-carrier weapon that can outrange carrier-based aircraft, the symbol of US maritime power, though doubts persist whether the PLA can manage the technical challenges of tracking the carriers and maneuvering the missiles sufficiently rapidly over long distances to hit them.11
  • The single-warhead Ju Lang-2 (JL-2) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) can carry a warhead from China’s Jin-class (Type 094A nuclear submarines) SSBNs, which has six ballistic missile tubes, to targets up to 8,000km away.12
  • The H-6Ns strategic bomber for launching air-to-surface ballistic missiles (against land or naval targets).13
  • The CJ-100 land-attack cruise missile, and an upgraded and faster (perhaps supersonic) version of the CJ-10.

The PLA’s missile defense capabilities lag behind those of the United States and Russia. The Hong Qi-9 (HQ-9) mobile air defense systems use TEL-launched surface-to-air missiles that have ranges of several hundred kilometers and can hit targets at altitudes up to 30km.14 The PRC has been developing a ground-launched mid-course missile interceptor based on its SC-19 missile, but the system seems better suited for downing space satellites rather than ICBMs. However, China has been buying even more advanced missile defense platforms from Russia, including the top-line S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system.


Missiles were arguably Moscow’s most important strategic tool for countering US military power during the Cold War. Not only did long-range missiles help secure mutual deterrence between the Soviet Union and the United States, but the Soviet army, navy, and air force relied on their diverse missiles to counter Western conventional military power. During the 1990s, the Russian Federation retained many Soviet-era missiles, including its land- and submarine-based strategic ballistic missiles and its short-range sea- and air-launched cruise missiles. Over the past decade, however, the Russian government has modernized its missile arsenal by developing new short-, intermediate-, and long-range systems. The Russian Navy employed the latest sea-based cruise missiles in Syria, while Russia’s new strategic ballistic missiles have been designed to overcome current and future US missile defenses. Russia has also pursued more exotic long-range delivery systems, such as nuclear-powered cruise missiles, air-launched ballistic missiles that can fly at hypersonic speeds, and other novel weaponry that are not well-covered by existing missile control agreements. These newfangled technologies seem to enrapture President Putin but have proven accident-prone under development and could prove destabilizing if deployed.15

Russian strategists have displayed “buyer’s remorse” about joining the INF Treaty since the end of the Cold War. Putin has criticized the Soviet decision to sign the treaty as “unilateral disarmament” given that, whereas the United States possessed INF-range sea- and air-launched cruise missiles in 1987, the Soviet military did not.16 Russian experts have also complained that their country, unlike the United States, is located within range of numerous foreign INF-range missiles, including those of China, Iran, Pakistan, and many other states. The Russian military has also wanted to exploit their vast territory to conceal land-launched mobile missiles to hedge against the vulnerability of their fixed-silo and submarine-launched missiles. The unknown and changeable location of Russia’s mobile missiles would complicate an adversary’s first-strike options. These missiles can evade an adversary’s air and naval defenses or reach some Asian targets that would otherwise require use of Russia’s limited strategic or sea- and air-launched missiles.

A desire to have these capabilities may have motivated Moscow to develop the ground-launched INF-range missile in violation of the treaty. Russian policy makers likely reasoned that either their violation would not be detected or acted upon by the United States or, as happened, the situation would lead Washington to withdraw from the treaty, giving Moscow a free hand to develop such weapons while blaming the Washington for its demise or, in Putin’s word, to "untie its hands to deploy the previously banned missiles in different parts of the world."17 Although the United States, supported by its NATO allies, has justified the new US INF-range systems under development as a response to Russia’s earlier violation of the treaty, Putin has announced that Russia will react in parallel to any US steps in this area: “American partners have announced that they are suspending their participation in the treaty, so we are suspending ours.… They announced that they are engaged in research & technological development work, and we will do the same."18

The Russian officials have explicitly warned against the deployment of US ground-launched INF-range missiles in Asia, which the Foreign Ministry said would present a threat to international security. Alluding to Esper’s remarks, Putin argued that, “High-ranking U.S. politicians are claiming that the deployment of new arms systems may start in the Asia-Pacific region, which is also affecting our vital interests because they will be close to the Russian border.”19 Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov stated that “if the deployment of new U.S. systems begins specifically in Asia then the corresponding steps to balance these actions will be taken by us in the direction of parrying these threats."20 Alexander Sherin, the first deputy chairman of the State Duma’s defense committee, and General Vladimir Bogatyryov proposed sending Russian missiles to Venezuela or Cuba in response to the appearance of US surface-to-surface missiles near Russia’s borders.21 But Russian authorities can more plausibly place new missile systems in the Asian parts of the Russian Federation. The Russian military has been augmenting its missile defenses in eastern Russia due to concerns about DPRK missiles as well as those of the United States.

North Korea

Under Kim Jong Un’s leadership, the DPRK has tested almost one hundred missiles since 2011.22 Though refraining from detonating nuclear munitions in the past two years, North Korea has continued to develop a robust portfolio of offensive missiles with varying ranges and launching platforms. Its anti-ship and anti-air missile capabilities are modest, but the current DPRK arsenal includes several short-range surface-to-surface missiles (Hwasong-3, Hwasong 9, KN-02, and possibly KN-09) able to carry conventional, nuclear, and even chemical munitions as well as some ground-to-ground missiles under development (KN-18, KN-21, and KN-23, which is similar to Russia’s advanced Iskander short-range missile) that could have enhancements such as lower trajectories or greater ranges and in-flight maneuverability. North Korea’s INF-range surface-to-surface missiles include the indigenously made mobile NoDong, multi-staged Taepodong, Hwasong-10 (Musudan), and Hwasong-12 tested over Japanese territory. The Hwasong missiles could reach US military forces on Guam.23 Although developing many missile types requires more resources than pursuing a few systems, the variety allows the DPRK to “mix-and-match” its capabilities to complicate an adversary’s missile defense network.

During the past year, the DPRK has conducted over a dozen missile tests in order to signal displeasure with US and South Korean military policies, coerce Washington and its allies into making diplomatic concessions such as relaxing their economic sanctions on North Korea, exacerbate divisions in threat perception between the White House and US regional allies, reassure domestic actors concerned about foreign threats to the regime, and strengthen the DPRK’s means of military deterrence. Towards this end, the DPRK is seeking missiles that can survive a US first strike and then overcome an adversary’s missile defenses to obtain an assured means of retaliation.24

Developing an effective submarine-launched ballistic missile is a current DPRK priority since having a missile launched from a mobile underwater platform could allow the DPRK to attack targets from unpredictable locations that would complicate missile defenses. A photo released of the new Pukguksong-3 SLBM tested in October 2019 suggests that it may have a greater range, payload capacity, and flight stability than earlier DPRK submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Though even a intermediate-range SLBM could hit the continental United States if the submarine could sail near North America, North Korea continues to research technologies useful for building ICBMs capable of reaching targets from DPRK territory (such as the Taepodong-2, KN-08, and KN-14 reportedly under development). Furthermore, Pyongyang is pursuing a new ballistic missiles capable of flying in varied, unpredictable, non-ballistic trajectories to penetrate regional missile defenses such as the short-range Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3), the intermediate-range surface-to-air Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, and the sea-based Aegis targeting system equipped with Standard Missiles (SM).25 These  missiles would be considerably more effective if armed with nuclear warheads to compensate for inaccuracies and attrition, and the DPRK has been stubbornly resisting foreclosing its nuclear weapons options in its negotiations with the United States and other countries.

Japan and South Korea

The above missile buildups are straining US alliances in Asia. The Trump administration wants to place next-generation US INF-range missiles on their territories, but the Australian, Japanese and South Korean governments have manifested an obvious reluctance to host them due to foreign as well as domestic opposition. China imposed major sanctions on the Republic of Korea when the United States deployed defensive interceptors on ROK territory designed to counter North Korean missiles. Beijing could respond even more severely to any state hosting offensive missiles aimed against China. Russian officials have also threatened to punish states that host US missile defenses near Russian territory, also expressing concern that returning Japan’s Northern Territories to Tokyo’s control would result in US missile defenses appearing on the islands.26

Japan and the ROK face major missile threats from North Korea, while Australia as well as Japan are also concerned by China’s growing missile arsenal. For many years, South Korea and Japan have been building a comprehensive layer of short- and intermediate-range missile defenses. The ROK BMD architecture is focused almost exclusively on countering DPRK missile threats, while the Japanese defenses also aim to defend against some Chinese missiles. Both countries have also been seeking offensive missile capabilities to destroy DPRK missiles preemptively, before they are launched. Since South Korea and Japan depend on US military protection, their political leaders worry about the Trump administration’s discounting the DPRK’s testing of shorter-range missiles as not directly threatening US territory.27

Japan has invested in building an advanced BMD architecture consisting of eight Aegis-equipped destroyers with longer-range exo-atmospheric SM-3 interceptors operated by the Maritime Security Defense Force and, as a second level, several endo-atmospheric Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) batteries operated by the Aviation Security Defense Force.28 A land-based version of the Aegis radar and a more advanced interceptor variant, the SM-3 Block IIA, are under development, with the two Aegis ashore sites expected to become operational in 2024.29 Since the DPRK began launching missiles into or over Japanese territory or Japan’s exclusive economic zone, Tokyo’s interest in acquiring long-range offensive cruise missiles to attack North Korean (or Chinese) missiles preemptively has grown. Japanese interest in developing more nationally controlled missile defense sensors has risen due to the recent decline in Japanese-ROK security cooperation, manifested in the cancellation of the bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which has deprived the Japanese military of DPRK-related missile early warning data.30

From Seoul’s perspective, President Moon Jae-in’s failure to achieve intra-Korean denuclearization and reconciliation has made it difficult to demand more limits on the US missile defense footprint in South Korea. ROK officials continue to augment their national missile defenses, develop longer-range cruise missiles, and debate obtaining nuclear-power attack submarines to hunt for the DPRK’s missile-launching submarines. Recent agreements with the United States have relaxed limits on the range and payload of these offensive missiles. Nonetheless, the Moon administration has dismissed proposals to develop ROK nuclear weapons, return US nuclear weapons to South Korea, or host the new INF-range conventional surface-to-surface missiles the United States has begun to develop.31

The United States

The INF Treaty allowed the United States to deploy unlimited-range cruise and ballistic missiles on strategic bombers and other aircraft as well as surface ships and submarines. However, the many security challenges the United States has faced in Asia and other regions have taxed the limited number of these long-range strike platforms, which typically have other missions such as anti-submarine warfare, air and missile defense, and maintaining a global US military presence. It is also normally cheaper to base missiles on land than on ships or planes. Due to its massive missile buildup, China’s short- and intermediate-range missiles substantially outnumber those of the United State and its allies, calling into question the US ability to deter and defeat China.
After the US government began seriously considering withdrawing from the INF Treaty, the Pentagon resumed researching land-based INF-range missiles with conventional warheads, including a ground-launched version of the Navy’s Tomahawk cruise missile, a new longer-range ballistic missile that has just begun testing, and a proposed Army ballistic or hypersonic glide precision strike missile stationed on a mobile launching platform. Advocates of deploying new ground-based missiles in Asia believe they would help overcome China’s defensive A2/AD barriers, complicate Chinese offensive military planning by expanding the number and type of US missile launching platforms in Asia, reinforce US extended security guarantees to Asian allies, and reduce US monetary and other resource costs of relying primarily on air- and ship-based missiles for long-range precision strikes.32

One advantage with keeping these missiles on ships or planes is that the sea and air have open areas free of national sovereignty. In contrast, unless they can be launched from their home nations, ground-based missiles must be deployed on foreign countries nearer their targets. As noted, even the closest US allies in Asia have shown reluctance to host US land attack missiles aimed at China. The Pentagon could place the missiles on the US territories of Guam or the Northern Mariana Islands, but these relatively small land areas provide limited space for mobile launchers to hide. The islands are also considerably farther away from China than Japan, the Philippines, or South Korea, meaning the US would need to deploy its more expensive longest-range conventional missiles and these would require substantially more time to reach their targets unless they travelled at hypersonic speeds. The Army is considering developing such a long-range precision strike weapon while the Air Force and Navy are also researching arming various platforms with air- and sea-borne hypersonic missiles. An alternative approach would be to keep the missiles in North America for rapid re-deployment in Asia or other regions in a crisis, when their value to the potential host would increase. Such a move could signal US resolve and has been practiced with the recent deployment of mobile artillery rocket systems to Australia.33 However, the technique would need to be rehearsed to ensure smooth redeployment and would be economically more costly and logistically more complex than more permanent forward-basing options.

Meanwhile, US missile defense policies are in flux. The 2019 Missile Defense Review still prioritizes defending the US homeland from North Korean and Iranian missile threats, but the Pentagon recently canceled a project to make the existing mid-course missile interceptor more reliable. Instead, defense experts want to construct a more advanced BMD architecture that would counter emerging cruise and hypersonic missile threats through more comprehensive space-based surveillance and developing some means of intercepting ICBMs sooner after launch, especially in their boost phase before they can deploy decoys and other penetration aides. The review also discusses the need to protect US forces and allies in Europe and Asia from Russian and Chinese short- and intermediate- range missiles, providing a potential path for future evolution of the US and allied missile defenses systems in these regions.34 The army is continuing to improve the PAC-3 and THAAD systems by, among other means, providing better 360-degree radar coverage as well as linking their sensors and fire-control systems into an Integrated Air and Missile Battle Command System. The Aegis Sea-based missile defense system is acquiring improved radar and interceptors such as the SM-3 Block IIA, which will also be based ashore in Asia and Europe. However, the defense budget does not provide sufficient resources to meet all these priorities, exacerbating the gap between missile defense goals and capabilities.

Missile Racing with Arms Control?

Esper dismissed Chinese and Russian objections to the planned US missile deployments in Asia given Beijing’s missile buildup, Moscow’s violation of the INF Treaty, and both countries’ aggressive foreign policies. Pompeo likewise asserted that, “There is no reason the United States should continue to cede this crucial military advantage to revisionist powers like China… when these weapons are being used to threaten and coerce the United States and its allies in Asia.”35 Yet, the US decision could accelerate the region’s missile buildups as countries strive for qualitative and quantitative enhancements to their offensive and defensive missiles to assure their ability to retaliate even if an adversary strikes first.

China’s response would probably be vigorous since US officials have explicitly cited PLA threats to justify the Pentagon’s deployment of more missiles in Asia. Fu Cong, director general of the PRC foreign ministry’s arms control department, said that if the United States proceeds with its “reckless” missile deployments in Asia, China “would have no choice but to take necessary countermeasures.”36 For instance, the PLA could abandon its NFU policy and place nuclear warheads on fueled missiles rather than store them separately, move to a launch-under-attack to avert a potential US decapitation of its nuclear retaliatory architecture, or simply build more offensive missiles and other kinetic and non-kinetic second-strike weapons without having to face the foreign basing challenges confronting the United States. All these responses could raise the risk of inadvertent or accidental missile use in peacetime as well as escalation pressures in conflicts and crises.37 A PLA missile buildup would likely prompt India and therefore Pakistan to accelerate development of their nuclear-armed cruise and ballistic missiles, while New Delhi would also invest more in its missile defenses and other strategic weaponry. Furthermore, the deployment of additional US missiles in Asia, especially in South Korea or Japan, could further strain the delicate nuclear arms talks with North Korea.38

Yet, the experience of the European missile crisis of the 1980s and other events show how heightened prospects of a regional missile race can drive countries to limit these weapons. The demise of the ABM Treaty in 2001 arguably contributed to the signing the following year of the Moscow Treaty (formally known as the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty) limiting Russian and US nuclear forces. In particular, the impending deployment of US missiles in Asia following the INF Treaty’s expiration may spur new interest in bounding missile competition to save money or reduce risks. An unbounded offensive and defensive regional missile race, especially with hypersonic or proximate systems, could complicate military planning, reduce strategic predictability, decrease crisis stability by amplifying preemption incentives, and weaken restraints on missile and possibly nuclear proliferation in Asia and beyond.39 In the United States, some Democratic leaders have resisted the Republican administration’s proposed spending for some new offensive and defensive missiles. While denouncing the US August INF-range missile test, Putin insisted that, “We will not be drawn into a costly arms race that would be disastrous for our economy.”40 Any limits could profitably strengthen barriers against the further proliferation of advanced missile technologies, especially to North Korea and Iran. The UN estimates that almost two dozen countries could presently obtain nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, something that many Asian leaders would want to prevent.41

A comprehensive missile ban encompassing all Asian states is out of reach given the large number of missile-possessing states, the wide variety of their missile arsenals, and the different purposes for which they seek missiles. However, a narrowly targeted treaty could limit the deployment of some surface-to-surface missiles, such as those armed with nuclear warheads or armed with multiple warheads. US officials have pledged to deploy only conventionally armed missiles in Asia, but policy makers need better means of distinguishing between missiles armed with conventional and nuclear warheads to make such statements verifiable. Enhanced strategic stability dialogues among leaders could also help discourage dangerous operational practices and avert misunderstandings such as exaggerated fears that missile defenses could encourage risky offensive behavior by giving states the illusion of invulnerability to retaliation.

Concluding Observations

Prospects for a missile and missile defense arms race centered on Northeast Asia have risen rapidly of late. The INF Treaty has been abrogated. North Korea is furiously testing missiles seen as destabilizing by other countries. Sino-Russian cooperation on missile launch detection joins other advances in their military ties, while each displays more advanced nuclear delivery systems. The United States is developing intermediate-range ground-launched missiles for the first time in decades and is calling on allies to prepare for deploying them despite reservations from South Korea and, to a lesser degree, Japan. A costly and potentially destabilizing missile arms race appears to be on the horizon.

Given the many diverse actors, weapons and missions, effectively limiting missiles or missile defenses will be more difficult than during the Cold War. Nonetheless, the most urgent goal is curtailing North Korean missile testing, which threatens US, Japanese, and South Korean security directly—and Russian and Chinese security indirectly through these three states’ military response. Another near-term task is fortifying restrictions on the spread of advanced missile technologies to other states. Achieving agreement on improved export control regimes should be easier for these states than accepting limits on their own arsenals. At some point in coming years, however, a mechanism will be needed to embed China more deeply in missile arms control. Unless Beijing moderates its missile buildup, even with enhanced transparency and other operational arms control, the United States, and therefore its allies and adversaries, will stubbornly resist binding constraints on their offensive and defensive missile capabilities.

The author would like to thank the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for supporting his nonproliferation research.

1. Amanda Macias, “At G-7, Trump says he is not happy about North Korea missile tests,” CNBC, August 25,

2. Clive Williams, “Pacific collateral from the INF Treaty collapse,” The Interpreter, January 31, 2019,

3. “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region,” Department of Defense, June 2019,

4. Ian Storey, “China’s Ballistic Missile Tests in the South China Sea Stoke Sino-US Tensions,” ISEAS, July 8, 2019,

5. "Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang’s Remarks on the US Suspending INF Treaty Obligations and Beginning Withdrawl Process,"PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, February 2, 2019,

6. Kristin Huang, "Donald Trump ‘targets’ China by pulling out of missile deal with Russia," South China Morning Post, October 24, 2018,

7. “China reiterates opposition to multilateralization of INF Treaty,” Xinhua, July 30, 2019,

8. "Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang’s Remarks.”

9. “Nuclear deterrence targeting non-nuclear states a sign of hegemonism: Chinese ambassador,” Xinhua, May 15, 2019, See also “China says it won’t take part in trilateral nuclear arms talks,” Reuters, May 6, 2019,; and “Russia, US trade barbs over INF collapse, China says no interest in trilateral treaty,” Global Times, August 23, 2019,

10. Hans M. Kristensen, “Military Might Takes Center Stage at Chinese 70-Year Anniversary Parade,” Federation of American Scientists, October 1, 2019,; and “China’s Strategic Deterrents on Display,” China Daily, October 2, 2019,

11. David Lague and Benjamin Kang Lim, “New missile gap leaves U.S. scrambling to counter China,” Reuters, April 25, 2019,

12. “China’s Strategic Deterrents on Display,” China Daily, October 2, 2019,

13. Anna Fifield, “China rolls out its military firepower with emphasis on ‘Cold War-style’ nuclear might,” The Washington Post, October 1, 2019,

14. “HQ-9,” Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance,

15. Greg Walters, “All the ‘Absurd’ New Weapons Russia is Building in the New Nuclear Arms Race,” Vice, August 29, 2019,

16. Vladimir Putin speech at Valdai Discussion Club, Sochi, October 19, 2017,

17. Vladimir Isachenkov, “Putin orders Russia to respond after U.S. missile test,” Associated Press, August 24, 2019,

18. Mary Ilyushina, Jack Guy, and Steven Jiang, "Russia follows US in suspending INF nuclear missile treaty," CNN, February 2, 2019,

19. Vladimir Putin, “Meeting with permanent members of the Security Council,” The Kremlin, August 23, 2019,

20. “Russia Says It Would Respond to U.S. Missile Deployments in Asia,” Moscow Times, August 5, 2019,

21. Dimitri Simes, “As Russia Ponders Next Moves on Missiles, Lawmaker Suggests Deployment in Venezuela,” CNS News, August 27, 2019, ; The Associated Press, “Putin Orders Russia to Respond After U.S. Missile Test,” The New York Times, August 23, 2019, ; and Vladimir Isachenkov, “Putin orders Russia to respond after U.S. missile test,” Japan Today, August 24, 2019,.

22. ‘North Korean Missile Launches & Nuclear Tests: 1984-Present,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 4, 2019,

23. “North Korea Fires Second Ballistic Missile Over Japan,” BBC, September 7, 2017,; see also Missile Defense Project, "Missiles of North Korea," Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 15, 2018,

24. Troy Stangarone, “Normalizing North Korean Ballistic Missile Tests,” PacNet 51, September 12, 2019,

25. ‘North Korea’s New Warheads Could Penetrate Missile Shield, Says Japan,” The Guardian, August 27, 2019,

26. “Lavrov Talks Tough At Meeting With Japan On Disputed Islands,” RFERL, January 14, 2019,

27. Jesse Johnson, “Trump’s de facto Blessing of North Korea’s Missile Tests Sends Ominous Message to Japan,” Japan Times, August 28, 2019,

28. Defense of Japan Annual White Paper 2019, Ministry of Defense of Japan, September 2019, pp. 283-4,

29. Tim Kelley, “As North Korea Expands Arsenal, Japan’s Missile Defense Shield Faces Unforeseen Costs – Sources,” Reuters, September 26, 2019,

30. Mathew Ha, “South Korea’s missile detection failure shows need for cooperation with Japan,” Defense News, October 24, 2019, .

31. “The Difficulty of Basing U.S. Missiles in Asia,” National Public Radio, August 9, 2019,

32. Dave Deptula, “Whether The U.S. Scraps The INF Or Stays In, China Must Be Checked,” Forbes, November 5, 2018,; Andrew S. Erickson, “Good Riddance to the INF Treaty,” Foreign Affairs, August 29, 2019,; and Thomas Mahnken, “Countering Missiles With Missiles: U.S. Military Posture After the INF Treaty,” War on the Rocks, July 16, 2019, ;

33. Seth Robson, “Highly mobile rocket systems to stay in Australia after Talisman Sabre ends,” Stars and Stripes, July 11, 2019,

34. Missile Defense Review,” US Department of Defense, January 2019,

35. Kingston Reif, “After the INF Treaty, What is Next?,” Arms Control Association, February 2019,

36. “Washington’s missile plan reckless,” China Daily, October 17, 2019,

37. Pranay Vaddi, “Leaving the INF Treaty Won’t Help Trump Counter China,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 31, 2019,; and Tong Zhao, “Why China is Worried About the End of the INF Treaty,” Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, November 7, 2018,

38. Mercy Kuo, “US Withdrawal From INF Treaty: Impact on Asia,” The Diplomat, March 1, 2019,

39. Douglas Barrie, “Unstable at speed: hypersonics and arms control,” International Institute for Strategic Studies, October 18, 2019,

40. “Putin Orders Russia to Respond After U.S. Missile Test,” The New York Times, August 23, 2019,

41.    “UN Security Council divided over US Missile Test,” NHK News, August 22, 2019,