The United States remains committed to preserving the landmark 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which is marking its 30th anniversary on December 8. However, the United States will start looking at military options—including the development of a new cruise missile—to counter what it sees as Russian violations of the bilateral agreement that bans land-based missiles with ranges of between 500 km and 5500 km.
“The United States will continue to pursue a diplomatic solution, we are now pursuing economic and military measures intended to induce the Russian Federation to return to compliance,” State department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement. “This includes a review of military concepts and options, including options for conventional, ground-launched, intermediate-range missile systems, which would enable the United States to defend ourselves and our allies, should the Russian Federation not return to compliance.”
Recommended: Why Doesn't America Kill Kim Jong Un?
Nauert said in her statement that development of a new U.S. ground-based missile that falls into INF ranges would not constitute an American violation of the treaty. Indeed, the wording to the treaty does seem to bear that out—the treaty does not seem to ban development work on INF class weapons until the point that prototypes missiles are built and flight tested.
“This step will not violate our INF Treaty obligations,” Nauert said. “We are also prepared to cease such research and development activities if the Russian Federation returns to full and verifiable compliance with its INF Treaty obligations. The United States does and will continue to abide by its INF Treaty obligations. We call on the Russian Federation to take concrete steps to return to compliance, preserve the INF Treaty, and restore confidence in the role of arms control to manage strategic stability.”
The United States has since 2014 accused Russia of taking steps to develop, test and field a new ground-launched cruise missile system in violation of the INF treaty. However, until recently, Washington has not disclosed the exact nature of the Russian violation—which is the development and fielding of the 9M729 or SSC-8 as designated by NATO. “Despite repeated U.S. efforts to engage the Russian Federation on this issue, Russian officials have so far refused to discuss the violation in any meaningful way or refute the information provided by the United States,” Nauert said.
Moscow contents, however, that the United States violated the INF treaty first. The Kremlin’s three areas of concern are the Aegis Ashore Ballistic Missile Defense system, ballistic target missiles and armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). There does not seem to be much validity to Russia’s ballistic target missile concern, but there might be some legitimacy to the Kremlin’s concerns about armed UAVs and Aegis Ashore.
In the case of the UAVs, the United States and Russia seem to have different interpretations of the treaty—which is not unusual. The State Department considers the issue moot because Russia is developing its own arsenal of combat UAVs. “The INF Treaty poses no restrictions on the testing, production, or possession of two-way, reusable, armed UAVs,” reads a new State Department Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance fact sheet. “In the U.S. view, the term ‘missile’ as used in the Treaty applies to one-way systems.”
There is more validity to Russia’s concern about the Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System, which uses a version of the Mk-41 vertical launch system (VLS) found onboard U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers. The naval version of the system is used to launch Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles among a multitude of other weapons. However, the State Department contends that the version installed at the Aegis Ashore sites is not the same as the sea-based Mk-41.
“The Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System does not have an offensive ground-launched ballistic or cruise missile capability,” the State Department fact sheet reads. “Specifically, the system lacks the software, fire control hardware, support equipment, and other infrastructure needed to launch offensive ballistic or cruise missiles such as the Tomahawk.”
The State Department emphasizes that while the land-based Mk-41 uses certain components of the standard naval Mk-41 VLS, it is not the same system. “Although it utilizes some of the same structural components as the sea-based Mk-41 Vertical Launch System installed on ships, the Aegis Ashore vertical launching system is NOT the same launcher as the sea-based MK-41 Vertical Launch System,” the State Department fact sheet reads. “Aegis Ashore has never contained, launched, or been tested for launching a missile that is prohibited by the INF Treaty. As a result, the system is not a prohibited launcher.”
The problem for the United States in this case—as arms control expert Pavel Podvig noted—is that Washington has not shown observable differences between the naval Mk-41 and the land-based Mk-41 as required by the INF treaty. The United States should show those observable differences. “It's that simple,” Podvig said.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.