Report

U.S. Begins Work on New Missiles as Trump Scraps Treaty With Russia

Some worry the deployment of these weapons could spark a nonnuclear missile race.

Russian Defense Ministry officials show off the Russia's 9M729 cruise missile at the military Patriot Park outside Moscow on Jan. 23. (Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian Defense Ministry officials show off the Russia's 9M729 cruise missile at the military Patriot Park outside Moscow on Jan. 23. (Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. military will begin building and testing new, previously banned missiles following the United States’s expected withdrawal from a Cold War arms control agreement with Russia, a move that some say could set the stage for a nonnuclear missile race in Europe, the Pacific, and beyond.

The Pentagon plans to begin flight tests this year of two types of these missiles, defense officials said March 13. One effort is a low-flying cruise missile with a potential range of about 600 miles; the other is a ballistic missile with a longer range of roughly 1,900 to 2,500 miles, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to a small group of reporters at the Pentagon.

Pentagon officials declined to say what purpose the new missiles might serve. But they stressed that the work currently being done does not exclude the possibility that the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed in 1987 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, could survive. Both countries are expected to formally exit the treaty in August.

“There’s advanced research that, if taken in one direction, could do one thing and if taken in another direction could do another,” Pentagon Deputy Comptroller Elaine McCusker told reporters during a March 12 briefing on the department’s budget request for the fiscal year 2020. “Those are some of the decisions we have to make.”

In addition, the U.S. Army is already working on a separate missile with a range that, with a simple software update, could be adjusted to extend beyond the limitations of the arms deal.

Although the original INF Treaty was designed to reduce the risk of a nuclear war, it also covers ground-based conventional missiles, with ranges of 500 to 5,500 km (300 to 3,400 miles). Crucially, China, which has a large and growing arsenal of nonnuclear missiles in this range, is not party to the agreement.

Though these weapons are in the early stages of development, arms control experts worry that their eventual deployment in Europe and elsewhere could be provocative—and unnecessary.

“Without the INF Treaty, the risks of a new missile race in Europe and beyond will grow,” said Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association. He warned that the United States now has no “viable plan” to prevent Russia from pursuing additional capabilities beyond the current reported deployment of four battalions of the 9M729 missile, which the United States and its NATO allies say violates the agreement.

Further, Reif said, there is “no military need” for the United States to develop a new missile for deployment in Europe, since the U.S. military can already deploy air- and sea-launched systems that can threaten the same Russian targets that new ground-launched missiles prohibited under the INF Treaty would.

However, Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, cautioned that it is “premature” to speculate about the impact of the new missiles until more is known about whether, where, and in what numbers they will be deployed—something that will need to be hashed out within the Trump administration and with U.S. allies.

“I don’t really believe the existence or the idea of a land-based missile is inherently destabilizing,” Karako said. “I think it’s important to tamp down the rhetoric and the adjectives and the adverbs until we get to the other side of the treaty.”

In response to Russia’s violations, the Pentagon began research and development of conventional, ground-launched missile concepts in late 2017, U.S. Department of Defense spokeswoman Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza confirmed March 11. Aviation Week first reported the news.

Baldanza stressed that, because the United States has “scrupulously” complied with its INF Treaty obligations, these efforts are in early stages.

But now that the United States has signaled it will be exiting the treaty, the Pentagon will begin fabrication of components of the missiles, Baldanza said. “This research and development is designed to be reversible, should Russia return to full and verifiable compliance” before the United States officially withdraws in August, she stressed.

McCusker and other Pentagon officials declined to answer questions about how much funding is in this year’s budget request for the new missiles. Last year’s ask, which Congress approved, included $48 million in research-and-development funding for the effort, said Reif.

The new effort may now be funded through the Pentagon’s shadowy Strategic Capabilities Office, which can bypass the traditional acquisition process to field weapons more rapidly, Reif said.

“This suggests the Pentagon could move more quickly than perhaps anticipated to produce and attempt to field a ground-launched intermediate-range system after the treaty officially dies in August,” Reif said.

The military could choose to modify an existing system, which would be the cheaper, faster option, or develop a new one, said Reif.

In addition, the Army has begun developing a new, longer-range cannon, what it is calling the Precision Strike Missile, as a replacement for the legacy Army Tactical Missile System. The system as it is currently envisioned has a range of 499 kilometers (310 miles)—just under the limits of the INF Treaty. But if needed, the manufacturer could do a software update to extend the range of the system beyond those limitations, explained Army Under Secretary Ryan McCarthy on March 11.

Funding for any new, intermediate-range missiles could be met with resistance from Congress. Already, some lawmakers have taken a stance against withdrawing from the INF Treaty. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and 11 other Democrats introduced legislation in January that would prohibit procurement, testing, and fielding of a noncompliant missile until certain requirements have been met. A version was introduced in the House of Representatives in February.

“The Trump administration is needlessly ignoring the concerns of our allies and partners on an issue that should unify NATO, not divide it,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “By withdrawing from the INF Treaty instead of making an honest, good-faith effort to collectively punish Russia for its treaty violations and bring it back into compliance, we are playing into President Putin’s hands.”

However, both Reif and Karako noted that the Pentagon’s move to start research and development for a ground-launched cruise missile system with INF Treaty range was in response to a congressional mandate in the defense policy bill for 2018.

“This is what Congress told them to do, and this activity is within the four corners of the treaty,” Karako stressed.

If it comes to it, U.S. allies could also object to any move to deploy such a weapon to Europe. So far no European nation has so far agreed to host that kind of capability, said Reif.

“Even if one in Eastern Europe did, such a deployment would be a significant source of division absent agreement of the entire NATO alliance—one Russia would be eager to try and exploit, and which would be hugely provocative,” Reif said.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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