US Threatens Its Own Treaty-Busting Missile Development in Response to Russian Violations

The United States hopes the threat will pressure the Russians back into complying with the Cold War deal.

DoD

The U.S. government appears to be pushing ahead with plans to at least look into what it would take to build a new ballistic or cruise missile that would violate the terms of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF. The ostensible goal of the program is to goad Russia back into compliance with the Cold War-era agreement, but it could simply reinforce the Kremlin's argument that the deal has become increasingly irrelevant.

On Nov. 17, 2017, The Wall Street Journal reporte that U.S. military had started researching a missile that would fit the parameters expressly  prohibited under the INF. The United States and the Soviet Union signed the treaty in 1989, which banned the possession of any land-based conventional or nuclear-capable missile of any kind that had a maximum range of between 310 and 3,420 miles.

The United States is already of the view that Russia has violated the deal by deploying a new long-range cruise missile – known variously by its Russian nomenclature 9M729, the U.S. military designation SSC-8, and the NATO nickname Screwdriver – that experts believe has a range of more than 1,000 miles and maybe even more than 1,500 miles. A version of the existing road-mobile 9K720 Iskander transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) is the launch platform for the weapon. In February 2017, The New York Times reported, citing unnamed U.S. government officials, that the Kremlin had two full battalions armed with this weapon, one of which was an operational unit. The Russians swiftly denied the report.

In developing a complementary system, “the idea here is we need to send a message to the Russians that they will pay a military price for violation of this treaty,” an unnamed U.S. government told The Wall Street Journal. “We are posturing ourselves to live in a post-INF world … if that is the world the Russians want.”

The video below shows Russian troops reloading an Iskander-M TEL equipped to fire the older INF-compliant 9M728 cruise missiles.

Before the INF came into force, both the United States and the Soviet Union operated a variety of missile systems within its range parameters. In complying with its terms, the U.S. Army eliminated its remaining Pershing Ia ballistic missiles in storage and its operational Pershing II systems. The U.S. Air Force scrapped the BGM-109G Gryphon Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) version of the iconic Tomahawk cruise missile.

DoD

GAMAs at RAF Molesworth, England. 4 GAMAs, 1 per flight, each holding 16 missiles, total 64 missiles. Molesworth was completely reconstructed between 1981 and 1985, being transformed from a largely abandoned World War II Eighth Air Force B-17 base to a modern NATO facility.

Technically, it would likely require minimal effort for the U.S. military to develop, build, and field a new system that matches the basic capabilities of the Pershing II or Gryphon. These are well understood systems at their most basic level. At the same time, the United States is already in the process of developing new close-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), as well as air-launched cruise missiles, and related technology to make them more less vulnerable physical countermeasures and cyber attacks and more reliable overall.

USAF

A US Air Force trailer-mounted GLCM launcher in operation prior to the signing of the INF.

One relatively easy course of action would be to simply have defense contractor Raytheon increase the range of the DeepStrike missile it is already developing for the U.S. Army for use in its tracked M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) and wheeled M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers. This weapon will already have the maximum allowable range allowed under the INF and will replace the older Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS).

Another possibility would be to either expand the U.S. Air Force’s Long Range Stand-Off (LRSO) cruise missile program to include a ground-launched configuration or plan a parallel project to develop a land-based derivative. At present, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin are competing to build this weapon. LRSO’s specific range requirement is classified, but as an air-launched system it is already not subject to the INF.

Raytheon

The United States could also choose to research and develop a sufficiently long-range land-based missile and hold that information in reserve if it ever decided to abrogate the INF itself. It is the position of the U.S. government that simply studying the design for such a weapon or even conducting developmental work does not violate the treaty.

Congress appears to be entirely on board with this plan. The most recent version of the National Defense Authorization Act for the 2018 fiscal year includes $58 million in funds to both develop defensive countermeasures against the SSC-8, but also to establish a program of record for what it describes as an “INF Range Ground-Launched Missile System.”

“The conferees note that the INF Treaty prohibits testing and deployment of ground-launched intermediate-range missile systems, but it does not prohibit research and development,” the conference report notes. “The conferees do not intend for the United States to enter into a violation of the INF Treaty so long as the treaty remains in force, and nothing in this provision should be construed to force the United States into a violation of the treaty.”

But therein lies one of, if not the central issues at play. For more than a decade now, Russia has made it abundantly clear that it no longer feels the missile treaty serves its interests and has in many ways already suggested that it is living in a “post-INF world.”

Russian MoD

The Iskander TEL is modular and can carry 9M728 cruise missiles, left, or 9M723 short-range ballistic missiles, right.

In 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin openly questioned the future of the treaty and said his country would pull out of the deal if the United States went ahead with plans to install Ground-based Mid-course Defense (GMD) ballistic missile interceptors in Europe. The U.S. government changed course and adopted a plan to deploy sea-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) and land-based Aegis Ashore systems instead.

At the same time, though, the Kremlin had noted that other countries were not restricted by the INF and the treaty’s existence had not slowed world-wide proliferation of missiles that fit its range requirements. The only other party to eliminate part of their arsenal after the arrangement came into force was Germany, which destroyed its Pershing 1a missiles voluntarily in 1991. This was a relatively easy decision on their part, as the United States was no longer positioned to help support and maintain these weapons and with the reunification of East and West Germany and end of the Cold War, there appeared to be little need for the missiles anyways.

The rest of the world has apparently taken a different view. The list of countries that have or are working on weapons that would be banned under the INF is long and includes, but is not limited to China, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and South Korea. In a particularly odd juxtaposition, earlier in 2017, the U.S. government offered to help its South Korean counterparts develop new longer-range ballistic missiles that American forces would themselves be unable to employ.

On top of that, Russian authorities have long criticized the eastward expansion of NATO to include numerous former Soviet Republics and countries that were once part of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. Also in 2007, Russian Vladimir Putin announced that his country had put a “moratorium” on its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, or CFE, which limited the number of troops the Kremlin could position directly along its western borders. In 2015, Putin’s government announced it had completely abandoned the arrangement.

This followed Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea region the year before and coincided with increasingly active support for a separatist insurgency in that country’s eastern Donbass region. Putin subsequently adopted an overarching military doctrine that labeled the United States and NATO as threats.

More recently, the United States has begun to accuse Russia of abusing the terms of the Open Skies Treaty, which allows member states to fly limited surveillance missions with prior notice over each others’ territory. The principle is that by allowing foreign countries to observe one’s peacetime military movements and strategic posture, they are less likely to fear that a sneak attack could be in progress, helping to promote stability.

Under the agreement, signatories are limited to relatively low-fidelity cameras since the missions are for monitoring, not intelligence gathering purposes. Russia has especially irked the United States by making formal requests to upgrade the sensor packages on its Tu-214ON Open Skies aircraft. Critics of the plan had called for curtailing or ending the deal on the grounds that the Russians are exploiting the goodwill inherent in the deal. The Kremlin denies it is doing anything besides upgrading obsolete equipment and advocates for the treaty say that the United States could easily follow suit and increase its own overflights of Russian territory.

Oleg Belyakov via Wikimedia

Russia's controversial Tu-214ON Open Skies observation aircraft. 

Beyond the camera issue, Russia has outright violated Open Skies basic tenants by restricting flights over its Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic Sea. As with INF, the United States similarly chose to attempt to coerce the Kremlin into complying with Open Skies by announcing its own restrictions on Russian observation sorties over Washington, D.C. and parts of Alaska in September 2017. The latter are is likely to be more important to the Russians, since it is home to GMD ballistic missile defense interceptors at Fort Greely, which they see as a threat to their nuclear deterrent. 

It is into this world that Russia has deployed the SSC-8, which fits with a broad "anti-access/area denial" strategy of attempting to limit its opponents’ ability to challenge its revanchist foreign policy moves, especially in Europe. Though some have questioned why the Russian military would even need an INF-breaking weapon given its significant ICBM and air-launched cruise missile capabilities, relatively cheap, road-mobile systems offer greater flexibility and might, in some ways, present a more immediate threat.

In February, amid reports that SSC-8 had become operational, The War Zone’s own Tyler Rogoway wrote:

“Russia, which has become an adept player at using their easily deployed missile systems— namely their S-400 air defense system, Iskander short-range ballistic missile system, and Bastion coastal defense system—as strategic “anti-access/area denial chess pieces in Syria, Crimea and in Europe. Yet all these systems have a range of less than 300 miles, treaty defined or not, giving them formidable but still limited reach.

“If the SSC-8 were deployed among these systems, Russia could strike targets across entire continents, not just across a border or two. Considering Russia’s missile-heavy foreign policy playbook, you can see why such a capability would be attractive, especially in an effort to level the playing field against a coalition with advanced airpower and naval systems like NATO.

“If Russia could deploy large numbers of these missiles, possibly both conventionally and nuclear armed, along their western border, as well as in the enclave of Kaliningrad and in Crimea, it would give Moscow a massive precision strike capability that can range across Europe, something that by and large Russia’s tactical air forces continue to lack.

“Fielding large quantities of road-mobile, conventionally armed land-based cruise missiles is also a relatively cheap proposition, at least in terms of the alternative. After the initial acquisition cost of the missiles and their transporter-erector-launchers (TELs), upkeep and training is just a tiny fraction of the cost of a high-end combat aircraft. And even those are not as survivable and do not possess the range of land attack cruise missile.”

In addition, there have been reports that the Kremlin is increasingly willing to entertain the use of limited nuclear strikes to try and dissuade opponents from getting involved in or escalating a future crises in Europe or elsewhere, an idea commonly referred to as “escalating to de-escalate.” And though experts have disputed just how heavily invested the Russians actually are in such a strategy, a nuclear-capable SSC-8 would certainly mesh well with the concept.

As such, it’s hard to see how an American threat to violate the same treaty the Russians have already decided to ignore would necessarily upend this calculus. Whether real or imagined, the Kremlin’s decision to field the SSC-8 appears to be a direct response to the threats it sees arrayed around its borders.

This weapon isn’t the only such system in the works, either. Since at least 2011, Russia has been testing the RS-26 Rubezh, a truncated version of the larger RS-24 Yars, which it says is also an ICBM and therefore not subject to the INF. However, the Kremlin has reportedly conducted at least two tests at ranges covered under the treaty, implying that the Russians are obscuring its true capabilities.

Given what has already happened with Open Skies and the CFE, the U.S. government has become increasingly worried that this steady eroding of INF could lead to similar Russian actions toward other significant arms control agreements, especially those limiting nuclear weapon stockpiles and delivery platforms. There is some indication that this has already occurred with regards to the RS-24 Yars ICBM itself, which the United States disputes is an all new design. 

Under the provisions of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), Russia and the United States are limited in how many nuclear warheads can be associated with ICBMs and could not increase the total number of weapons on existing missiles. Though almost certainly just a subvariant of the earlier RS-12M Topol-M, Yars features so-called "multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles," or MIRV configuration, with multiple warheads.

Vitaly Kuzmin

An RS-24 Yars ICBM, controversial in of itself. The RS-26 Rubezh is a truncated derivative of this missile.

There is still the possibility that the relative proximity of an American INF-violating system, even a conventional one, forward deployed in Europe, could drive them back to working within the deal's parameters. Experts largely understand the threat of a prompt conventional strike on Moscow to have been one of the key reasons for the creation of the treaty in the first place.

“Moscow is most worried about conventional strike systems, particularly intermediate range systems that could decapitate its leadership,” Elbridge Colby, then the Robert M. Gates fellow at the Center for New American Security, posited in 2014, shortly after Russian takeover in Crimea. “It won’t hurt to remind Moscow that it agreed to the treaty because it feared the U.S. deployment of intermediate range systems that could reach Moscow in only a few minutes.”

In May 2017, Colby received an appointment to become Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development. The Pentagon now seems to increasingly have a view that this course of action has a good chance encouraging Russia to change its mind on the SSC-8.

“We have a firm belief, now, over several years, that the Russians have violated the INF,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters during a meeting of senior NATO defense officials in Brussels earlier in November 2017. “And our effort is to bring Russia back into compliance.”

Since it refuses to officially confirm it has abandoned the INF treaty, denies it has fielded the SSC-8 at all, and insists that the RS-26 is an ICBM, Russia could easily decide to step back from its current plans without losing face politically. At the same time, though, it would have decide it is worth trading these capabilities for an American threat that may or may not even come.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com