Let's Talk About The Post-INF Treaty U.S. Test Of A Ground-Launched Tomahawk Missile
The U.S. test of a ground-launched cruise missile just 16 days after it withdrew from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty is a big deal.
For those who think that the U.S. and Russia aren't about to enter into an accelerated nuclear arms race, today may have been a sobering moment. Just 16 days after the U.S. officially withdrew from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and over three decades after it came into effect under President Ronald Reagan, the U.S. military has conducted a test of what it calls a ground-launched BGM-109 Tomahawk land attack missile.
A variant of the Tomahawk known as the BGM-109G Gryphon, along with the Pershing II medium-range ballistic missile, were the backbone of America's forward-deployed tactical nuclear missile forces prior to the INF becoming a reality. After the treaty was in place, these systems, along with their Russian counterparts, were destroyed.
The treaty held firm for decades, before Russia began quietly violating it with development and the eventual fielding of their SSC-8 ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM). Concerns about the system date back over six years. You can read all about the SSC-8 and the depressing scenario the U.S. and Russia have waded into in these past War Zone articles linked here, here, and here.
Before its withdrawal from INF, the U.S. had threated to develop its own medium and intermediate-range missiles if Russia did not return to compliance with the treaty. The INF stipulated that signing parties could not possess land-based conventional or nuclear-capable missiles of any kind that had a maximum range of between 310 and 3,420 miles, although there was some wiggle room for very limited testing purposes. Back in March, as the U.S. was threatening to exit the treaty, it was reported that some development and component production of ground-launched Tomahawk land attack missiles were spinning up, although these activities were said to be limited conventionally armed missiles only, not nuclear ones, and event that was likely for testing purposes anyway.
Now that the U.S. is free from its treaty obligations, it appears to be very ready and willing to show Moscow that it is not going wait any longer to begin its own testing of what would have been INF-busting weaponry. Hence the August, 18th launch of the Tomahawk cruise missile.
To be clear, this missile was launched from a Mk 41 vertical launch system (VLS) cell, just like those found on the U.S. Navy's most capable surface combatants. There is no clear indication that the missile was anything different than the Tomahawks the Navy currently employs, namely the Block IV Tactical Tomahawk. This is a very different weapon than the Gryphons of 30 years ago. They can be retargeted mid-flight, can loiter, have a far more advanced navigation and terminal targeting system, and can hit moving targets, such as ships. That's not to say that all of these features would be necessary for a new nuclear GLCM, but it would certainly improve such a system's flexibility and it could allow for lower-yield warheads to be used against certain targets.
So, while this could seem like any Tomahawk test, the fact that it was highly publicized as using the Mark 41 launch system from land is clearly made to irk Russia. America's Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense sites in Eastern Europe also use ground-based variants of the tried and true Mark 41 VLS. This has led to Russia accusing the U.S. of being able to hide the ability field INF busting missiles on its back doorstep. The Pentagon has repeatedly stated that the VLS canisters used at Aegis Ashore sites have been altered so they cannot accept Tomahawk cruise missiles and even invited Russia to inspect them for verification if they so please—an invitation that has never been accepted, at least as far as we know.
With this in mind, there is a clear message being sent here beyond just stating that testing for ground-launched cruise missiles has begun. It plays off Russia's fears that the U.S. could deploy cruise missiles to its Aegis Ashore sites in the near term or even in other Mark 41 canisters scattered around Europe. This is a much lower developmental bar than designing a new transporter-erector-launch (TEL) and the command and control systems that would have to go with it, let alone a new Tomahawk cruise missile variant or a new missile altogether.
The launch occurred from San Nicolas Island, one of two Navy-controlled islands in the Channel Island chain off California's southern coast that are surrounded by a sprawling test range complex. Video and images from the launch show the weapon being boosted out of its Mark 41 cell. The Pentagon simply stated that it hit a target "more than 500 kilometers away," which is beyond the INF limitations.
It's worth noting that the U.S. could end up developing a new GLCM missile altogether, or adapt another weapon from the Pentagon's inventory to satisfy the role. That weapon could end up augmenting a ground-launched Tomahawk variant that could be deployed as an interim solution. In particular, the AGM-158 JASSM comes to mind.
This very stealthy and smart missile represents cutting-edge cruise missile technology and its low-observability (stealthiness) would certainly trouble Moscow. Still, it doesn't have the range of the Tomahawk, which can reach out between 800 and 1,600 miles, depending on the variant. JASSM-ER has a range of about 600 miles, although that range could be boosted substantially for a ground-launched, nuclear model. In fact, Lockheed has already developed an extreme-range variant of JASSM known as JASSM-XR, which would suit this role very well. It would supposedly be ready by the first half of the 2020s.
Another option may be to adapt the Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) air-launched cruise missile that is being developed to equip America's bomber force through the middle part of the century. This weapon won't be ready even in its primary form for some time, with an estimated entry into service in 2030, but it could replace or augment the ground-launched Tomahawk when it is.
The Pentagon stated that "data collected and lessons learned from this test will inform the Department of Defense’s development of future intermediate-range capabilities,” which clearly doesn't address any planned role for Tomahawk in the post-INF era. The rapid development of hypersonic weapons by both the U.S. and Russia is also a wildcard in all this. At this time, fielding just a conventional hypersonic weapon is a challenge, but a nuclear-armed hypersonic missile capability is not out of the question in the years to come as the technology matures. Such a system could fill a similar role as the Pershing II medium-range ballistic missile of the Cold War era.
So, the big question here is what level of arms race could become a reality in the coming years? The answer to that question is unclear. Some think the SSC-8, and Russia's development of a menagerie of exotic doomsday weapons, is posturing by Russia so that it can have more leverage in some sort of new negotiated nuclear arms deal. On the other hand, the dissolution of the INF could spell doom to other key arms agreements that have helped maintain a strategic status-quo over the decades. New START, in particular, is incredibly important and is scheduled to expire in 2021. President Trump has made it clear than any future treaty that would replace the INF, and possibly others such as New START, should include other major players like China, in order for it to make sense.
Other factors are at play, as well. The end of the INF presents an opportunity for the U.S. to deploy medium-range missiles to the Indo-Pacific region in an attempt to counter China's rapid military expansion and extra-territorial aims. Newly minted Defense Secretary Mark Esper has stated as much on the record. In fact, he has said that he would like to U.S. ground-based, medium-range missiles deployed to the region in a matter of months, not years. Clearly, the Tomahawk and Mark 41 VLS canisters are the easiest, and possibly the only way to realize such a capability so soon. As a result, this adds some evidence to the possibility that the August 18th test launch of the Tomahawk missile may represent more of an operational vision than not.
There is a whole geopolitical Pandora's Box that goes with potentially deploying land-based medium-range missiles to partner countries in Asia, as well. What countries would even accept them is a huge question mark. But this emerging initiative represents just how much change can come so fast following the end of such a landmark agreement.
This test also comes as Russia's nuclear-powered cruise missile project has been in the headlines for some pretty miserable reasons. It has garnered President Trump's attention, as well. Certainly, today's video serves as a reminder that the U.S. is not sitting still when it comes to spinning up its own ground-launched cruise missile efforts and that fielding those weapons could come far faster than many may have predicted.
One thing is certain, we have officially entered into a new and far less predictable age where the treaties that underpinned the strategic balance of the past are giving way to the rapid development and fielding of updated nuclear weaponry. We can only hope that all or even some of these developments will be rolled back via a new, wide-ranging weapons treaty as we approach the expiration of New START. But based on what we are seeing, such a proposition looks increasingly like a fantasy.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com