DOD to Proceed with Cruise Missile Plans as US Prepares to Leave INF Treaty

President Donald J. Trump and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg discuss alliance issues at the White House, May 17, 2018. NATO photo.

The United States will begin withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty over the next six months, a move backed by NATO, as the Trump administration argues it is strategically unwise to remain in a pact Russia flouts.

“We cannot be the only country in the world unilaterally bound by this treaty, or any other,” the White House said Feb. 1. “We will move forward with developing our own military response options and will work with NATO and our other allies and partners to deny Russia any military advantage from its unlawful conduct. … We stand ready to engage with Russia on arms control negotiations that meet these criteria.”

In a Feb. 1 background call with reporters, senior administration officials said the US plans to deliver a written document to the Russians and other former Soviet states on Feb. 2 to notify them of the withdrawal.

The US and Soviet Union signed the INF Treaty in 1987 to ban all land-based ballistic and cruise missiles, nuclear or conventional, that can strike targets between 500 and 5,500 kilometers away. After reviewing the treaty in 2017, the Trump administration announced last year it would pull out of the agreement.

While House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) tried to make the case that America’s European allies see withdrawal as a betrayal, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Feb. 1 the coalition backs the US’s decision.

“For over five years, allies and the United States in particular, have repeatedly raised their concerns with the Russian Federation, both bilaterally and multilaterally,” NATO’s foreign ministers said. “As we stated in the Brussels Summit Declaration in July, Russia has responded to our concerns with denials and obfuscation. … Allies have emphasized that the situation, whereby the United States and other parties fully abide by the treaty and Russia does not, is not sustainable.”

NATO will continue to track Russia’s intermediate-range missile program and “remain open to dialogue,” the foreign ministers said.

In the Nuclear Posture Review unveiled last year, the Trump administration recommended researching a ground-launched cruise missile and producing a sea-launched cruise missile in response to Russia’s deployment of several battalions with its “9M729,” or SSC-8, land-based cruise missile.

Critics of US withdrawal argue leaving the pact will spur a new arms race. US Strategic Command chief Gen. John Hyten counters that adding new “credible, flexible” nuclear weapons will further deter other countries from launching their own.

“Research and development is not prohibited by the INF Treaty,” Hyten noted at the National Defense University in February 2018. “If they [Russia] don’t come back into the fold on INF, then we’ll be prepared to respond accordingly as we go forward. That’s going to be a very complicated discussion as we go forward. But the capabilities we propose are to respond to the threat and hopefully give our diplomats room to move.”

A DOD spokesman referred reporters to the White House’s statement.

During the Friday morning background call, officials stressed that while Russia would be at fault for starting any potential arms race, leaving the treaty will allow the US to address nuclear threats posed by China and Iran as well.

“It will take us time to make decisions about what kind of capability would we deploy, what kind of capability would we test,” one official said, according to a call transcript. “We are some time away from a flight test. We are certainly time away from an acquisition decision, and from an eventual deployment decision. What we do know is that we are only looking at conventional options at this time.”

That holds true for the conventional, ground-launched cruise missile under consideration, although the Nuclear Posture Review also specifically notes a nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile “will provide a needed non-strategic regional presence, an assured response capability, and an INF-Treaty compliant response to Russia’s continuing treaty violation.”

Sea- and air-launched weapons are allowed under the agreement.

“We are some time away from having a system that we would produce, that we would train soldiers or airmen or Marines to deploy, and then, certainly, before we would be in a position to talk about basing, potentially in allied countries,” a senior official said on the call.

One official added that Congress allocated $48 million in fiscal 2019 for “treaty-compliant research on noncompliant systems.”

The findings of the government’s Ballistic Missile Defense Review, published last month, are still valid regardless of whether the US leaves the INF pact, David Trachtenberg, the deputy under secretary of defense for policy, said at a Feb. 1 Center for Strategic and International Studies event.

He suggested the need for a strong missile defense will remain important in the event that weapons proliferate, unbound by treaty constraints.

See also: Russia Cheats from the July 2016 issue of Air Force Magazine.