By Greg Thielmann
Russia’s compliance record with the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has emerged as another serious problem in an already strained U.S.-Russian security relationship, and one seemingly bound for an endless, and ultimately, futile discussion. But this need not be the case. If the subject is approached with objectivity and creativity, negotiations could open up a new pathway to reinvigorating the treaty and enhancing international stability.
U.S. Charges Violation
After months of unconfirmed press reports and cryptic public comments by members of Congress, the Obama administration in late July finally provided its official finding that Russia was “in violation of its obligations under the INF Treaty not to possess, produce, or flight-test ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.”
The U.S. State Department provided few public details on the exact nature of the noncompliant activity it was alleging, presumably because of concerns that the sources and methods used to acquire the information would be compromised. Beyond the basic accusation that Russia flight-tested a cruise missile at a range in excess of 500 km from a launcher associated with ground-launched cruise missiles, Western experts have identified two possibilities for the offending system: the Iskander-K (R-500) GLCM or a variant of the Novator 3M14E Club (SS-N-27) land-attack, sea-launched cruise missile.
The Russia action at issue could conceivably have been a technical violation, such as the use of a ground-launched cruise missile launcher for a sea-launched cruise missile flight-test, or a flight-test range overage, infringing on the 500 km range limit for treaty-permitted systems. The military significance of such actions would be less weighty than a blatant step toward development of a system similar to the U.S. BGM-109G and Soviet SSC-X-4 GLCMs (with ranges of 2,500 km), which were destroyed during treaty implementation. It is thus difficult to determine the military impact from the public record.
Russia Counters With its Own Compliance Concerns
Whatever the nature of the Russian actions prompting the U.S. charge, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s August 1 response included three “serious concerns” of its own about the “liberties” taken by the United States in applying the terms of the treaty:
- U.S. use in missile defense tests of target missiles, “which have similar characteristics to intermediate-range missiles;”
- U.S. use of armed drones, which are “covered by the definition of ground-launched cruise missiles in the Treaty;” and
- U.S. intention to deploy in Poland and Romania Mk-41 launch systems, which “can be used to launch intermediate-range cruise missiles.”
U.S. use of intermediate-range target missiles in ballistic missile defense testing is probably the least serious of Moscow’s stated concerns. These target missiles have never been “flight-tested or deployed for weapons delivery,” part of the definition of missiles banned under the INF Treaty. Indeed, in successful missile defense tests, they never reach the final phase of a weapons-delivery-vehicle trajectory.
The second charge is somewhat more difficult to dismiss, particularly as the range-payload and utilization of armed drones (“unmanned combat aerial vehicles”) is increasing rapidly. Even though such drones do not seem to be optimized for nuclear-delivery missions, evolving drone technology could soon reach the point where the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) range-payload criterion for nuclear-weapons delivery capability is met. For example, the currently operational MQ-9 Reaper can deliver up to 680 kg of ordnance to a distance of 1,852 km; the follow-on Avenger is planned to have significantly greater payload and range.
Drones are consistent with the INF Treaty’s basic definition “cruise missile:” “an unmanned, self-propelled vehicle that sustains flight through the use of aerodynamic lift over most of its flight path.” However, it is not “launched” from a ground-launched cruise missile launcher as defined by the treaty, but “takes off” and returns like a manned aircraft. Such aircraft are not limited by the INF treaty. It is thus a stretch to equate the two categories, an equation that cannot be justified by the letter of the treaty.
The third issue raised by Moscow—the U.S. intention to deploy Mk-41 launchers for SM-3 missile defense interceptors in Romania and Poland, which Moscow labels “quite notorious”—may not be as spurious as it appears at first glance.