On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Russia had “secretly deployed” at least one operational unit of a ground-launched cruise missile known as the SSC-8.
The move, if confirmed, would be a direct violation of a landmark 1987 treaty that banned ground-launched missiles with a range between 300 to 3,400 miles. Commonly referred to as the INF or Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, it was billed at the time of its signing as one of the most “detailed and stringent” treaties in the history of nuclear arms control.
The existence of the SSC-8 missile is not new. Reports indicate that the nuclear-capable missile was first tested in early 2008. In 2014, after several years of watching the development of the missile program, the Obama administration announced that Russia had violated the INF treaty.
“The missile has been several years in development, so it is not a surprise,” said Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “That said, there is a big difference between a system being developed and one that is deployed with military units.”
On Tuesday, a defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, would not say that the missiles had been “deployed” but that they had “moved around” in recent months. Army Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza would not comment on the movement of the missiles but said that Russia remains in violation of its INF treaty obligations.
Michael Kofman, a Russian military analyst at the research organization CNA, indicated that the two units mentioned in the New York Times report are probably divisions similar to the structure of Iskander missile units. Traditionally, each missile division has four vehicles capable of launching the system, accompanied by supporting units meant for targeting, maintenance and reloading, Kofman said. He added that it would have taken months to prepare the missiles and their launchers for actual field deployments, raising questions about how long the Obama and Trump administrations knew of their location before it was reported on by the Times.
Little is known about the SSC-8, but according to Lewis, the missile is probably a ground-based version of the Russians’ Kalibr cruise missile. The Kalibr is a ship- and submarine-launched missile capable of carrying about 1,000 pounds of conventional explosives or a nuclear warhead. In a show of force, Russian vessels have launched Kalibrs into Syria on several occasions. While there are multiple variants of the Kalibr, its max range is about 1,500 miles.
The biggest question mark, however, is what the SSC-8 is launched from. If it is a larger variant of the Russian 9M728 cruise missile fired from the INF treaty-compliant Iskander short-range missile system, it might be able to fit on the same launcher, thus making it difficult for surveillance to discern the difference between the two.
It is unclear how the United States will respond to the continued development and potential deployment of the new missile. President Trump has called for warmer relations with Moscow, but Republican lawmakers voiced concern Tuesday over the reported missile activity.
“In light of the most recent developments, it is time for the new administration to take immediate action to enhance our deterrent posture in Europe and protect our allies,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement. “More broadly, we must continue the ongoing modernization of U.S. nuclear forces and ensure that NATO’s nuclear deterrence forces are survivable, well-exercised, and increasingly ready to counter Russian nuclear doctrine, which calls for the first use of nuclear weapons.”