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U.S. military to test missiles banned under faltering nuclear pact with Russia

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty with Russia on Feb. 1, 2019. (Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images)

The Pentagon is gearing up to test missiles banned by a Cold War-era arms control pact with Russia that is set to end formally this summer after President Trump’s withdrawal over Russian violations.

The U.S. military plans to test a ground-launched cruise missile with a range of about 600 miles in August and a midrange ballistic missile with a range of about 1,800 to 2,500 miles in November, according to senior U.S. defense officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military matters. 

The testing, production and deployment of missiles with those ranges is prohibited by the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or the INF Treaty. But Trump withdrew from the treaty on Feb. 1 and triggered a formal six-month wait period before the final expiry of the agreement this summer.

Washington and Moscow will then be free to test, produce and deploy the intermediate-range missiles that both countries have agreed to ban for more than three decades. Research and development of the banned missiles isn’t prohibited by the treaty.

Russia suspended its participation in the treaty after Trump’s withdrawal. Russian President Vladi­mir Putin vowed to design new weapons banned under the pact but said he would deploy them only if the United States does.

Washington has said Moscow is already deploying a missile that violates the agreement and cited that weapon as a reason for its withdrawal from the pact. The Kremlin has denied that accusation.

The race to develop new intermediate-range missiles banned by the treaty raises concerns about a new nuclear arms race with Russia as an arms-control framework constructed during the Cold War shows increasing signs of eroding. The senior U.S. defense officials cautioned that the United States was looking at only conventional variants of the new missiles slated for testing later this year. Theoretically, in the future they could be armed with nuclear warheads.

Signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the INF Treaty was widely viewed as a breakthrough in arms control. The pact banned all ground-launched missiles, both nuclear and nonnuclear, with ranges from 310 to 3,400 miles. It ended a particularly tense period in the Cold War arms race, in which Washington and Moscow dotted Europe with nuclear-tipped rockets.

U.S. officials say the Trump administration has no plans to seek the forward deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe once again, but the breakdown of the treaty threatens a return to an era in which Europeans worried about Russian nuclear missiles that could strike their cities within a few minutes of launching. The systems the Pentagon is planning to test are similar to the missiles that the United States deployed in the 1980s, although without nuclear warheads attached. The deployment of those missiles fueled tension with the Soviet Union that ultimately led to the conclusion of the INF Treaty.

The U.S. ground-launched cruise missile is slated for testing in August, just after the treaty formally ends. According to a senior defense official, it will essentially involve putting a Tomahawk missile in a container that could be placed on a ship or in a mobile launcher.

“We’ll actually launch it, and it’ll fly out, and we’ll prove the concept — that you can take a Tomahawk and put it on a truck,” the senior defense official said. Deployment of the mobile missile would require procuring the system and training and equipping the forces that operate it. The official said that could take place within 18 months. 

Washington has not spoken to any European or Asian allies about the possibility of hosting the missile on their territory, according to the defense officials. The U.S. military could keep it in its arsenal at home for possible deployment if a situation warranted.

“We haven’t engaged any of our allies about formal deployment,” the senior official said. “But it’s always going to be deployable.” Asked about a possible forward deployment, the official added, “We are far away from that consideration.”

The United States previously deployed a mobile ground-launched cruise missile known as the BGM-109G Gryphon in Europe during the Cold War, but the Pentagon withdrew the weapon as a result of the INF Treaty’s restrictions.

The intermediate-range ballistic missile that the Pentagon is planning to test in November is a much longer-term effort. The test comes as the Army also explores developing longer-range missiles. If the proof of concept works in November, then the Army would develop, procure and roll out the system, according to the senior defense official, who predicted that process would take no less than five years. 

The official said the missile was different from the Army Tactical Missile System, and would more closely resemble the Pershing II ballistic missiles that the United States deployed at the end of the Cold War in the years before the signing of the INF Treaty. 

 “It’s a brand-new missile,” the senior defense official said. “Think Pershing II. It’s a missile of that class.”

Both the Obama administration and the Trump administration urged Russia to come back into compliance with the INF Treaty and end the production and deployment of its banned intermediate-range missile. Russia denied the allegations, and instead accused the United States of violating the pact through its missile defense installations in Europe — accusations the State Department refuted.

The senior defense official said the Pentagon would stand down on the tests if Russia were to come back into compliance and the treaty survived. “If the Russians come back in, in August we wouldn’t do the test,” the official said.