(CNSNews.com) – Russia and China reacted critically this week to the Pentagon’s testing of a ground-launched cruise missile that would have been prohibited under the now-abandoned Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
Beijing warned of a new arms race, while Moscow charged that the U.S. had evidently been working on the weapon long before the treaty lapsed on August 2.
“This U.S. move will surely trigger a new round of arms race and lead to escalated military confrontation,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a press conference on Tuesday.
He said China advises the U.S. “to discard the outdated Cold War and zero-sum mindset” and exercise restraint in its military development.
Under the 1987 INF Treaty, the U.S. and then-Soviet Union agreed to prohibit all ground-launched cruise or ballistic missile with ranges between roughly 300 and 3,400 miles (500-5,500 kilometers.)
China was not a party to the treaty and so was able to develop and deploy INF-prohibited missiles, unchecked. According to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, 80 percent of China’s missile inventory are of a type and range that were banned under the INF.
Esper told reporters traveling with him to Brussels last June that if the INF Treaty was no longer in force the U.S. would be able to compete with China since “we would no longer have an arm tied behind our back, if you will, by prescribing this certain range of missiles between, what, 500 to 5,500-kilometer-range missiles. So we would now be able to develop missiles of that range.”
And visiting Australia shortly after the treaty lapsed early this month, Esper said the U.S. was interested in deploying new ground-launched conventional precision missiles in the Asia-Pacific as soon as possible.
The U.S. test took place on Sunday afternoon, when the projectile was launched from San Nicolas Island off the coast of California.
“The test missile exited its ground mobile launcher and accurately impacted its target after more than 500 kilometers [310 miles] of flight,” according to a Pentagon announcement.
“Data collected and lessons learned from this test will inform the Department of Defense’s development of future intermediate-range capabilities.”
‘Determined to derail the INF Treaty’
Under the INF Treaty, the U.S. and Soviet Union eliminated almost 2,700 missiles deployed in European NATO member-states and the then-Warsaw Pact countries, and some in Asia.
But since at least the mid-2000s the U.S. has accused Russia of violating the agreement by developing and deploying a new nuclear-capable ground-launched cruise missile (designated 9M729 of SSC-8) with a range that was banned under the INF Treaty.
Moscow in turn accused the U.S. of violating the INF Treaty through its “Aegis Ashore” ballistic missile defense (BMD) shield in central Europe.
The Aegis Ashore’s Mark 41 Vertical Launch System (VLS) is configured to fire standard SM-3 anti-missile interceptors, but Russia notes that they could also be converted to launch offensive (Tomahawk) medium-range cruise missiles.
Sunday’s test off the West Coast used a Mark 41 VLS.
The pro-Kremlin RT news network commented that the use of the Mark 41 VLS was “of particular significance, since those are the launchers positioned at U.S. missile defense sites in Poland and Romania. Russia has cited the existence of these sites as a threat and a violation of the INF by the U.S., since the launchers can fire both Tomahawks and SM-3 defensive missiles, as the Pentagon just demonstrated.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov quoted President Vladimir Putin as saying that “such tests only proved that from the very start, the Americans were determined to derail the INF Treaty and were making preparations for it.”
Peskov noted pointedly that the test had come just weeks after the INF Treaty’s end: “Several weeks and even months are not enough to make preparations for such a test.”
Research and development underway
Over the years of alleged Russian non-compliance, the U.S. has not been waiting. Even as it complied with its own obligations – according to the Pentagon – from late 2017 it began research and development on a new conventional, ground-launched cruise missile.
“As part of the U.S. response to Russia's violations of the INF Treaty, the DOD commenced treaty-compliant research and development of conventional ground-launch missile concepts in late 2017,” the Pentagon said in a statement that was cited during a press briefing last March.
Last year, Congress approved a Defense Department budget request that included funding for R&D on such missiles, and the department has again requested funding for FY 2020.
(The Democratic-controlled House version of the FY 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, passed along party lines last month, applies a range of restrictions on funding for R&D, testing or deployment of INF-range missiles.)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo first gave formal notice last February that the U.S. would exit the treaty in six months’ time, unless Russia returned to compliance. It did not, so the treaty lapsed in early August.
During a visit to France on Monday, before news of the test was released, Putin said that Russia will deploy INF-range missiles only in response to similar moves by the U.S.
“If such attack systems are deployed by the U.S., we will also have them, but we will not deploy them anywhere unless U.S. systems like this appear,” he said alongside French President Emmanuel Macron.
Putin reiterated that it was the U.S. that made the decision to walk away from the treaty, not Russia.
He did not mention Russia’s 9M729 missiles. Arms control experts believe around 50 have been deployed in western Russia.