Buried inside the mammoth $700 billion defense bill President Donald Trump signed last month is a relatively miniscule $25 million to fund development of a new road-mobile, ground-launched cruise missile. The program could be easily overlooked amid the Christmas list of military hardware the administration is buying, except for one thing: the missile is prohibited by a 30-year-old Cold War arms control agreement with Russia.
The research and development on the medium-range missile is intended to serve as a direct response to Russia’s deployment in recent years of its own treaty-busting missile. U.S. intelligence first recognized Moscow’s potential violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty when the Russian missile was still in test phase. The Obama administration worked unsuccessfully to persuade the Kremlin to stand down the program. Now the Trump administration has decided to respond with a missile of its own.
Trump and his aides say their nuclear moves are necessary to show the world America means business. Christopher Ford, senior director for counter-proliferation in Trump’s White House declared the administration’s new, muscular approach in late November, when he identified for the first time the Russian missile that violated the INF treaty as a “Novator 9M729”. “We are now returning compliance enforcement to U.S. arms control policy,” he told an audience at the Wilson Center in Washington. Ford said the administration’s “confrontational” and “newly tough-minded approach” was proof that Trump was committed to arms control and non-proliferation.
But arms control experts worry about the consequences of undermining a long-standing nuclear treaty. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, first signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987, was the first and only nuclear arms control agreement that ever eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons. The treaty forced the superpowers to scrap more than 2,600 missiles with ranges 310 to 3,420 miles—weapons considered destabilizing to the European continent because their capability to launch a nuclear strike from anywhere without early warning.
The ballistic missiles, the Russian SS-20 and American Pershing II, could be driven on a mobile launcher into a remote area, blasted off, and strike their targets in less than six minutes. The short timeline gave world leaders little time run for cover — let alone strategize and react. Reagan wrote of the dangers after leaving the White House in his 1990 autobiography, “An American Life.” “We had many contingency plans for responding to a nuclear attack. But everything would happen so fast that I wondered how much planning or reason could be applied in such a crisis,” he wrote.
In a section of the new defense bill ironically called “Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty Preservation Act of 2017,” Congress explicitly calls for the Pentagon to establish a program to develop a “road-mobile ground-launched cruise missile system with a range” that violates the terms of the agreement. It also directs Defense Secretary James Mattis to issue a report to Congress within 120 days “on the cost, schedule, and feasibility to modify existing and planned missile systems” that meet treaty-violating specifications.