Moving Beyond INF Treaty Compliance Issues

A tactical Tomahawk cruise missile launch from a Mk-41 VLS. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Leah Stiles/Released.) A tactical Tomahawk cruise missile launch from a Mk-41 VLS. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Leah Stiles/Released.)

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.

Based on the following information from open sources, it would seem that the Russians have a prima facie case to make that the deployments of these launchers to bases for U.S. SM-3 interceptors in Romania and Poland would also provide NATO with a potential ground-launched cruise missile capability that is prohibited under the INF Treaty:

-- According to the Missile Defense Agency's Aegis Ashore Fact Sheet, "uses the same combat system elements (AN/SPY-1 Radar, ...Vertical Launching System, computer processors, ...) that are used onboard the Navy's new construction Aegis BMD Destroyers."

-- A July 29, 2013 Defense Industry Daily article identified the Mk-41 vertical launching system on those destroyers as the most widely-used naval VLS in the world – a "naval Swiss army knife," with which "one simply drops different missile canisters into the Mk-41s common interface."

-- The US Navy's "Fact File" describes the Mk-41 VLS as "a multi-missile, multi-mission launcher, capable of launching SM-2, SM-3, SM-6, ESSM, Tomahawk, and Vertical Launch ASROC missiles."

-- The U.S. Air Force ground-launched cruise missile (BGM-109G), deployed to Europe and then destroyed under terms of the INF Treaty, was developed as a ground-launched variant of the sea-based Tomahawk. According to the U.S. Navy, Tomahawk cruise missile mods vary in range between 1,250 km and 2,500 km.

U.S. officials explain that the electronics and software of the Aegis Ashore Mk-41 launcher are different than the ship-borne variant and that only anti-air and anti-missile interceptors have been tested from Aegis Ashore. Yet this defense must overcome the unambiguous language of Art. VII, paragraph 7 in the INF Treaty: If a launcher has been tested for launching a GLBM or a GLCM, all launchers of that type shall be considered to have been tested for launching GLBMs or GLCMs.

As far as it is known, there are no functionally related observable differences that would allow other INF treaty partners to differentiate ship-borne and Aegis Ashore Mk-41s. Without questioning the veracity of the U.S. claim that the electronics and software package of the Mk-41 VLS going into Poland and Romania differs from that on destroyers, one can still safely predict that Washington would react differently to this issue "if the shoe were on the other foot."

There would thus appear to be legitimate compliance concerns for both sides to bring to the table for discussion and resolution. The appropriate forum would be the Special Verification Commission, as specified in the INF Treaty. The sides are obligated to hear each other's concerns in this forum and work to resolve the issues.

Noncompliance Histories

It is both counterproductive and inaccurate for either side to posture as if it is the sole repository of virtuous behavior. Neither has an unblemished record of scrupulous treaty adherence. Moreover, history also suggests that successful resolution of difficult verification issues can take years.

U.S. commentators will cite the memorable example of the Soviet Union building a large, phased-array radar (Daryal/Pechora type) at Krasnoyarsk, Siberia with a location-orientation combination prohibited under the terms of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The construction of the radar occurred from 1983 to 1987. In spite of vociferous objections raised by the U.S. government, serious negotiations on nuclear arms control were successfully conducted under the Reagan administration during the latter years of the radar's construction without resolution of the Krasnoyarsk issue. It was not until 1989, under the George H.W. Bush administration that the Soviet Union acknowledged the violation and agreed to dismantle the radar.

At least some U.S. commentators will also acknowledge that, during the same years that the Krasnoyarsk radar construction threatened the ABM Treaty, the Reagan administration was itself undermining the treaty by seeking to reinterpret the text (as understood by both sides at the time of its negotiation) in order to conduct advanced development and testing of ABM systems based on "other physical principles," which the treaty prohibited. This blatant attempt to circumvent the treaty was blocked by the U.S. Congress in 1987.

The Broader Context

The specific charges and counter-charges now leveled about INF Treaty compliance are symptoms of a more troubling shift in the tectonic plates underlying the politics between the two countries, pre-dating the Ukrainian crisis, but also significantly exacerbated by it. The interests previously shared by both the Soviet Union and the United States in eliminating an entire category of nuclear weapons in 1987 are no longer in comparable balance today. Few American security experts see the United States at a disadvantage because of the treaty. But many Russian security experts apparently believe that the treaty prevents Moscow from making necessary adjustments to address perceived imbalances, particularly in conventional forces.

What Is to be Done?

Rather than resigning themselves to a weakening of the landmark agreement that has benefited both sides both during and after the Cold War, Moscow and Washington should use the INF Treaty compliance controversy not only to find ways to resolve the issues at hand, but also to open up talks on strengthening and expanding the treaty.

If indeed Moscow is concerned about the evolution of drone technology in a way that creates disproportionate risks to Russia, it should advocate explicitly defining unmanned combat aerial vehicles and consider making them subject to limits—perhaps in a protocol to the treaty. If the United States is really interested in making further progress on shrinking global nuclear arsenals, it needs to address specific concerns felt by Russian military leaders that may be leading them to lobby against the next round of strategic arms talks and to infringe on existing constraints under the INF Treaty.

If Russia is concerned about the risk Chinese intermediate-range nuclear systems pose and if the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) are concerned about future long-range ballistic missiles from the Middle East, they should think creatively about how to multi-lateralize at least some of the constraints contained in the INF Treaty. This would serve U.S. interests as well and provide both of the two largest nuclear powers with evidence going into the 2015 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference that they are taking their nuclear disarmament obligations in Article VI of the NPT seriously.

The latest allegations of INF Treaty violations are serious in their own right and are exacerbating an already sour mood in the nuclear arms control arena. The first priority must be for Russia and the United States to meet their treaty commitments by using the Special Verification Commission to resolve compliance issues and abjure retaliatory measures, which would only weaken the treaty.

But the treaty parties can also engage each other's concerns about contemporary developments and consider making adjustments or enhancements to the INF Treaty that would increase their own mutual security and that of the international order, as well. It is time to use the compliance lemons to make lemonade.