The United States will suspend its obligations under the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty on Saturday, meaning it will be free to deploy missiles with a range of 310 miles to 3,100 miles anywhere in the world by Aug. 2.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the news early Friday morning. The U.S. believes Russia has been in violation of the treaty since 2008, when Moscow allegedly started developing the since-deployed 9M729 cruise missile. The Obama administration publicly accused Russia of breaching the accord in 2014.
“The United States has fully adhered to the INF Treaty for more than 30 years, but we will not remain constrained by its terms while Russia misrepresents its actions,” the White House said in a formal statement Friday. “We cannot be the only country in the world unilaterally bound by this treaty, or any other.”
A pair of senior administration officials said Friday morning the Trump administration currently has no plans to develop or deploy nuclear-armed missiles in the INF-range after it fully withdraws from the treaty. Conventionally armed missiles would be fair game, the officials said. The White House permitted reporters to question the two officials by teleconference, on condition they were not identified in coverage.
Arms control advocates worry that exiting INF creates a blueprint for the U.S. to withdraw from the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia. That treaty, which went into effect in 2011 during the Obama administration, limits Russia and the U.S. to 1,550 fielded long-range warheads and specific numbers of carrier systems.
A change in the hard cap could ripple down to the National Nuclear Security Administration’s nuclear security enterprise, including the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore weapon-design labs, and the engineering and testing lab, Sandia. The labs maintain the U.S. arsenal and annually recertify that the stockpile, as constrained by New START, can perform as designed.
The two administration officials on Friday’s call said the Trump administration is “working through some [New START] implementation challenges” with Russia, and reiterated a longstanding Trump administration line about the treaty: the White House “is in the process of identifying [its] options.”
The officials did not describe the New START implementation challenges.
New START limits expire in February 2021. The U.S. and Russian presidents, by themselves, may agree to extend the deal for five years into 2026.
One nuclear think-tanker called INF withdrawal a “major mistake,” and spread blame far and wide for the treaty’s impending demise.
Withdrawing from the INF Treaty is a major mistake. *Much* more could have done to try to save it. The Obama administration deserves significant criticism for not acting earlier.
So this doesn’t look like post-facto rationalization, here’s me from 2014:https://t.co/vis8Sw949e
— (((James Acton))) (@james_acton32) February 1, 2019
Russia claims the 9M729 cannot reach INF ranges. However, Moscow’s line about the missile has changed over time. After the U.S. broached its concerns, Russia denied the missile existed. Later, the Kremlin denied it had flight tested the missile. Now, Russia maintains the tests never reached treaty-prohibited ranges.
Last week, Russia displayed the 9M729 in Moscow and said it cannot reach INF-prohibited ranges. The U.S., which did not attend the exhibition, dismissed the display as a useless gesture that verifies nothing about the weapon, and repeated that only destroying the missile and its launch equipment will bring Russia back into INF compliance.
The treaty forbids the U.S. and Russia from developing and fielding both conventional and nuclear-armed missiles with a flight range between 500 kilometers and 5,500 kilometers. The landmark accord, signed by President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, rapidly eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons, consigning the W84 nuclear warhead to the inactive stockpile.
If Russia destroys the offending 9M729 missile before Aug. 2, the INF treaty could yet survive, said one of the U.S. officials on the conference call. The treaty itself mandates a six-month wait before either party fully withdraws.
“If they are truly interested in preserving the treaty, this is their final chance,” the official said.
NATO gave Russia no breathing room, urging the Federation in a statement to return to compliance.
Meanwhile, the U.S. officials who spoke on background with reporters insisted, despite persistent rumors to the contrary, that INF withdrawal “really doesn’t have anything to do with China.” China is not a party to INF and has many missiles that can fly in the treaty-prohibited ranges.
Dems Refresh Bill to Prohibit INF-Range Missiles
One day before Pompeo and the White House made the widely anticipated announcement on the treaty, Democrats on Capitol Hill reintroduced a bill that conditionally bans the Pentagon from creating an INF-range missile.
Nine Democrats and one independent filed the “Prevention of Arms Race Act of 2019:” an updated version of a bill that made a brief appearance last year in the 115th Congress, which ended Jan. 3.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is the new bill’s lead sponsor.
According to a Merkley’s press release, the measure indefinitely “prohibits funding for the procurement, flight-testing, or deployment of a U.S. ground-launched or ballistic missile” in the INF range, until the Trump administration provides a seven-point report.
Among other things, the report would have to identify a U.S. ally willing to host a ground-based, INF-range system, and identify Pentagon programs that could be cut to pay for the new system. The Pentagon is already researching a conventional INF-range missile system with $50 million appropriated by Congress for fiscal 2019.
No U.S. ally has so far volunteered to host a land-based missile.