How to stop Russia from cheating on missile treaty

In the series finale of the television show "Breaking Bad," chemistry teacher-turned meth kingpin Walter White breaks into the home of an ex-business partner, who out of fear arms himself with a butter knife. “If we’re gonna go that way,” White says dryly, “you’ll need a bigger knife.” The man knows he cannot compete, and drops it.

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Russia is now actively violating the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which prohibits ground-launched missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. What neither Russia nor many Americans may appreciate, however, is the potential to negate the advantages Russia thinks it may get from scuttling this landmark agreement.

 

Speaking in Prague in 2009, President Obama declared that “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.” Despite acknowledging violations, however, the Obama administration did virtually nothing to punish them. Now they’ve grown too blatant to ignore.

Russia tested intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) since about 2008, and the State Department formally declared Russia in violation in 2014. News reports suggest that Russia has now deployed a battalion of launchers equipped with SSC-8 GLCMs, apparently near NATO borders. The missile’s sea-launched cousin has been used conspicuously in Syria, launched from as far away as the Caspian.

This is a problem. “A weapon capability that violates the INF, that is introduced into the greater European land mass…can’t go unanswered,” then-SACEUR General Phillip Breedlove said in April 2014.

To answer it, senior senators and representatives have introduced the INF Treaty Preservation Act (INFPA), which takes steps to thwart Russian violations even while keeping the U.S. within the four corners of the treaty.

First, the bill formally declares Russia in “material breach,” which justifies reciprocal measures until Moscow return to compliance.

Second, it creates a program of record for the research and development of dual-capable road-mobile GLCMs. These programs could benefit from current conventional prompt strike and boost glide vehicle development, as suggested by a 2013 report by STRATCOM and the Joint Chiefs.

This path need not involve the decade-long development of new systems, but rather modify existing ones. Candidates include a longer-range version of the Army Tactical Missile System, and land-based variants of today’s Tomahawk and the forthcoming Long-Range Standoff weapon.

Over the past two years, a modified Tomahawk Block IV and an SM-6 have demonstrated antiship capability, but with additional seeker adjustments could be modified for a land attack mission. The long-legged airframe for the Standard Missile-3IIA might also support INF-range strike.

To be sure, U.S. and NATO responses need not be limited to tit-for-tat GLCM deployments. Various air- and sea-launched means of holding missile launchers at risk might also be considered. Nevertheless, the hardened facility in Molsworth, UK that once housed GLCMs is still around, should it be needed.

Third, the bill supports “aggressively seeking” missile defenses to counter the illegal SSC-8. Even while complaining about NATO’s planned deployments for Poland and Romania, Russia has been deploying a line of air and missile defenses stretching from the Russian Arctic to Syria. The “missile defenses are destabilizing” trope Moscow uses to oppose THAAD, Aegis, or Patriot deployments somehow never gets applied to their S-300 and S-400 battalions.

Although INFPA focuses on defending against GLCMs, such capabilities could be useful against air- and sea-launched missiles too. INFPA directs the Department of Defense to explore the possibility of additional Aegis Ashore sites with anti-air warfare capability in both Europe and Asia.

Russia is not the only one who can play the A2/AD game. You’ve heard of Fortress Kaliningrad. Meet Fortress Redzikowo.

A final provision encourages facilitating the transfer of INF-range missiles capabilities to allies. The treaty precludes the United States from possessing or testing its own INF-range weapons, but does not preclude putting third parties in a room together to discuss such transfers. Poland is already acquiring JASSM and JASSM-ER air-launched cruise missiles; perhaps they or others would entertain Tomahawks or even an intermediate-range ballistic missile. In the event of treaty collapse, over 1,000 overage Block III Tomahawks might also be sold or given away.

Current concepts of operation could also be modified with new basing options to impose significant costs upon Russian intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Missile launchers might, for instance, be put into nondescript cargo containers distributed around military bases, alongside numerous empty containers.

Russia must not be permitted to continue its “soft-exit” strategy of quiet violation. The Trump administration should take up the INF issue in earnest, speaking to Russia in the language of action. The United States and its allies know how to build exquisite strike assets and have a number of other proverbial knives available, should Russia fail to drop theirs.

We don’t have to go this way, but we could. Whether or not we do, depends upon Russia.

Thomas Karako is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Follow him on Twitter @tomkarako.


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