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President Trump Is Developing a Missile That Would Break a Nuclear Arms Treaty With Russia

6 minute read

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.

Stephen I. Schwartz, a nuclear weapons policy expert and former executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, says the new missile clearly violates the treaty. “The language in the bill requires the secretary of defense to begin spending millions of dollars developing a conventional mobile (missile) that would contravene the treaty if it were tested, manufactured, and deployed,” he said.

The research and development required by Trump’s new law wouldn’t in itself violate the treaty; only the development of a medium-range missile would. Thomas Crosson, a Pentagon spokesman, says the Defense Department has begun research and development on meeting the requirements laid out in the defense bill. “We are prepared to stop such research and development if Russia returns to verifiable compliance with the Treaty,” he says.

European allies are concerned. Just three days after Trump signed the defense bill, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization issued a statement heralding the INF treaty as being “crucial to Euro-Atlantic security” and reiterated that “full compliance with the INF Treaty is essential” to maintaining strategic stability and reducing the risk of conflict. NATO also called on Russia “to address these concerns in a substantial and transparent way.”

Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, a think tank, said a new U.S. missile would distract from Russia’s violation and increase the risk that Russia could respond by publicly repudiating the treaty, and perhaps deploy large numbers of non-compliant missiles without any constraints. European allies are most at risk in such a situation and “there is no indication that NATO supports a new (missile) and attempting to force it upon the alliance would be incredibly divisive,” Reif said. “It is thus a weapon to nowhere.”

Russia, for its part, denies it instigated the INF confrontation. The Russian Foreign Ministry has repeatedly insisted there has been no such violation and has strictly adhered to the treaty since its inception. In an attempt to turn the tables, the Russian embassy in Washington took to Twitter and Facebook on December 20 and posted: “US seeking pretext for breakup of #INFtreaty. Liability for destruction of one of the pillars of the system of arms control will fall on Washington.” Under the message was a colorful full-page graphic accusing the United States of violating 10 different non-proliferation agreements. “The United States continues to bring forward unfounded accusations of Russia’s breaching the treaty,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “We want to stress once again that Russia will continue to fulfill the INF Treaty in its entirety for as long as our partners do the same.”

The effort to develop an American missile as a response to Russia’s perceived violation was led by Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and other Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate. “If Russia is going to test and deploy intermediate range cruise missiles, then logic dictates that we respond,” he said when introducing the legislation in February. “Pleading with the Russian regime to uphold its treaty obligations won’t bring it into compliance, but strengthening our nuclear forces in Europe very well might.”

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Write to W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com