Arms Race Redux! A U.S. Intermediate Range Nuclear Missile Test Shows Russia Was Right to Worry

By David Axe
Scott Howe

The U.S. military has test-fired a new kind of nuclear-capable cruise missile. A weapon that, just 16 days earlier, was banned from the American and Russian arsenals under a 1987 treaty.

The successful test on Sunday of an intermediate-range, ground-launched Tomahawk cruise missile reintroduces a previously defunct type of atomic weapon, effectively reversing 32 years of successful arms-control. It also appears to confirm Russia’s fears about American intentions as Washington and Moscow backslide into Cold War-style mutual mistrust. 

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The Pentagon tried to portray the Sunday launch in California as just a boring trial. “Data collected and lessons learned from this test will inform [the Defense Department’s] development of future intermediate-range capabilities,” the military stated

But to Russia, the trial launch was a huge insult. It was what Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, called the “arms-control equivalent of a ‘Murica gif,’” a jingoistic internet meme featuring, say, a bald eagle firing a machine gun. And it’s likely to raise further the already elevated risk of nuclear war.

The test-firing involved a ground-launched version of the Tomahawk cruise missile, for decades a staple of the Pentagon’s high-tech arsenal. 

Most Tomahawks are non-nuclear, however. The military dismantled the ground-launched, nuclear models back in 1991 in order to comply with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty that U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev negotiated in the mid-1980s and President Donald Trump finally ditched this month.

The INF treaty banned from Europe all nuclear-tipped missile with ranges between 310 and 3,400 miles. The U.S. and Soviet governments considered these small, quick-striking missiles —1,500 on the Soviet side and 400 on the American side in 1987— particularly destabilizing and more likely than larger, farther-flying and slower-reacting rockets to trigger atomic Armageddon.

But a few years ago the INF began to fray. In 2011, the Obama administration warned that new, intermediate-range nuclear-armed cruise missiles—under development in Russia since 2008—could violate the terms of the treaty. In mid-2013 the U.S. State Department first raised the issue with the Kremlin. Later the same year, the White House formally announced that Russia was in violation of the accord.

U.S. moves helped to accelerate Russian developments. In 2015 the Pentagon began installing so-called “Aegis Ashore” missile defenses in Romania and Poland. The non-nuclear SM-3 missile-interceptors are designed to hit ballistic missiles launched by Iran at the United States.

But many Russians believed the United States planned to secretly add nuclear weapons to the European missile-defense sites, all in violation of the INF treaty and as preparation for an atomic sneak-attack on the motherland. Robert Gates, defense secretary under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, had warned about that dangerous perception as far back as 2009.

The Russians’ belief wasn’t unfounded. The SM-3 sites in Romania and Poland feature land-based versions of the U.S. Navy’s Mk. 41 vertical-launch system, a kind of generic metal box that can launch almost kind of missile that physically can fit inside it. Navy ships fire non-nuclear Tomahawks from Mk. 41 launchers. 

It always has been entirely possible for the Pentagon to equip the European sites with nuclear-tipped Tomahawks. And the Russians always have known it. “Although it was never U.S. intent to slip intermediate-range nukes through the back door of Aegis Ashore, the Russians were justifiably concerned,” Bruce Blair, a Princeton University nuclear expert, told The Daily Beast.

Russia responded to this apparent threat by developing a new, treaty-busting nuclear system of its own -- the SS-C-8 cruise missile. Moscow deployed the first battery of operational SS-C-8s to its western frontier in 2017, U.S. officials claimed. 

A little over a year later, the Trump administration announced its intention to withdraw from the INF. “The United States will not remain party to a treaty that is deliberately violated by Russia,” the State Department stated at the time. The Trump administration completed the withdrawal process on Aug. 2. The State Department told The Daily Beast it was not yet prepared to comment further.

But from the Russian point of view, it was the United States that first violated INF when, in the final years of President George W. Bush’s administration, it began the process of installing Mk. 41 launchers in Eastern Europe. “The recent Tomahawk test only bolsters their argument,” Blair said of the Russians.

It’s unfair solely to blame hawkish Republican presidents for bending INF, backing the Russians into a nuclear-arms corner and then canceling a treaty that both countries seemed determined to undermine. Obama’s administration also embraced Aegis Ashore and its provocative launchers. 

“Obama had to know, or should have known, that the decision was a violation of the terms of the INF treaty,” Ted Postol, a nuclear expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told The Daily Beast. “Either the president wasn’t informed, or his advisors were either brain-dead or complicit in making a very bad decision.” 

“It would be interesting to hear what Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton have to say about this matter,” Postol added.

In fairness to successive U.S. administrations, Postol said Aegis Ashore sites in Romania and Poland would make poor nuclear-launch sites, as their fixed locations and proximity to Russia make them vulnerable to Russian attack. 

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But the potential foolishness of arming the sites with nukes doesn’t necessarily diminish how dangerous they seem from the Russian perspective. Sunday’s missile test adds insult to injury, seemingly making a mockery of years of American claims that it was Russia alone that wanted to roll back decades of successful arms-control.

The whole world could pay the price for America’s nuclear negligence and Russia’s acute sensitivity to even the theoretical possibility of U.S. nukes on its European border. Thanks to a decade of missteps and mutual mistrust, quick-striking nukes are back, in a big way. 

“No matter how one looks at this situation,” Postol said, “it makes no sense and must be considered a strategic blunder that has substantively increased the chances of an accidental nuclear war.” 

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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