The Moscow Missile Mystery

Is Russia actually violating the INF Treaty?

In December 1987, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF), a landmark agreement that banned an entire class of U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons. The agreement put the brakes on a spiraling arms race, but this week brings worrying news that -- just over two decades later -- Russia may be actively going back on its word. Questions have arisen as to whether Russia has tested missiles in violation of the treaty's terms, most recently in a Jan. 30 story in the New York Times. Some claims are spurious; others appear more serious.

If Moscow has developed a prohibited INF missile, it will have implications for U.S.-Russia arms control. But it will have even more important implications for Russia's relations with its neighbors in Europe and Asia, including China.

The INF Treaty banned all U.S. and Soviet land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (300 to 3,400 miles). When the treaty's reduction period concluded in June 1991, 846 American and 1,846 Soviet missiles had been eliminated, as well as their associated launchers and other equipment. The treaty's intrusive verification measures pioneered provisions incorporated into the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I).

There have been periodic charges -- often made by critics of the Obama administration's arms control policy -- that Russia has violated the INF Treaty's terms. (Russia took on Soviet treaty obligations after the USSR's collapse at the end of 1991.) Up until now, most charges have focused on the RS-26 ballistic missile. Those charges have no basis.

Critics have expressed concern that the RS-26 has flown to intermediate ranges, which apparently it has. But the Russians have also tested the RS-26 to ranges greater than 5,500 kilometers. That makes it an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) subject to the limits of the 2010 New START agreement. New START defines ICBMs as land-based ballistic missiles "with a range in excess of 5500 kilometers," whereas the INF Treaty bans land-based missiles with ranges "in excess of 500 kilometers" but "not in excess of 5500 kilometers." These definitions clearly make the RS-26 an ICBM.

It is a simple fact of physics that an ICBM can be flown to a range of less than 5,500 kilometers. When concluding the INF Treaty, the Reagan administration well understood that fact. Indeed, U.S. officials assumed that the Soviets would plan to use some of their ICBMs against time-urgent targets in Europe and Asia as they eliminated their INF missiles.

Less information is available regarding a more recent charge, that Russia has tested a ground-launched intermediate-range cruise missile. This appears more serious. Acting Undersecretary of State Rose Gottemoeller told NATO allies in mid-January about the missile and U.S. concerns, which Washington has been raising with Moscow -- thus far, apparently, to no satisfactory end.

Barack Obama's administration appears reluctant to call this a treaty violation, at least publicly. It may wish to allow more time to resolve the question, or push Moscow on other matters. Such issues have been settled in the past, often through private diplomacy. The Reagan administration for years pressed its concern that a large phased-array radar system in central Siberia violated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; the Soviets ultimately agreed to tear it down.

It is little secret that some quarters in Moscow have long had objections to the INF Treaty. In February 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed concern that Russia and the United States were barred from having INF missiles while other countries could have them. At the same time, Sergei Ivanov, then minister of defense and now chief of Putin's presidential administration, called the INF Treaty a mistake. More recently, however, Russian officials have seemed more comfortable with the treaty. In May 2012, the chief of the Russian General Staff explicitly ruled out withdrawal.

If the charge regarding the ground-launched cruise missile is true, it will have implications for U.S.-Russia arms control, bringing into question Moscow's good faith in meeting treaty obligations. Capitol Hill critics wasted little time in using the New York Times story to challenge the administration's entire approach to arms control, even with regard to the Iran nuclear deal and arrangements to destroy Syria's chemical weapons. While there may be a serious compliance issue regarding the INF Treaty, the sides appear to be smoothly implementing New START. The Russians already meet two of the treaty's three limits on strategic forces -- even though those limits do not kick in until February 2018.

An INF Treaty violation would add yet another problem to a broader U.S.-Russia agenda that already has its fair share of problems. It is an issue that the administration nevertheless has to pursue seriously, as it apparently is doing with Moscow.

An intermediate-range cruise missile would have more important implications for Russia's neighbors. Such a weapons system would be explicitly designed to hold at risk and strike targets in Europe and Asia.

Russia's relations with Europe have soured recently, as concerns have grown over Putin's authoritarian tendencies, Moscow's aggressive behavior in the post-Soviet space, and the monopolistic practices of energy giant Gazprom. The Jan. 28 EU-Russia summit was cut to just three hours. EU leaders -- including in Germany, which traditionally has strived to maintain a friendly relationship with Russia -- will hardly welcome the prospect of new Russian nuclear weapons targeting their countries.

A Russian intermediate-range cruise missile would raise concern in Asia as well. It could cool the recent warming trend in Russia-Japan relations. And it would do little good for Russian relations with China. Beijing often plays the role of Moscow's partner on international questions and never appears on the official Russian list of security concerns. But few things worry the Russian leadership more than the growth of the Chinese economy and the concomitant buildup of Chinese military power. Indeed, if there is a new Russian missile, Beijing's rise may well be the motivating factor.

New intermediate-range nuclear arms would spark concerns among all of Russia's neighbors, especially as the Russian military already has some 4,500 nuclear weapons -- well more than 10 times the number of nuclear weapons that any country (other than the United States) has. Moscow will not have an easy time explaining this. If the reports of the new cruise missiles are true, the Russians are buying themselves more than just a new problem with Washington.



The Arms Race Goes Hypersonic

Why China's new ultrafast missile has Moscow and Washington scrambling.

With grainy photographs of China's new drones and manned stealth fighters trickling onto the Internet every few months, Beijing's rapid military modernization has become a reliable source of anxiety in Western capitals. But there's one area of military technology you've probably never heard of, where a new and potentially dangerous arms race is brewing and where a crisis could touch off rapid and uncontrollable escalation.

The arena for this contest is the obscure military technology of ultra-fast, long-range -- or boost-glide -- weaponry. Such weapons are designed to be launched -- or "boosted" -- by large rockets. All U.S. tests, for example, have used repurposed long-range ballistic missiles that, in a former life, were used to threaten the Soviet Union with nuclear warheads. But instead of arcing high above the Earth like ballistic missiles, boost-glide weapons re-enter the atmosphere quickly and then glide at incredibly high speeds, potentially for thousands of miles.

It's old news that the United States is currently developing boost-glide weapons as part of the Pentagon's Conventional Prompt Global Strike program. As originally conceived a decade ago, this program was intended to produce non-nuclear weapons capable of reaching a target anywhere in the world within an hour. The Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, on which the lion's share of funding is currently focused, would not meet this goal. But with a range of roughly 5,000 miles, it would still have a much longer reach than any non-nuclear missile the United States currently possesses.

It now appears that China and Russia are following the United States' lead.

China conducted its first test of a boost-glide weapon, dubbed WU-14 by the U.S. Department of Defense, on Jan. 9. This test was not entirely unexpected. Surveys of the unclassified Chinese technical literature (such as this one by Lora Saalman and this one by Mark Stokes, both of whom are American experts on Chinese military research) reveal that theoretical research into boost-glide weapons has been going on for some time. Still, very little information about the test itself is publicly available. The Chinese government has stated that it took place "in our territory." Elsewhere, it was reported that the missile was launched from Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in Shanxi province.

If these two claims are correct -- and that's an important caveat -- then together they imply that the total flight distance must have been no more than about 1,800 miles (the distance from Taiyuan to the farthest point still inside China.) The upper end of this range would represent an impressive technological breakthrough. But it is also possible that the WU-14 flew a shorter distance and is simply a souped-up version of its existing anti-ship ballistic missile -- the infamous DF-21D, which has recently sparked concern in the U.S. Navy -- suggesting that the Chinese approach to boost-glide weapons development is evolutionary. In general, the scope and ambition of the Chinese program are unclear, including whether the goal is the delivery of nuclear or non-nuclear warheads -- or both.

As always, Russia wants a piece of the action too. In December 2012, in his annual State of the Nation address, President Vladimir Putin gave a shout-out to the U.S. Conventional Prompt Global Strike program and announced a Russian response that would include future "advanced weapons." Given recent statements from other senior Russian officials explicitly threatening to develop precision-guided weapons systems with "practically global range, if the U.S. does not pull back from its program for creating such missile systems" and evidence of Russian flight tests, such advanced weapons almost certainly include boost-glide systems.

The implications of these developments for stability -- particularly in Northeast Asia -- could be profound. If Beijing decides to field a boost-glide weapon -- and it would probably take at least a decade from now for it to do so -- there is little doubt that its primary target would be U.S. and allied forces. Meanwhile, in a potentially dangerous symmetry, U.S. officials have indicated that they are considering acquiring boost-glide weapons to defeat China's advanced defensive capabilities, including the DF-21D, and its anti-satellite weapons.

So what would the addition of boost-glide weapons mean for a potential showdown with China? On the one hand, fear of U.S. capabilities could deter China from attempting to change the territorial status quo by force. On the other, in the event of a conflict, the existence of boost-glide weapons could make it much harder to manage.

One risk -- practically the only one currently discussed in the United States -- is that, after further developing its early warning capabilities, China might misidentify a Conventional Prompt Global Strike weapon as a nuclear weapon and initiate a nuclear response. But there are other, more likely pathways to escalation that have barely been considered. For example, boost-glide weapons might enable the United States to attack Chinese command and control facilities that are buried too deeply to be threatened by other non-nuclear weapons. However, China reportedly uses the same command and control system for its conventional and nuclear missiles. A U.S. attack on this system for the purpose of disabling Chinese conventional missiles could, therefore, be misinterpreted by Beijing as an attack aimed at suppressing its nuclear capability. Rapid, uncontrollable escalation could result.

But the risks associated with developing boost-glide technology are not purely hypothetical. Even though these weapons do not yet exist, their specter is already influencing the nuclear policies of Russia and China. For example, fear of American conventional weapons has sparked an internal Chinese debate about whether Beijing should abandon its long-standing policy not to use nuclear weapons first.

Meanwhile, various Russian officials have repeatedly indicated a lack of interest in negotiating further nuclear reductions because they worry that doing so would make their nuclear forces more vulnerable to American conventional weaponry. In fact, this fear is actually leading Russia to diversify -- not contract -- its nuclear forces. In December 2013, the Russian military announced that it would start work on designing a new rail-mounted nuclear missile as a direct response to Conventional Prompt Global Strike.

These dynamics present Washington with a complex policy problem that has no obvious solutions. While halting the Conventional Prompt Global Strike program would mitigate some risks, it could also enhance others if these weapons turn out to have a unique ability to prosecute key military missions.

Perhaps the only thing that's clear is that ignoring the problem isn't going to make it go away. For this reason, it's deeply worrying that boost-glide weapons are being developed with minimal public or congressional scrutiny in the United States, and with no scrutiny in Russia or China. It's equally worrying that these weapons are not being discussed at a governmental level in either Sino-American or Russian-U.S. dialogues (non-nuclear boost-glide weapons, moreover, don't fall under any existing treaties). The implications of these weapons should be seriously considered now -- not after they're fielded. Their implications for international security -- particularly in the event of a U.S.-China conflict -- are simply too profound to leave the debate to the handful of wonks that have heard of them today.