Congress is divided on an effort to build a new U.S. nuclear-capable missile system that some argue would send a message to Russia as it continues its own missile buildup that violates longstanding treaties, according to sources and congressional communications obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
Lawmakers, in their 2018 defense expenditures, have sought the funds necessary to build a new advanced nuclear-capable ground-launch missile system to combat growing threats posed by Russia as it pursues its own nuclear buildup, a move that violates the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, otherwise known as the INF.
As Russia continues to deploy its new own systems, Congress has tried to allocate some $58 million to begin research and development of a new medium-range missile system with the capability of striking between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The actual cost of the system is expected to be far lower than the initial $58 million allocation, according to defense insiders who spoke to the Free Beacon.
The effort, which is supported by the Trump administration's Defense Department, has faced pushback from a group Democratic senators, including Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.), and Al Franken, who recently resigned Congress following accusations of sexual misconduct.
The opposition effort also has attracted the support of Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah), raising eyebrows among some defense insiders who view the Republican's alliance with these Democrats as questionable.
In late December, a large delegation of Republican lawmakers in both the House and Senate petitioned their colleagues on the relevant committees to ensure the new missile system receives adequate funding in the face of ongoing Russian aggression, according to a copy of that previously unreleased letter obtained by the Free Beacon.
Russia has been working on missile systems that violate the INF since at least 2008 and was found to have violated the treaty as recently as 2014, according to these Republican lawmakers.
"If there is any hope of bringing Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty, we must begin taking concrete actions to demonstrate to [Russian President] Vladimir Putin that violations of international treaties have consequences," wrote the GOP delegation, which was led by Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Ala.).
The lawmakers opposing the new missile system acknowledge that U.S. efforts to research and develop the weapons do not constitute a violation of the INF treaty, meaning that the United States could hold Russia accountable while not taking action that violates outstanding agreements.
However, they do view it as a possible waste of taxpayer funds.
"While [research and development] is technically allowed under the provisions of the INF Treaty, flight-testing, production, and deployment of covered missiles are not," those opposing the effort wrote in their own letter to Senate appropriators. "Funding [research and development] for a missile we never intend to test or deploy is either a waste of taxpayer dollars, or a first step to a future U.S. violation of the [INF] Treaty."
These lawmakers also remain concerned that American efforts to build a new nuclear-capable system would show a lack of commitment to the INF Treaty and potentially anger global allies.
"There is no question that we need to be tough when faced with Russian provocation—but we must also be strategic in our actions," they wrote. "We must ensure that the international community has absolutely no reason to doubt the resolve of the United States to uphold, in good faith, the spirit and intent of our treaty commitments."
Senior congressional officials and defense insiders who spoke to the Free Beacon about the situation said that the Democratic elements opposed to the effort are picking a fight that could undermine U.S. national security.
The United States must show that it will respond to Russian INF violations with its own defensive measure, these sources argued.
Some also expressed surprise to see Lee, a vocal conservative, lend his support to a measure supported by some of Congress's most liberal elements.
"It's an odd move," said one senior Republican congressional official tracking the matter. "You toss your friends in the GOP caucus under the bus, and get nothing in return for it."
"When you're the only Republican on a letter with 12 of the most hardcore liberals members of the Senate, it's awfully hard to call that conservative," the source said.