National Security

Defense Nominee Says US Set to Build INF Missile

Illegal Russian Cruise Missile Can Be 'Two-Way Street'

Ashton Carter
Ashton Carter / AP

Defense Secretary-designate Ashton B. Carter said this week he is prepared to counter Moscow’s violation of a nuclear missile treaty by building U.S. nuclear cruise missiles.

During a nomination hearing Wednesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carter said Russia needs to be told that treaty violations are a "two-way street"—indicating he is willing to build missiles to counter the Russian system if confirmed as defense secretary.

"To the question of what we’re going to do about it, I think you have to remind Russia that this was a two-way street, that we signed a treaty that says you’re not going to do this, and we’re not going to do it either," he said.

"And if you don't want to have that treaty, why then you're absolved from your restrictions under that treaty, while we are too," Carter said.

The comments are likely to upset Moscow, which so far has refused to discuss the new cruise missile violation with U.S. officials. Instead, Russian officials have countered with charges that U.S. target missiles and drones violate the 1987 INF treaty. The United States has rejected the Russian charges noting that the treaty does not cover those systems.

The Cold War arms treaty banned ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of between 310 and 3,400 miles. It was agreed to by both states amid widespread anti-nuclear sentiment in Europe following deployment of U.S. ground-launched cruise missiles and Pershing II ballistic missiles and several Soviet INF missiles.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.) raised the INF issue that she said grew out of Russia’s "new mobile, nuclear, ground-launched cruise missile" that "is in direct violation of that 1987 treaty."

Ayotte said the illegal INF missile likely was being developed during 2009 negotiations on the New START arms treaty that was ratified a year later.

The Russian cheating, she said, "makes it harder for us to have these types of conversations with Russia and be able to trust anything they say."

The treaty breach upset the Obama administration’s national security policy agenda that has focused heavily on reaching arms control agreements with the Russians. Military relations with Moscow, however, were cut off following the Russian military annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea last year.

Carter stated during the hearing that he was told "quite clear" that Russia had violated the INF accord.

Thus a military response will include three options if Moscow fails to return to compliance in a verifiable way, he said.

"And I think that there are defensive steps that we can take, there are deterrent steps that we can take, and there are counterforce steps that we can take," Carter said.

"So we have military options too, if they really want to get into this kind of game."

The strategic calculus for both countries was that "we'd both be better off if we didn't do this," Carter said.

"That's why we agreed. But these are always two-way streets, and I think they need to be reminded it's a two-way street," he said.

Carter’s comments contrast sharply with those of Rose Gottemoeller, the State Department’s chief arms control policymaker, who this week suggested there are no immediate plans to implement military or other countermeasures to the INF treaty breach.

"We are in constant diplomatic touch with them about this matter," said Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security said. "The good and positive thing is that the Russians continue to say they are committed to this treaty."

Gottemoeller declined to comment in an interview with Roll Call on the series of countersteps being readied within the administration.

"I’m not going to go beyond what we said in the hearing," she said. "I think that the most important message and most important message for the Russians is that any step they would take to deploy such intermediate-range nuclear missiles, they would not derive any military advantage from."

Gottemoeller was referring to a joint House committee hearing in December when Brian P. McKeon, deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, first disclosed that new intermediate-range U.S. cruise missile deployments are among the options being considered if the INF treaty is abandoned.

McKeon, like Carter, outlined the military options as ranging from "reactive defense, to counterforce, to counter value defense measures."

Carter’s written answers also spelled out clearly the options being considered. They include "active defenses to counter intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles; counterforce capabilities to prevent intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missile attacks; and countervailing strike capabilities to enhance U.S. or allied forces."

"U.S. responses must make clear to Russia that if it does not return to compliance our responses will make them less secure than they are today," Carter stated.

The specific Russian missile that violated the accord has not been identified. However, military analysts have said it is believed to be the R-500, a cruise missile derived from the Iskander K and using the same mobile launcher as the ballistic missile but with a turbojet-powered cruise missile.

The U.S. response could be either a nuclear-armed missile or precision-guided conventionally armed missiles.

The latest national defense authorization bill passed by Congress and signed by the president in December requires that the Obama administration fully explain the Russian INF violation in a report to Congress within 90 days.

Mark Schneider, former principal director of forces policy at the Pentagon, said he is pleased the administration is considering missile deployments in response to the INF violation.

"Irrespective of whether we want to ‘save’ the INF treaty or protect ourselves against the consequences of the Russian violations, the Russians have to recognize that there are military consequences from arms control violations," Schneider said in an email. "They will not do this unless we do something significant in response."

Schneider said Russian INF non-compliance may extend beyond the illegal cruise missile to include a new intermediate-range ballistic missile, the RS-26.

In Brussels today, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he met with NATO’s nuclear planning group and said "our discussions today were particularly important in light of Moscow's violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty" as well as the Ukrainian crisis, and stepped up nuclear bomber flights by the Russians.

Gottemoeller told Russia’s state-run Sputnik news outlet in December that "the Russians have not acknowledged our concern at all and I think and important first step is to acknowledge our concerns and get to work."

"There’s no willingness to talk about our [U.S.] concerns. And that’s the crux of the issue," she added.