The commander of the U.S. European Command and NATO is calling for pressuring Russia against deploying new cruise missiles that violate the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty.
"We have to change Mr. Putin’s decision calculus as to whether he uses these [missiles] or brings these forward or deploys these," Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove told reporters at the Pentagon during a briefing last week.
"We have to change that, and that series of thoughts that the SecDef [Ashton Carter] put forward are options that would help change that."
Breedlove was referring to written answers to questions Carter submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee outlining the options the Pentagon is considering in response to the Russian Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty violation, first confirmed last year by the State Department but known by U.S. intelligence agencies for more than five years.
The INF treaty bans ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of between 310 and 3,400 miles.
Carter told the committee in his written statement that U.S. options in response to Moscow’s INF breach 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."
Countervailing strike capabilities could include nuclear intermediate-range missiles.
"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.
Bryan McKeon, the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, told the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces last week that the United States does not favor the option of deploying new nuclear missiles.
McKeon said in addition to its violation of the INF treaty, Russia’s occupation of Crimea, its aggression in eastern Ukraine, and its "increasingly aggressive nuclear posturing and threats" pose "one of our most pressing and evolving strategic challenges—challenges felt across the strategic forces mission space."
"We need not respond symmetrically to every Russian provocation," McKeon said in his written statement.
"In particular, there is currently no need to expand the role for U.S. nuclear weapons, or to change our nuclear posture," he said.
"We do not want to find ourselves engaged in an escalatory action/reaction cycle as a result of Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty," McKeon said. "We will continue to press Russia to return to compliance with the treaty, while at the same time preparing responses to prevent Russia from gaining a significant military advantage from its violation and to protect the security interests of the United States and our allies."
Several diplomatic efforts to convince Moscow to return to compliance with the arms treaty so far have failed.
Instead, Moscow has accused the United States of violating the INF treaty through missile target testing and drones—both systems not covered by the treaty.
Breedlove said he agrees with current U.S. efforts to try to convince the Russians to come back into compliance on INF.
"And then if that doesn’t work, we begin to look at the next series of options," he said.
The new Russian weapon that has been tested in violation of the INF treaty has been identified as a cruise missile variant of the Iskander short-range ballistic missile.
James Clapper, director of national intelligence, revealed in his a prepared statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that the Iskander is the missile in question.
Clapper stated that a senior Russian official, Sergei Ivanov, stated as early as 2007 that "Russia had tested a ground-launched cruise missile for its Iskander weapon system whose range complied with the INF treaty ‘for now.’"
Ivanov also said in 2013 that because of the spread of intermediate range nuclear missiles around the world Russia was building an "appropriate weapons system" to deal with the changed international geopolitical environment since the INF treaty was signed.
"The development of a cruise missile that is inconsistent with INF, combined with these statements about INF, calls into question Russia’s commitment to this treaty," Clapper stated.
Breedlove said so far it does not appear the new missile is deployed, but he added that "it’s not that clear."
"In Kaliningrad or in Crimea, there are those dual-use weapon systems that could very easily be nuclear or non-nuclear, and our ability to tell the difference between one and the other is very tough, and this is very worrisome," Breedlove said.
"Ground-based weapons systems that are typically conventional which have nuclear capability can be fielded on, or dual use aircraft in the Crimea, that could either be nuclear or conventional," he said.
Because the missiles and aircraft can be used for either conventional or nuclear strikes, "it’s really hard for us to tell if they’re being forward-stationed in one or the other mode," the four-star general said.
"This dual-use capability brings an ambiguity that is really hard for us to pick up in our intelligence and indications and warnings."
Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, told a House hearing Feb. 26 that he is concerned about Russia’s tactical nuclear capabilities.
"I have concerns that Russia has a number of non-strategic nuclear weapons in their arsenal," Haney said. "And they also have modernization programs associated with them, as well as…the ground-launch cruise missile system that they’ve been testing."