Russia’s latest flight of a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile this month appears to be another circumvention of a 1987 nuclear missile accord, U.S. officials and private arms specialists said.
A test of what the Pentagon calls the SS-25 road-mobile Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) took place Oct. 10 and traveled less than 2,000 miles, indicating it could be a missile banned by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
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Russia’s military also failed to notify an international group set up in 2002 to prevent missile proliferation called the Hague Code of Conduct about the test.
The flight test two weeks ago was the fourth time in the past two years that Russia has carried out a missile launch that appears to violate or undermine the INF treaty, which bans nuclear missiles with ranges of between 500 kilometers and 5,500 kilometers.
The latest test prompted one U.S. official to question the administration’s continued pursuit of arms agreements with Moscow.
"Why do they continue to pursue talks when Russia is violating treaties," the official said.
The comment reflects what officials said is growing concern from within the U.S. intelligence community over the failure of administration policymakers to take steps to address the treaty breaches.
Officials are uncertain why Russia appears to be violating the INF agreement. One theory is that it is a response to U.S. missile defenses planned for Europe. Russian officials have said they plan to target U.S. missile defense in Europe for attack, fearing they will be used against offensive Russian missiles targeted on the United States. To do so, the Russian military would need medium-range nuclear missiles.
Mark Schneider, an arms control specialist, said the recent SS-25 test does not appear to violate the INF treaty but raises questions about the use of long-range missiles in a theater missile configuration.
"An ICBM can be tested to INF range after its first test to ICBM range but that is unusual," he said.
Russia announced that the purpose of the SS-25 test was to develop a new "combat payload."
Schneider said that unlike earlier arms treaties, the New START treaty did not require the Russians to provide the U.S. government with telemetry signals from the test missile. Such data could have provided the U.S. government details of the missile’s characteristics and payload. The SS-25 was declared in the 2010 New START treaty as an ICBM.
"In this particular test it went about 2,000 kilometers," Schneider said. "The Russians said it was for the purpose of the development of a new warhead section. That is allowed."
David S. Sullivan, a retired former professional staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and former CIA strategic arms analyst, said the recent SS-25 test appears to circumvent the INF accord.
"It appears that the Russians are circumventing the INF treaty with their testing of a new mobile missile based on the SS-25, which violated the SALT II Treaty, and they are also violating the New START Treaty with their testing of another new mobile missile," he said.
The new mobile missile Sullivan referred to was flight tested three times to less-than-ICBM range and is known as the RS-26 and also the Yars-M.
Russian officials in recent months have said the INF Treaty is hindering national defense and China’s development of theater-range nuclear missiles, such as the DF-21, are driving the debate in Moscow over whether to withdraw from the INF treaty and openly build new INF missiles.
The RS-26 is a new missile that is not covered by the New START treaty and at least three flight tests were all carried out to INF ranges, making it an INF missile. If confirmed, the RS-26 would represent a significant treaty violation, said a U.S. official familiar with reports of the weapon.
Russia has said the RS-26 is a legal ICBM.
The Obama administration, to avoid upsetting its pursuit of additional strategic arms and missile defense agreements with Russia, has ignored the violation.
President Obama announced in June that he planned to seek a new round of strategic arms cuts with Russia that would reduce deployed warheads from the New START level of 1,550 to around 1,000.
So far, Moscow has balked at additional arms talks and Russian officials have mentioned concerns over China’s rapid build up of strategic nuclear forces and Beijing’s refusal to join in arms talks with Moscow and Washington.
A State Department official declined to comment directly on arms compliance issues related to the recent test of the SS-25, called RS-12M by Moscow. The official also would not say whether the U.S. government questioned Moscow about it.
"The test of a Russian RS-12M Topol ICBM on Oct. 10, which was announced in the Russian press, was conducted consistent with the requirements of the New START Treaty and was not subject to any provisions or restrictions under the INF Treaty," the official said.
Schneider and other arms compliance specialists, including former State Department arms compliance official Paula DeSutter, and John Bolton, former undersecretary of state for international security and arms control, believe the RS-26 was flown to INF ranges in three flight tests last year and this year.
"It is being called a reduced range ICBM in Russia," Schneider said. "At a minimum, it is a circumvention of the INF Treaty because the testing strongly suggests a theater missile."
Another possibility is that the RS-26 is a new submarine-launched ballistic missile called the Bulava; if that were the case, it would violate the New START treaty.
"There is a possibility that two missiles are being tested under this program—a version of the SS-27 called the Yars-M and a Bulava 30," Schneider said.
Sullivan said Russia, under the Soviet Union, was guilty of several INF violations.
"Back in 1988, when the Senate gave its advice and consent to ratify the INF Treaty, many senators asserted that the Soviets had failed to declare a significant force of covert INF missiles," Sullivan said. "In 1989, when the Warsaw Pact broke up, 180 Soviet-controlled covert SS-23 INF missiles were discovered. The Russians seem to be continuing their long tradition of cheating on arms control treaties."
Also, illegal Soviet SS-23’s and SS-12’s were found in Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf war by U.S. weapons inspectors. Both were banned under the INF treaty.
Senior House Republicans have pressed the Obama administration on the apparent treaty violations.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R., Calif.) and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Mich.) wrote to the president in April citing what they said is "a massive Russian violation and circumvention of an arms control obligation to the United States of great significance to this nation and its NATO allies."
The April 12 letter said the Russian arms violations were "serious and troubling" but that the administration has failed to take any concrete action.
McKeon then said in a statement following Obama’s Berlin speech announcing plans for new arms talks that Russia is "cheating on a major existing nuclear arms control treaty."
Rogers and McKeon did not specify the INF treaty but other U.S. officials said the INF treaty is the one being violated.
The Air Force Missile and Space Intelligence Center has described the new RS-26 as a covert INF missile being developed by Russia.
The State Department’s annual report on arms compliance made no mention of the Russian treaty violations.
Spokesmen for both McKeon and Rogers declined to comment on the recent SS-25 test.
The INF treaty was a landmark arms accord that led to the elimination of medium-range ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles. Under the treaty, all U.S. nuclear-tipped Pershing ballistic and Ground-Launched Cruise missiles in Europe, along with Russian SS-20, SS-12, SS-23, SS-4, and SSC-X-4 missiles were to be destroyed.
Article VI of the INF treaty states that neither party shall "produce or flight-test any intermediate-range missiles or produce any stages of such missiles or any launchers of such missiles."