Russia Again Flight Tests Illegal INF Cruise Missile

Obama administration still weighing response—years after violation detected

A test of Russia’s SSN-30A Kalibr missile, of which the SSCX-8 might be a variant (screenshot)
September 28, 2015

Russia flight-tested a new ground-launched cruise missile this month that U.S. intelligence agencies say further violates the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, according to Obama administration defense and security officials.

The missile launch Sept. 2 was the latest flight test for what the Pentagon is calling the SSC-X-8 cruise missile. The cruise missile did not fly beyond the 300-mile range limit for an INF-banned missile, said officials familiar with reports of the test.

However, intelligence analysts reported that the missile’s assessed range is between 300 miles and 3,400 miles—the distance covered under the landmark INF treaty that banned an entire class of intermediate-range missiles.

The SSC-X-8 test also involved what officials called a "nuclear profile," meaning that the weapon is part of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.

An earlier flight test of the missile prompted the administration, backed by U.S. intelligence agencies, to declare the system a breach of the INF treaty.

Disclosure of the SSC-X-8—the first unofficial identification of the suspect missile—comes as President Obama is set to meet in New York with Vladimir Putin.

Talks between the two presidents on Monday are expected to focus on increasing Russian military operations in Syria and Ukraine.

White House officials would not say whether the president would raise the SSC-X-8 flight test and other INF noncompliance issues with Putin on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting.

The cruise missile test is the latest sign from Moscow that it has no plans to return to compliance with the INF treaty despite U.S. efforts in talks held since May 2013.

The administration is under growing pressure from Republicans in Congress to respond to the INF violation, which has rattled nerves among NATO allies concerned by a major buildup of Russian nuclear forces and public threats by senior Russian officials to use nuclear weapons.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, has been pressing the Pentagon to respond to the INF breach. He said that continued Russian missile tests that violate INF treaty provisions would be unsurprising because there has been no pressure on Putin to change course.

"It is time for the White House to get out of the way of the [Defense Department] so that it can field military responses to this treaty violation," Rogers said. "We must make sure the Russian Federation cannot obtain a military advantage from this or any of its other arms control violations."

"What’s more, the mullahs in Tehran are watching: when Putin gets away with cheating on INF, the IRGC gets ideas about what it will do under President Obama’s misbegotten nuclear deal," he added.

"We do not comment on intelligence matters," said Alexandra Bell, a spokeswoman for the State Department’s arms control bureau, when asked about the missile test.

Yuri Y. Melnik, a Russian Embassy spokesman, said that his government is unaware of any new U.S. allegations regarding a cruise missile test this month in violation of the INF treaty.

"As to the ‘old’ allegations, we can confirm again that they are groundless," Melnik said in an email. "The U.S. administration did not give us explanations [of] what these violations exactly were. Russia is not in violation of the INF Treaty."

Russia repeatedly has denied violating the INF treaty and countered U.S. charges with assertions that U.S. drones and target missiles, which are not covered by the 1987 accord, have violated the treaty.

In a related matter, a Russian official announced last week that Russia would withdraw from the INF treaty if the United States goes ahead with reported plans to deploy additional nuclear bombs to Germany.

Victor Ozerov, Russian Federation Council defense and security committee chairman, told RIA Novosti last week that Moscow could withdraw from the INF treaty if B61-12 aircraft-carried guided nuclear bombs are sent to Germany. Der Spiegel reported the U.S. nuclear deployment plans.

Ozerov was sanctioned by the Treasury Department last year along with 15 other Russian officials in Putin’s inner circle who were targeted by the administration for their role in the military annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R., Kan.), a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said that if the reports are accurate, it would not be the first time that Russia has violated the agreement.

"The Russians have repeatedly violated this agreement," Pompeo said. "These violations have been met with mild responses from the Obama administration. The President has agreed to meet with Putin after the sacking of Crimea, the invasion of Syria, violations of agreements related to missile testing. The weak response is dangerous for America."

Michaela Dodge, a defense policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said that as Moscow is continuing to violate almost all arms control obligations, the most recent INF treaty violation is unsurprising.

"Despite congressional pressure, the administration is way overdue with a meaningful response to previous Russian violations of the INF Treaty—and Russia is quick to take advantage," she said.

"The treaty has outlived its strategic utility," Dodge added. "As long as the treaty remains in force, the United States and its European allies will not devote meaningful resources into thinking through implications of Russia’s violations for the military balance in Europe, which is why the United States should withdraw from the treaty."

Arms control experts said the Russian cruise missile flight test highlights the need for a U.S. response to the INF violation.

"Like most arms control aficionados, Obama never seems able to say the word ‘violation,’" said John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former undersecretary of state for arms control. "Now would be a good time to learn."

Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon strategic nuclear forces policymaker, warned that the new missile is part of a large-scale buildup of Russian forces that is dangerous.

"The number of strategic and intermediate-range nuclear armed and nuclear capable missile systems announced by the Russian Defense Ministry and reported in the Russian and Western press is staggering," said Schneider with the National Institute for Public Policy.

"Yet if one reads the congressional testimony of senior administration officials almost nothing specific is being said about this."

Schneider said the administration so far has refused to identify the cruise missile system that it says is an INF treaty violation.

"To its credit, the Obama administration now says that nuclear deterrence is its highest priority and Russia is the biggest threat," he added. "Yet the allocation of dollars in the defense budget does not match this."

U.S. nuclear modernization efforts are over a decade from completion and pale in comparison to Russian strategic modernization, which includes new missiles, submarines, and bombers.

"We are now making unilateral reductions in our nuclear capability to comply with the seriously flawed New START Treaty and pretending the even more seriously flawed Iran deal is going to prevent Iran from enhancing its nuclear weapons capability," Schneider said. "This is dangerous."

Sen. Ted Cruz, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the latest test of a Russian INF missile "is only the most recent indicator of their long history of cheating on such agreements."

Cruz said he wrote to the president 38 days ago seeking the release of a Pentagon report on the INF missile violation and the threat it poses to U.S. and allied security.

"Despite my request, the report is still being withheld," said Cruz (R., Tex.).

Obama’s scheduled meeting with Putin on Monday is "no doubt in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the disastrous ‘reset’ initiated by Secretary Clinton," Cruz said.

"We have to let go of this dangerous delusion," he said. "It is now more important than ever that President Obama prioritize the safety and security of the American people over his political legacy and release this pivotal document so we can see Russia for what it is, not what President Obama wants it to be."‎

A State Department official said that talks with the Russians are continuing and that "we have made it abundantly clear that we are also consulting with allies and reviewing a range of appropriate options—diplomatic, economic, and military—to respond to Russia’s continuing violation of its treaty obligations."

While the United States remains committed to seeing Russia return to INF limits, "we do not want to see another action-reaction cycle, like the one we saw during the Cold War," the official said.

"However, while it is our desire to seek a diplomatic resolution, our patience is not unlimited," the official said. "We have made clear that we will protect our allies and ourselves and deny Russia any significant military advantage, if it persists in its violation.

The White House has been holding up a report produced by the Pentagon assessing the risk to U.S. security posed by the new Russian cruise missile.

The Free Beacon reported in August that Russia is close to deploying a new supersonic naval cruise missile that is not covered by the treaty. Defense officials have said that a ground-launched version of the naval missile, the SSN-30A, may be the illegal INF missile.

It could not be learned whether the SSC-X-8 is a ground-launched variant of the SSN-30A, dubbed "Kalibr" by the Pentagon.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a Senate hearing last month that Russia was "the greatest threat to our national security."

And NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove has said that Russia in recent years has become a greater danger than the Islamic State terrorist group because of its large and growing nuclear forces.

Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said in June that the R-500 cruise missile and the RS-26 ballistic missile are not the missile in question.

"At issue is a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 500 to 5,500 kilometers," Gottemoeller told Russia’s Interfax in June. "We are confident that the Russian government is aware of the missile to which we are referring."

Gottemoeller declined to comment on the recent Russian cruise missile test.

She told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty two weeks after the SSC-X-8 test that Russian government requests to the United States for information about the INF missile were a part of a "fishing expedition" aimed at learning U.S. intelligence information about the missile and how it was obtained.

"We don’t make determinations on arms control violations lightly," Gottemoeller told RFE/RL. "So I want to make clear that this violation is not a technicality or a mistake as some have suggested. We are talking about a missile that has been flight-tested as a ground-launched cruise-missile system to these ranges that are banned under this treaty."

Gottemoeller said the United States has provided extensive information that would allow the Russian government to pinpoint the missile at the center of the violation charges.

The violation was officially confirmed last year in the State Department’s annual arms compliance report. The report said Moscow had violated the treaty provision banning possession, production and flight-testing of a ground-launched cruise missile with a range between 300 miles and 3,400 miles. The 2015 report contains the same language and also did not further identify the missiles.

Among the options being considered by the Pentagon in response to the missile are new missile defenses and building and deploying new U.S. INF missiles.

All Pershing II ballistic and ground-launched cruise missiles were eliminated after the 1987 treaty.

Published under: Missile Defense , Russia