The Pentagon has the capability to build a new intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missile within months after the Trump administration's decision to withdraw the United States from a bilateral arms control treaty with Russia thanks to a little-known provision tucked into the 2017 defense authorization bill.
The measure, called the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty Preservation Act, ordered the Defense Department to develop a road-mobile ground-launched cruise missile system with a range that would violate the terms of the INF agreement.
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The provision cites several State Department reports dating back to 2014 that determined Russia violated the treaty, which bars Washington and Moscow from possessing short- and medium-range nuclear missiles.
"It is not in the national security interests of the United States to be unilaterally legally prohibited from developing dual-capable ground-launched cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, while Russia makes advances in developing and fielding this class of weapon systems, and such unilateral limitation cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely," the measure states.
A senior GOP Senate aide told the Washington Free Beacon on Tuesday that while the Pentagon doesn't yet have such a missile "on the shelf and ready to go," it is capable of producing one "in a matter of months as opposed to years" because of the Preservation Act.
A Pentagon spokesman told Time in January that the Defense Department had begun research and development on an intermediate-range ground-launched missile. The spokesman noted the Pentagon was prepared to stop the program if Russia "returns to verifiable compliance with the treaty."
The INF was born out of a meeting between former President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987. While considered a critical step in diffusing the Cold War at the time of its signing, Russia has been violating it since at least 2014.
President Donald Trump announced Saturday the United States would pull out of the Reagan-era agreement, citing Russia's violations and China's arms build-up in the Pacific.
U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has long advocated for a U.S. withdrawal from the treaty, traveled to Moscow on Monday for two days of talks with senior Russian officials. Bolton reiterated Trump's plans to leave the INF following a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.
The Russian government has said it would be forced to take symmetrical measures if the United States follows through on Trump's threat to develop new missiles. Critics of Trump's decision, including the European Union, warn a U.S. withdraw could provoke a nuclear arms race.
Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon policymaker who specialized in nuclear weapons, said Russia isn't likely to retaliate with anything stronger than a verbal response.
"They really can't afford to do much more than they are doing now," Schneider told the Free Beacon. "At any given time Russia is spending about as much as they can for defense, with first priority to nuclear systems. The sanctions are seriously hurting them, as are the costs of the war in Eastern Ukraine and Syria. They have already made threats to respond, but I doubt we will see any significant change in their programs. Arms control has essentially no impact on their decisions—it's compliance to the extent convenient."
The Trump administration's plan to leave the INF also targets China. As a non-signatory, China hasn't had the same restrictions on its short- and intermediate-range missiles over the past 30 years.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year, former U.S. Pacific Command chief Admiral Harry Harris said China has the "largest and most diverse missile force in the world, with an inventory of more than 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles." Harris, who now serves as the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, said that over 90 percent of those missiles would violate the INF if Beijing had to comply.
Harris declined to comment on Trump's decision to remove the United States from the treaty.