By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is no longer prohibited from having ground-launched intermediate-range missiles after pulling out of an arms control treaty with Russia on Friday, but funds to test and develop the missiles may soon run out, officials say.
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Washington said last year it would withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), accusing Russia of failing to comply with it. Moscow denies it has violated the treaty and says the Trump administration is pulling out because it wants to pursue a new arms race.
Within the next few weeks, the United States is expected to test a ground-launched cruise missile, and in November, the Pentagon will aim to test an intermediate-range ballistic missile. Both would be tests of conventional weapons – and not nuclear.
U.S. officials told Reuters this week that once existing funding runs out, future research and testing would be at risk because of resistance from the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.
Unlike in the Senate, which is led by President Donald Trump's Republicans, the House declined to fund the administration's request of about $96 million for the development of the missiles in its version of a fiscal-year 2020 budget and defense policy bill.
"If you cut this, you're hampering the Department of Defense's ability to respond to the Russian treaty violation," said a senior U.S. defense official, describing the Pentagon's message to Congress.
"It's not going to bring the treaty back, it's going to help Russia."
The 1987 pact banned ground-launched nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 310 to 3,400 miles (500-5,500 km).
Washington and Moscow blame each other for the breakdown of the treaty, the latest in a growing list of East-West tensions. The United States says it needs to develop its own intermediate-range missiles to deter Russia, even if it does not field them in Europe.
The Pentagon also sees a benefit in developing the new weapons as a counter to China, which boasts an increasingly sophisticated land-based missile force.
PLAYING INTO PUTIN'S HANDS
The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Adam Smith, has opposed the U.S. pullout from the treaty.
"Withdrawing from the treaty would allow Putin to deflect responsibility and blame the U.S. for both the treaty's collapse and any ensuing arms race," Smith wrote in an op-ed earlier this year also penned by the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
They added: "The Trump administration has played right into (Russian President) Vladimir Putin's hands."
The Pentagon hopes the funding will be restored when the House and Senate confer to resolve discrepancies in the legislation. A Senate Armed Services Committee spokeswoman said those discussions were expected to take place in coming weeks.
U.S. officials have been warning for years that the United States was being put at a disadvantage by China's development of increasingly sophisticated land-based missile forces, which the Pentagon could not match due to the U.S. treaty with Russia.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said last month that leaving the INF treaty would free the U.S. military "to deal with not just Russia, but China."
"China has a very, very capable and robust INF Treaty-range missile inventory, if you will. So you can see, it frees us up to do other things," he said.
While no decisions have been made, the United States could theoretically put easier-to-hide, road-mobile conventional missiles in places like Guam.
Officials said it was not clear how China would handle the United States leaving the INF and potentially deploying ground-launched intermediate-range missiles closer to its borders.
"Who knows which way China might go? But they are going to have to react some way… whether it's hardening, moving things around, changing your (concept of operations)," a second U.S. official said.
Any deployment of such weaponry would be years away, senior Trump administration officials say.
"We are just at the stage of looking at how we might further the development of conventional options," one administration official said.
Trump has said he would like to see a "next-generation" arms control deal with Russia and China to cover all types of nuclear weapons, something Beijing has so far rejected.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Alistair Bell, Peter Cooney and Dan Grebler)