US Conducts Test of New Ground-Based Cruise Missile

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Less than one month after exiting the INF Treaty (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) the United states has conducted its first post-treaty test of a ground-based cruise missile. The test was conducted on San Nicolas Island and took place on the afternoon of 18 August. San Nicolas is a small island located roughly 60 miles off the coast of California and is part of the Pacific Missile Range. The weapon was a variant of the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) which will likely prove to be the foundation of the new system. It was launched from a Mk 41 VLS (Vertical Launch System) cell set up on a trailer. Following over 500 kilometers of flight the missile impacted its target accurately.

The Trump administration and Pentagon have wasted little time in moving forward on testing, and design of missile types once prohibited by INF. This was to be expected given that Russia has had a significant head start in designing, testing, and ultimately producing missile systems in direct violation of the treaty. Now, free of the shackles that INF imposed, the United States is rapidly playing catch up.

Predictably, Russia and China have condemned the US for this test. Both nations released separate statements criticizing Washington, and warning that this could bring about a new arms race. Moscow and Beijing conveniently forget to mention that they’ve both been developing similar missiles for some time. It’s the same old story, similar to what took place in the early 80s when the Reagan administration addressed the gap between US and Soviet intermediate-range missiles in Europe at the time. The Soviets had deployed the SS-20 missile in Eastern Europe in the 1970s and it was considerably more capable then the Pershing I missile fielded by the US and NATO at the time. Reagan closed the gap by deploying the Pershing II and Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) to Europe amid anti-nuclear protests across Western Europe, and much anxiety in Moscow. It was the fielding of these two systems that directly led to the INF Treaty being signed in 1987.

This time around, things are different. Yet it heartening to see the United States is moving in the right direction at the moment.

US Formally Withdraws from INF Treaty

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The collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was a foregone conclusion. The United States set a deadline for Russia to comply fully with the terms of the treaty. Non-compliance would result in a formal US withdrawal from INF. 2 August was the deadline date and it came without any indications of Russian compliance anywhere in sight. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement on Friday explaining the US move, as well as the reasons for it. He laid the blame squarely on Russia’s shoulders, specifically its fielding of a non-compliant ground-launched cruise missile, the SSC-X-8.

With the INF Treaty now effectively trashed, many people across Europe and the United States are raising fears of a new arms race in the making. Aside the fear, and anxiety sits the simple reality that the treaty was no longer effective. The United States had little choice but to walk away from the treaty. Russia’s development and fielding of new non-INF compliant cruise missile systems since 2014 means there has been an arms race underway since then yet only one nation has been taking part.

That changes after today. The US will test its own new non-INF compliant ground launched cruise missile in the coming weeks. It will be some time before the new missile can be fielded though, leaving the US at a distinct disadvantage for the foreseeable future. Russia has already deployed several battalions of cruise missiles that directly violate the terms of the treaty. These missiles are capable of reaching US and NATO bases across Europe with either nuclear or conventional payloads.

It will be some time before the fallout from the US withdrawal, and the death of INF, become apparent. Until then, it is evident the US-Russia relationship will enter a more adversarial phase and that is at least partly because of the INF Treaty’s demise.

End of the Road For the INF Treaty?

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Russia wasted no time responding to the United States announcement it was suspending compliance with the INF Treaty. Earlier today, Russian President Vladimir Putin let it be known his country would be doing the same. The door is not completely closed on the landmark arms control agreement though. The US has given Russia a six-month period of time to return to full compliance with the terms of the treaty. Not that Russia has been honoring its treaty commitment in recent years. Washington has long suspected Russia of violating the treaty with suspicions going back to when Barack Obama was in office. Little was done by the previous administration to redress the situation, however. President Trump’s approach to the matter has been more decisive. The Trump administration has openly called out Russia and provided evidence that at the very least suggests Moscow is not adhering to the terms of the INF treaty.

The latest US action was anticipated and can hardly be considered a surprise. Fair warning was given and Russia did not respond to it. If Moscow does not begin complying with the treaty terms in six months, the INF treaty will be terminated. The US suspending compliance doesn’t herald the start of a new arms race, contrary to the warnings of some pundits. The race has been underway since Russia breached the terms of the treaty. The United States is now forced to play catch-up in essence. The current mindset in Washington is simple: Russia has not been restricted by the treaty in recent years, so why should the US continue to allow its own hands to be tied?

The Atlantic Alliance is standing behind the United States on this matter. NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told the BBC: “All [European] allies agree with the United States because Russia has violated the treaty for several years. They are deploying more and more of the new nuclear capable missiles in Europe.” This week US envoys will be dispatched to the capital cities of numerous alliance members and detailed briefings on the situation will be given.

INF Jitters Materialize

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The uncertain future of the INF Treaty is causing concern, and alarm in media, political, and diplomatic circles across the globe. For months now, the Trump administration has been voicing its concerns about violations of the treaty by Russia with its deployment of the SS-CX-7/SS-CX-8 Screwdriver ground-launched cruise missile. Two days ago, the administration announced that if Russia does not fall back into compliance with the terms of the treaty within sixty days, the United States will begin withdrawing from the INF Treaty. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the formal announcement on Tuesday, and it appears that the ultimatum is being supported by NATO.

Critics of the Trump administration, the Russian government, and anti-nuclear organizations were quick to react to the news, as were other parties. The greatest fear at the moment seems to be that relegating the treaty to the dust bin of history will inevitably spark a new arms race. Leaving the treaty intact, according to many observers, will deter Russia to continue developing new intermediate range missiles. While this argument does have merit, it neglects the fact that Vladimir Putin has been developing new missiles, and updating some already in service for quite some time now.

On the other side of the coin is the argument that if Russia is intent on building these weapons, the United States should be building them too. Failing to keep up with Russian advances in the missile field only serves to harm US national security, and leaves the US military at a sharp disadvantage. It would be wise for all parties to remember that the INF Treaty came into being in the 80s because of the existence of a very modern, and capable US intermediate nuclear force. Moscow had great respect for the Pershing II, and Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) systems being fielded in Western Europe by the United States at the time. The Soviets took a look at the balance of power in Central Europe at the time and concluded that a treaty was in their best interests.

In short, Gorbachev and the Soviets were motivated by US military strength, and the political resolve behind it. This is what led to the INF Treaty being signed more than any other factor.

Maintaining the INF Treaty now, without penalizing Russia, allows them to continue developing systems like the Screwdriver without penalty. It also confines the US military from developing and fielding similar systems, thus giving Russia a clear advantage in a crucial area of weaponry.

60 days is a long enough period of time for a compromise to be reached by both sides, yet if Russia is unwilling to abide by the terms of the treaty, it is in the best interests of the United States to leave the treaty and begin developing new intermediate nuclear-capable cruise, and ballistic missiles.

Trident Juncture 2018 Set to Begin Later This Month

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Later this month NATO will begin its largest series of exercises since 2002. Trident Juncture 2018 is set to begin in late October and run through early November. The field exercise phase of TRJE 18 will run from 25 October through 7 November and take place mostly in Norway. Land operations will take place in a zone extending from south of Trondheim to Rena Camp. Air operations will be conducted in Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish airspace, while seaborne operations and activity will occur in the eastern reaches of the Baltic Sea, North Sea, Norwegian Sea, and North Atlantic. TRJE 18 will conclude with a command post exercise ( CPX) scheduled to take place at the Joint Warfare Center in Stavanger, Norway from 14-23 November.

Many of the troops, and units expected to take part in the exercise have already arrived in Norway. The deployment phase of the exercise has been underway since August. TRJE 18’s forces will be made up of 45,000 troops from NATO nations, as well as from Sweden, and Finland, 10,000 land vehicles, 150 combat aircraft, and 60 ships. It will be the largest military exercise to occur in Norway since the  annual NATO Ocean Venture exercises in the ‘80s. Much like Ocean Venture, TRJE 18 is designed to send a message to Moscow about the current readiness level of NATO forces. In fact, NATO has invited Russia to send observers to monitor the exercises. It is unknown at present if Russia has accepted the offer or not.

TRJE 18 comes at a time when tensions between NATO and Russia remain heightened. The US Ambassador to NATO has made comments recently about Russia’s continued violations of the INF Treaty. Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison stoked alarm among journalists, and some diplomats when she spoke of ‘taking out’ the Russian SSC-X-8 missile, a platform built in direct violation of the INF Treaty’s terms. At present, Russia has two battalions equipped with the missile deployed in close proximity to its western frontier. Hutchinson apparently misspoke and the phrase ‘take out’ was referring to the US developing countermeasures to neutralize the advanced cruise missile should it be launched in anger against US or NATO targets.