A spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin said that “such tests only proved that from the very start, the Americans were determined to derail the INF Treaty and were making preparations for it.”
Jessica Corbett, staff writer
Nuclear experts and disarmament advocates are warning that the world is witnessing a new arms race after the Pentagon tested a new missile Sunday that would have violated a Cold War-era treaty the Trump administration ditched earlier this month.
After years of the U.S. government—under both the Obama and Trump administrations—and NATO accusing Russia of violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed in 1987 by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Washington formally withdrew from the deal, which banned ground-launched nuclear and conventional ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,000 kilometers, or about 310 to 3,400 miles.
On Sunday afternoon, the U.S. Department of Defense “conducted a flight test of a conventionally-configured ground-launched cruise missile at San Nicolas Island, California,” the Pentagon revealed in a statement Monday. “The test missile exited its ground mobile launcher and accurately impacted its target after more than 500 kilometers of flight. Data collected and lessons learned from this test will inform the Department of Defense’s development of future intermediate-range capabilities.”
According to Russia’s state-owned news agency TASS, Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Tuesday: “As for the United States’s test of a conventional cruise missile, the news came while [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and [French President Emmanuel] Macron were holding talks yesterday. Putin commented on it, saying that such tests only proved that from the very start, the Americans were determined to derail the INF Treaty and were making preparations for it.”
In response to the Pentagon’s announcement, Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), tweeted Monday that “the nuclear weapons arms race is here and we all have a choice; remain passive and wait for these weapons of mass destruction to be used OR fight for the stigmatization, prohibition, and elimination of nuclear weapons.”
Responding to Finn’s warning, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation deputy director Rick Wayman tweeted: “I’m with Beatrice Fihn. This test of the formerly banned missile took place a short distance from my home in California, giving me an extra reason to stand up and fight this dangerous, unnecessary arms race.”
American officials have stressed they do not plan on building a nuclear ground-based cruise missile capability, but Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has said his department will “fully pursue the development of these ground-launched conventional missiles as a prudent response to Russia’s actions and as part of the joint force’s broader portfolio of conventional strike options.”
Imagery of the test shows the weapon was launched from a Mark 41 Vertical Launch System, the same launcher used in the Aegis Ashore missile defense system. That is notable, as Russia has often claimed the MK 41 presence in Europe as a violation of the INF Treaty, with the belief that the Aegis Ashore systems in Poland and Romania could be converted to offensive systems.
“The launcher used in Sunday’s test is a MK 41; however, the system tested is not the same as the Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System currently operating in Romania and under construction in Poland,” Lt. Col Robert Carver, a Pentagon spokesman, said. “Aegis Ashore is purely defensive. It is not capable of firing a Tomahawk missile. Aegis Ashore is not configured to fire offensive weapons of any type.”
“This test doesn’t prove or disprove” the U.S. government’s claim that the system in Europe couldn’t launch Tomahawks, Matt Korda, a research associate at the Federation of American Scientists’s Nuclear Information Project, wrote in a series of tweets Monday. “But it sure adds fuel to the fire.”
In the aftermath of the INF Treaty collapse in early August, Putin said that “if Russia obtains reliable information that the United States has finished developing [new intermediate-range nuclear missiles] systems and started to produce them, Russia will have no option other than to engage in a full-scale effort to develop similar missiles.”