Allegations of Russian Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty Violations—Where’s the Beef?

Arms control critics frequently charge that the Russians are violating previous agreements. Often these charges are made with little or weak evidence, as with the current claim that Russia has violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. On examination, this claim has no basis.

The State Department last week released its annual reports on compliance with arms control agreements. That led House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon to complain that the reports failed to address concerns he had raised about possible Russian treaty violations. He did not specify what the violation was—one of the frustrating challenges in examining these kinds of charges is that critics often offer few or no specifics—but press reports suggest that McKeon had in mind allegations about a Russian violation of the INF Treaty.

The INF Treaty, signed in December 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, banned all U.S. and Soviet land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5500 kilometers. By the end of the treaty’s reduction period in June 1991, the Soviet Union had eliminated 1846 missiles, while the United States had eliminated 846. We know this: U.S. inspectors watched as the Soviet missiles were destroyed.

The treaty was seen as a landmark agreement, the first ever to ban an entire class of nuclear weapons. In particular, the treaty required that the Soviets eliminate all of their SS-20s, a mobile, multiple-warhead missile with a range of 5000 kilometers that provoked major security concerns within NATO and among Asian allies such as Japan.

The basis for the current allegation appears to be tests conducted in October 2012 and June 2013 in which a Russian Yars-M ballistic missile flew a distance of about 2100 kilometers. That would appear to make the Yars-M a prohibited INF missile … except that the Yars-M had previously been tested to a range of 5800 kilometers, which makes it an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) under the terms of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

New START defines an ICBM as “a land-based ballistic missile with a range in excess of 5500 kilometers.” The INF Treaty bans missiles with ranges “in excess of 500 kilometers” but “not in excess of 5500 kilometers.” Those definitions clearly mean that the Yars-M is an ICBM, and that is how Russian military officials have described it.

Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists explains this in detail in an excellent July 3 blog posting. He cites Russian defense officials as explaining the shorter flights as aimed at testing “the capability of the Yars-M payload to evade ballistic missile defense systems.” That is not an illogical test for the Russian military to conduct, given U.S. interest in developing missile defenses.

The U.S. Air Force National Space and Intelligence Center recently released a report on ballistic and cruise missile threats. That report concluded “neither Russia nor the United States produce or retain any MRBM [medium-range ballistic missile] or IRBM [intermediate-range ballistic missile] systems because they are banned by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which entered into force in 1988.” That supports the State Department report of no violation of the INF Treaty.

The fact is that ballistic missiles can be flown to less than their maximum ranges. The United States has flown a Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile to a relatively short range. I have not been able to find out whether the U.S. Air Force over the past 40 years has ever flown a Minuteman III ICBM to less than 5500 kilometers. If so, by the logic of this allegation, the United States would be in violation of the INF Treaty. The point, however, is that flying permitted ICBMs to less than intercontinental range does not mean that they are banned INF ballistic missiles.

Indeed, when the INF Treaty was signed in 1987, the expectation in the Reagan administration was that the Soviets would re-aim some of their ICBMs to cover targets in Asia and Europe that previously had been targeted by their INF ballistic missiles. That was because, as the Soviets eliminated their SS-20s, they had no ballistic missiles to cover time-urgent targets at intermediate ranges.

Time-urgent targets—targets that the Soviets might want to strike quickly in the event of a conflict—included Chinese land-based ballistic missiles, French intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and U.S. and NATO dual-capable aircraft and their associated nuclear bombs. The Soviets could go after those targets with aircraft, but planes have far longer flight times than ballistic missiles (measured in hours vs. minutes) and would have to contend with air defenses.

The Reagan administration thus assumed that the Soviets would reallocate some of the ICBM warheads against targets previously covered by SS-20s. NATO and Asian allies understood this as well. No one saw it as a big deal—and certainly not as a violation of the INF Treaty.

Compliance with arms control treaties needs to be closely monitored. This is a critical part of arms control. But compliance assessments and charges of treaty violations should be made in a serious manner, based on facts and evidence, not on allegations that border on the frivolous.