With the scrapping of a landmark arms control agreement Friday, the U.S. announced plans to test a new missile amid growing concerns about emerging threats and new weapons.
U.S. officials said they are no longer hamstrung and could now develop weapons systems previously banned under the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia, a Cold War-era agreement that both sides repeatedly accused the other of violating. The treaty was also criticized because it did not cover China or missile technology that did not exist a generation ago.
The end of the treaty comes amid rising doubts about whether the two countries will extend an agreement on long-range nuclear weapons scheduled to expire in 2021. President Donald Trump said he has been discussing a new agreement to reduce nuclear weapons with China and Russia.
“And I will tell you China was very, very excited about talking about it and so was Russia,” Trump told reporters. “So I think we’ll have a deal at some point.”
The Trump administration, which gave its six-month notice on Feb. 2 of its pending withdrawal from the INF, had repeatedly said Russia was violating its provisions, an accusation President Barack Obama made as well.
“The United States will not remain party to a treaty that is deliberately violated by Russia,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in announcing the formal withdrawal, calling a Russian missile system prohibited under the agreement a “direct threat to the United States and our allies.”
The end of the INF, which comes as world powers seek to contain the nuclear threat from Iran and North Korea, is another milestone in the deterioration of relations between the U.S and Russia.
“The denunciation of the INF treaty confirms that the U.S. has embarked on destroying all international agreements that do not suit them for one reason or another,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “This leads to the actual dismantling of the existing arms control system.”
A senior administration official downplayed the upcoming U.S. weapons test, saying it was not meant to be a provocation. The official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the test flight, said the U.S. is “years away” from effectively deploying weapons previously banned under the agreement.
But the U.S. might eventually want to base such weapons in Europe as a counterbalance to Russia, or in Asia to counter China.
The central issue with the INF was that both Russia and the U.S. had long accused the other of cheating on the treaty, which banned land-based missiles of ranges between 310 and 3,410 miles.
The U.S. said the noncompliant missile systems the Russians fielded gave Moscow an advantage over NATO forces in Europe.
The Obama administration in 2014 first publicly accused Moscow of violating the INF by testing a treaty-busting cruise missile, and the Trump administration pressed the accusation. Russia denies it has cheated, and counters with a contention that America’s armed drones and missile defense system in Europe are violations.
U.S. military officials have said 95% of China’s ballistic and cruise missiles would have violated the treaty.
“Since the strategic environment has changed rapidly since the end of the Cold War, we need to find ways to use arms control to address the rise of China’s nuclear arsenal, the increase of Russia’s non-strategic weapons stockpiles, and the emergence of new technologies like hypersonic weapons,” said Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Chinese U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun on Friday challenged what he said were efforts to make his country “an excuse” for the demise of the treaty: “You know, the United States is saying China should be a party in this disarmament agreement, but I think everybody knows that China is not at the same level with the United States and the Russian Federation.”
The point of arms control is to limit or stop a competition in weapons that, if left unconstrained, could endanger not just the big powers but much of the rest of the world. Nuclear weapons are the clearest example of this, but advances in technology, the rise of China and the spread of nuclear capabilities to smaller countries like North Korea have complicated the problem.
That is one reason many in the Trump administration argue that extending the New START agreement with Russia, which is set to expire in February 2021, might not make sense. It is the only remaining treaty constraining the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.
New START imposes limits on the number of U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear warheads and launchers. The deal was made in 2010, but the limits didn’t take effect until 2018.
Trump has called New START “just another bad deal” made by the Obama administration, and Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said in June it is unlikely the administration will agree to the five-year extension to New START that the treaty allows and which can be done without legislative action in either capital.
David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said if Trump doesn’t extend or replace New START it will be first time since 1972 that the U.S. and Russia will be “operating without any mutual constraints on their nuclear forces.”
Some U.S. military leaders also doubt the wisdom of extending New START.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has publicly expressed doubt about arms agreements with Russia in light of what he calls Russian violations of the INF treaty.
Dunford’s view is at odds with that of many private arms control advocates, including Thomas Countryman, a former senior State Department official and now chairman of the Arms Control Association.
In congressional testimony last month, Countryman, who retired from diplomatic service in 2017, said it would be “national security malpractice” to allow New START to expire in 2021. He said the Trump administration is engaged in a “dangerous fantasy” by thinking Russia needs the New START treaty more than the United States does.