Russia’s Land Based Cruise Missile Tests and the INF Treaty: The Lessons of History

12/8/1987 President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty in the East Room

In November 1983, during NATO Operation Able Archer 83, we came within a hair’s breadth of nuclear war.

We are learning just how close, and what transpired, with greater depth and accuracy thanks to the work of the National Security Archive at George Washington University. To mark the occasion the NSA at GWU is publishing a book based on the documentary record, to be released on November 1 2016.

One of the important background issues at the time was the deployment by the US of Pershing II Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles to Europe, as part of NATO’s “double track decision,” the other track was deployment of the land based cruise missile, in response to the Soviet deployment of the SS20, solid fuelled, IRBM.

The double track decision rocked NATO and provoked a massive peace movement in Europe. The Pershing II, the Land Based Cruise Missile, and the SS20 were eliminated in 1987 with the signing of the INF Treaty, an important part of the cold war endgame.

In 2014 the United States accused Russia of violating the INF Treaty. The US alleged that Russia was flight testing a missile with range between 500 and 5,500 kilometres, which is an INF violation. There have been allegations of INF violations prior to this, but these were kinda spurious. For example, going purely from memory which can be foolhardy, Russia alleged that the Bush administration’s projected deployment of ground based midcourse missile interceptors to Poland would have amounted to an INF violation.

The 2014 allegation was much more serious. Speculation abounded as to what precisely the Russians were alleged to have done, Washington did not release a terrible amount of data, and secondly what precisely was being flight tested. Analysts quickly converged on a consensus, of sorts. Namely, at issue was flight testing of a land based variant of the Kalibr sea launched cruise missile.

There are several variants within the Kalibr family, but it appears that the land based version, assuming there is one, is about 8 metres long, is 0.53m in diameter, has a subsonic pre-terminal phase and a supersonic terminal velocity and a range of approx 2,500km. It would also be manoeuvrable, important from a BMD perspective. The missile can be armed with a nuclear warhead.

This was, in a way, confirmed by the State Department in September 2015

It was a little more than one year ago that the United States announced that Russia was in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The Russian system is a state-of-the-art ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) that Russia has tested at ranges capable of threatening most of European continent and our allies in Northeast Asia.

State does not state explicitly here that at issue is a land based variant of the Kalibr, and this is the working assumption of most analysts.

Pavel Podvig, in June 2015, had suggested that the violation consisted of a land based test of the sea launched cruise missile

The treaty also allows the parties to test their sea-launched cruise missiles from land, as long as the trials are conducted from a fixed launcher at a site that is used solely for testing. And here is where Russia came into conflict with the treaty: It either tested its cruise missile from a launcher that is not “fixed,” or from one that was used for another purpose at some point.

Quite recently the US alleged that the violation of the INF Treaty is much more serious than hitherto thought. Essentially Washington is alleging that the tempo of testing is moving into higher gear

Russia appears to be moving ahead with a program to produce a ground-launched cruise missile despite the Obama administration’s protests that the weapon violates a landmark arms control agreement, according to American officials and lawmakers…

…American officials are now expressing concerns that Russia is producing more missiles than are needed to sustain a flight-test program, spurring fears that the Kremlin is moving to build a force that could ultimately be deployed.Information about the Russian program was provided by American officials on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing classified intelligence assessments.

The US has called for a meeting of the INF Treaty’s Special Verification Commission, which are rare.

Thus far the response of the Obama administration has been measured, and Russia continues to claim it does not want to walk from the INF Treaty (although statements of discontent with the INF Treaty have been made and they have a long progeny).

That said, the Pentagon has developed a briefing of possible military responses to any Russian land based cruise missile deployment. It would be a pity if we see a repeat of the Euromissiles controversy of the late 1970s and early 1980s. We only need recall Able Archer 83. Conservative hawks are calling for a response, and one of the pillars of the argument for a robust response is a definite rewriting of history.

It is said that the INF Treaty was made possible by the Pershing II and Land Based Cruise Missile deployment in Europe. President George HW Bush stated as much, as quoted in this celebratory ode to the Pershing II from Lockheed Martin. That is, it is received wisdom that Pershing II so spooked Moscow that they embraced the double zero option of the US-NATO so they could be done with it.

Even Pavel Podvig in the article linked above makes this claim, even though he should know better.

This view is as manifestly false as it is dangerous. Gorbachev changed Moscow’s position on the double zero option to outflank the Reagan administration. The Reaganites calculated that Moscow could not agree to double zero, and the offer was made to be rejected thus allowing Washington to demonstrate to a restive and highly alarmed European public that the US was committed to peace and arms control.

By accepting double zero Gorbachev gave Reagan little option but to acquiesce to the INF Treaty. Gorbachev was *not* spooked by Pershing II into accepting double zero, rather Gorbachev wanted to kick start arms control in support of perestroika.

Putin will not be spooked into reembracing the INF Treaty by a similar US deployment in Europe, should matters come to this, which hopefully they won’t.

Say Russia does deploy a land based cruise missile capable of striking European targets. One may well ask, why?

As Hans Kristensen points out the Kalibr sea based variant fits the bill from an operational perspective

The conventional Kalibr version used in Syria appears to have a range of up to 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles). It is possible, but unknown, that the nuclear version has a longer range, possibly more than 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles). The existing nuclear land-attack sea-launched cruise missile (SS-N-21) has a range of more than 2,800 kilometers (the same as the old AS-15 air-launched cruise missile).

The Russian navy is planning to deploy the Kalibr widely on ships and submarines in all its five fleets: the Northern Fleet on the Kola Peninsula; the Baltic Sea Fleet in Kaliningrad and Saint Petersburg; the Black Sea Fleet bases in Sevastopol and Novorossiysk; the Caspian Sea Fleet in Makhachkala; and the Pacific Fleet bases in Vladivostok and Petropavlovsk…

…With a range of 2,000 kilometers the Russian navy could target facilities in all European NATO countries without even leaving port (except Spain and Portugal), most of the Middle East, as well as Japan, South Korea, and northeast China including Beijing (see map below).

What gives?

I think, in part, we can go back to the Euromissiles controversy. Land based cruise missiles in a world devoid of the INF Treaty would be controversial in Europe, and might split NATO between states wanting some type of rerun of the double track and those against, most likely along “new Europe” versus “old Europe” lines.

Nothing more would demonstrate the notion that NATO is not and cannot be the means of achieving common security in Europe than a return to the Euromissile days of yesteryear.

Therein lies a paradox. The more NATO expands its geographic reach and its mission, to facilitate what Vladimir Putin referred to as the “relentless pursuit” of US geopolitical interests, the greater the peril to Europe. We survived Able Archer once but that is no guarantee that we will do so again.

The Europeans might decide that they don’t want their continent to be a nuclear armed bazaar that threatens every European man, woman and child once more.

For Washington, just like in the early 1980s, that would be a problem.