Falling of the Column of Strategic Stability

By Alexander Ermakov 

After a period of diplomatic crisis and construction of media-propagandistic argumentation, the USA declared the decision to withdraw from the Treaty on intermediate and short range missiles (INF Treaty). This opens the way for development of new classes of armaments, threatens with a new upsurge of armament race and, in perspective, – with missile crises in Europe and South-East Asia. 


BGM-109G "Gryphon" 

The "New defence order" (No.2 (49), 2018) has already put the question: whether the INF Treaty will remain in force? Less than a year passed since, and the answer we can give is most probably negative.

The current period of sharp aggravation of American claims, which began from publication, in February 2017, of an article in “New York Times” with declaration that Russia had started operational deployment of a mobile system-“violator” with cruise missiles SSC-8, and was followed by provocative legislative initiatives, comes to its logical end. Last year, included in the “National Defence Authorization Act” (NDAA) of the USA for fiscal year 2018 were principal provisions of the so-called “INF keeping law”, which officially confirmed accusations against Russia and approved funds allocation for development of a land-based system with cruise missile of prohibited range.

It was also declared, that the USA were committed to the INF Treaty, and all the above measures were caused by the wish to make Russia to return to abiding by the treaty, and, moreover, that a “paper” development stage was not formally prohibited. In the NDAA for fiscal year 2019, signed on August 13, 2018, in addition to the measures of the past year, there appeared a requirement for the White House to submit, before January 15, 2019, a report for special-purpose committees of the Congress. This report has to state whether Russia continued to violate the INF Treaty and, if so, whether the USA were restricted by the Treaty provisions. Taking into account that Moscow denied, and continues to deny, the fact of violations itself, this looked like a preparation before the final stage of withdrawal from the Treaty. However, Donald Trump decided not to wait for winter holidays.

Shortly before the visit of the national security adviser, John Bolton, to Moscow, which took place on October 21–22, the White House had voiced the decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty without any reports and further political games; first, by means of “leak” into the same “New York Times”, and then in Trump's public speaking. In the course of his visit to Moscow, Bolton, a known opponent of the USA participation in agreements on armament limitation, confirmed these plans for Russian authorities and media. Probably, this long-awaited for and, at the same time, unexpected Trump's decision was associated with the pre-election campaign (before the “mid-term” elections of the governors and the Congress members, on November 6) and with a wish to show his resoluteness in relations with Moscow in defence of American interests. John Bolton

In the world, the American plans were perceived extremely icily not only by Russia and China, but also by allies in Europe. Among NATO countries, only Great Britain gave steady encouragement to the USA, the other countries appealed to continue the American-Russian dialog and keep the INF Treaty as a guarantee against the new crisis of Euro-missiles. At present, there are no pre-conditions of the USA getting an unanimous resolution of NATO for future missiles placement in Europe, and if such plans arise, then, probably, agreements will be between two parties, for example, with Poland and/or Romania. Anyway, John Bolton declared in Moscow that at the moment the USA did not have plans to deploy medium range missiles in Europe.

It would be no wonder and can really be true, that the real reasons of the USA withdrawal from the INF Treaty, probably, lay, first of all, in the field of growing contradictions with China, which has achieved great success in this scope by developing a wide variety of cruise and ballistic missiles of medium range including high-precision and conventionally tipped ones. But the USA, being restricted by the INF Treaty, can set against only sea- and air-based subsonic cruise missiles, which have both pros and contras in comparison with land-based ones, and ballistic missiles – intercontinental and submarines’ missiles, nuclear powered only, i.e. with extremely restricted use.

Although, at the time when this article is being written, the USA haven’t sent yet an official notice to the rest of the Treaty parties, it is expected in the nearest future. Upon expiration of six months after this moment, the USA will not be restricted with the INF statements any more, and the Treaty, in practice, will be terminated. Russia, evidently, will withdraw from it simultaneously, while the rest of participants joined the treaty, probably, by chance (though the official withdrawal of Ukraine is to be expected).


Systems of Strife 

Claims of the American party against Russia are concentrated, first of all, on the land-based mobile system with cruise missile SSC-8 (Russian name — 9М729), which, supposedly, has prohibited range. According to the American party declarations, in winter of 2017, the military forces of Russia deployed two brigade sets of these systems. No newer information on production and deployment was further delivered. Photos of the missile systems or missiles and other information, which would confirm the accusations one way or the other, were not published in an open access, and even to allies in NATO the data were issued in small doses. According to leaks to German media, the basis of the evidence consists of “satellite images, tapped telephone conversations and money transfers”.

The Russian party confirms the fact of 9М729 existence, however it declares that the missile corresponds to the INF Treaty provisions. Anyway, there is also no information on deployment, characteristics, or images published. Russia has counter-claims against the USA, which are directed, first of all, to the fact, that Mk.41 type launchers used in land-based systems of missile defence system “Aegis Ashore” installed in Poland and Romania can be used to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles. The American party replies to these claims by assurances, that “Aegis Ashore” systems are not equipped with software required to use the cruise missiles. Apart from that, the Russian party criticizes the USA for the use of missile-training targets in testing the missile defence systems, which, although having been manufactured with compliance to the INF provisions, are considered as attempts for “keeping competences in MRBM development”. And formal claims sound periodically – to the Russian party's opinion, strike UAVs meet the definition of cruise missile in the INF Treaty text.

The Treaty on intermediate range and short range missiles was signed by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan on December 8, 1987, and came into force on June 1, 1988

The Treaty on intermediate range and short range missiles was signed by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan on December 8, 1987, and came into force on June 1, 1988

Missiles for Peace after the INF Treaty (4)

So what is the armament systems, for development of which the USA withdraw from the thirty-years long treaty? At the moment, we can speak about two current programs.

First, it is a mobile system with non-nuclear cruise missile, development of which was stated in the NDAA’18. It can be said, that it is about reincarnation of the BGM-109G Gryphon system – a ground version of Tomahawk, which, in 1980s, the USA had a chance to deploy in Europe in the frame of “Euro-missile crisis” and then dismantled as a result of the INF Treaty signing. Details on the course of development were not published, but, on the basis of the task set in the law, one can presume that some missile of existing ones will be selected as a missile for the system. The most probable choice will be either the same Tomahawk, or the aircraft missile AGM-158 JASSM.

The modern modification of Tomahawk, Block IV TLAM-E, has the range of up to 1,600 km, along with improved guidance system, the capability of retargeting during flight, and, being a missile for surface ships, can be adjusted to ground launch with no troubles. JASSM, as an aircraft missile, seems to be less suitable choice, however, as part of promotion of its ship modification LRASM to the Navy, it has already passed officially the cycle of tests, showing a capability of launching from ground launchers (both vertical of Mk41 type and ramps). A model of patrol boat equipped with launcher for four AGM-158 was demonstrated; it is worthy to note that, by experts’ estimates, the weight of such a launcher would significantly exceed the boat carrying capacity, but would fell perfectly within carrying capacity of typical wheeled chassis of HEMTT family. Flying range of JASSM-ER modification is approximately 1,000 km (in the process of JASSM-XR development it can reach up to 1,600 km). Th advantage of AGM-158 is its stealth. Besides, as strange as it could be, its “aircraft” past can be considered as an advantage, too – according to spheres of influence in the US armed forces, a land-based system with cruise missiles will most certainly go to the air defence, for which purchasing of its “own” missile, not “naval” Tomahawk, is preferable, if the choice is possible.

The second program’s details appeared in the second half of 2018. It is development of a new MRBM for the USA Army (it also traditionally has ballistic missiles of intermediate and short range) under a code name “Strategic Fires Missile” / “Operational Fires (OpFires)”. It is known, that in November 2018, DARPA and the USA Army signed the contract for concept development of a prospective missile system with three companies: “Aerojet Rocketdyne”, “Exquadrum”, and “Sierra Nevada”. In the end of 2020, tests at ground stands should start, and test launches are planned for 2022.

The new MRBM should, in practice, become a Pershing 3.0 improved in all respects, with range up to 2,250 km, and gliding hypersonic high-accuracy non-nuclear destructive warhead. The latter is presented as the main feature of the system; it is positioned as a principally new type of weapon. This, probably, is caused by “advertisement” considerations and by unwillingness to demonstrate so obviously the preparation to withdrawal from the INF Treaty. Moreover, American military specialists, before the Trump's decision, even said that such a system did not fall under the Treaty restrictions, as, if to follow strictly its definitions, its position is intermediate between ballistic missile and cruise one, and it was neither the former nor the latter. It is worth to note, that the USA Army in 2011 conducted tests of demonstrator of similar gliding combat unit, when it launched it by means of ballistic missile Polaris A3 to the range of 3,700 km. Unfortunately, this episode seems to have gone unnoticed by Russian diplomats concentrated on claims against nearly harmless UAVs and missile-training targets.

First of all, deployment of these systems against China and Asia, as well as in the Middle East, should be expected – there’s no reasons to think that peace will be restored there. It is clear, that Russia is most concerned about stationing of American missiles in Eastern Europe, first of all, ballistic ones with a short arrival time. If confrontation between Russia and the West persists in the coming years, this is, of course, possible, but it would be an extremely escalation step, which can split European allies. The USA will rather try to prepare infrastructure for rapid deployment of the missiles in a number of countries.

Counter Measures

How can, should, and will Russia respond? First, it is evident, that after the USA withdrawal from the INF Treaty, Moscow will declare that it no more considers itself being restricted by the INF Treaty provisions. In the previous years, by the mouth of highest rank persons, it spoke many times about the unconformity of the INF Treaty as a lot of new nuclear-armed countries appeared of in Eurasia. It is worth to note that, for the last two years, the criticism in regard of the INF Treaty was reduced sharply, that indirectly shows the wish to keep it in force.

The fastest and simplest solution for Russia would be development of a land-based system with a cruise missile of Kalibr family – luckily, the missile is ready and has been tested, and a “set piece” is available in the form of onshore missile system Club-M (more details see in No.4 (51), 2018). Minimum further development will permit to equip it with 3М-14 missiles with a range of at least 2,000 km, while one launcher can carry up to six missiles. By the way, Club-M systems were not purchased for the Russian armed forces and were not too actively presented in exhibitions in the last years, probably, in order not to provoke the USA.

The missile, in this case, will not differ much from Kalibrs of surface ships and submarines, but land-based systems will have a number of advantages for Russia. First of all, a hypothetical brigade consisting of six launchers with six loading machines with stand-by ammunition load can launch 72 missiles in one salvo (in terms of targets destroyed at long range by subsonic missiles). While the total salvo of the whole Russian Navy, from Black and Baltic Seas to Pacific Ocean, is less than 200 missiles. And ship vertical launchers can be reloaded in the shore only! The Navy missile power is built-up with difficulties; even small missile ships have problems with propulsion engines, to say nothing of larger ships where problems with ADMS and economic issues are added. Other important advantages of the land-based systems are their relatively low price and highest combat stability with ground deconcentration in strategic rear.

If to speak of a response to “Strategic Fires Missile” / “Operational Fires (OpFires)”, then it can be lightweight RS-26 modified for use of high-precision gliding combat units. Some information is available, that it has been developed with the view of this possibility. Development of RS-26 was recently stopped, probably, not only due to optimization of expences, but also lest to provoke the USA for withdrawal from the INF Treaty once more. The USA expressed claims against it, suspecting that it was actually a MRBM, as it has once been tested for intercontinental range (for 5,800 km only). Now, in response to American works on development, it will be possible “to appease their expectations”.

However, in security issues, a diplomatic component should be taken into account along with military-technical one. First of all, the efforts should be taken to assure Europe – to convince it in the fact, that the INF Treaty breakup is purely American initiative, to guarantee that deployment of missiles against targets in Europe (for example, not to deploy them to the west of Ural) is possible only as a response to deployment of the American systems. Also it is undesirable to become responsible for nuclear arms race – at this stage, American prospective systems, at least officially, are non-nuclear, and Russia should behave in the same way. The ideal result would be absence of American MRBMs in Western Europe (cruise missiles can be tolerated, as the USA and NATO have a lot of sea and air carriers, so that they will not change the overall picture).

The next decade is covered not with the “war fog”, luckily, but with the “uncertainty fog”. And we come to it in the conditions of breakup of the second of the three fundamental documents (the first one being the ABM Treaty on the missile defence systems) in the field of nuclear-missile armaments. The third one – START is also under the threat. We cannot but hope, that in the coming years the politicians, military, and expert community will be successful in outlining a new system of agreements and treaties to guarantee strategic stability and safety.


©New defence order. Strategy | 01 | 2019  


Our partners