Anticipating that the U.S. may pull out of the INF treaty with Russia, the Army already has been talking to industry partners about the possibility of extending the range of a key missile they’re developing so that it could travel farther than the treaty’s limits allow.
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty banned ground-based ballistic missiles with a range of 500 to 5,000 kilometers. The Army’s longest-ranging ground missile, the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, falls well beneath that limit with a range of about 180 miles. But the Army has been looking to field a new, longer-range missile, called the Precision Strike Missile, or PrSM, by 2023. Because of the INF treaty, the current PrSM program is very specific on the range, 499 kilometers.
“We’re going to play by the rules until we’re told the rules have changed. That’s our approach on the team and the guidance from senior leaders,” said Col. John Rafferty, the director of the Army’s long-range-precision-fires cross-functional team, in a meeting with reporters at the Association of the U.S. Army’s convention, in Washington, D.C., two weeks before news broke that National Security Advisor John Bolton was alerting allies that the Trump administration may withdraw from the treaty.
By then, the Army already had been discussing extending the range of its missiles beyond the legal limitations, said Rafferty. “We have worked with our industry partners to determine what is the feasibility going farther than 499 kilometers and we believe that it’s entirely possible to go further with the current [PrSM] missile… Our discussions about advanced propulsion leads us to believe that inside the same form factor, with a change in propulsion, we could go significantly farther.”
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford said on Friday he is not yet ready to declare the treaty dead. “I’m not willing to say, what are the implications of us withdrawing from the INF because that has not, in fact, occurred, as we speak,” Dunford said at a Military Reporters & Editors conference, in Washington. “Certainly, we’ve been telegraphing that from the president’s statements about not remaining in the treaty if it’s not going to be observed by Russia. But I think the national security advisor has also said we will be consulting with our allies.”
Abrogating the treaty also opens the possibility of building even longer-ranged “strategic fires” such as rocket-boosted artillery shells and ground-launched hypersonic missiles, both of which could hit targets beyond 1,000 miles.
The Pentagon would not respond to queries last week about the collapse of the treaty. But the 1987 pact has had its detractors among some higher-ups within the military, most notably Harry Harris, the former commander of U.S. Pacific Command who is now U.S. ambassador to South Korea.
In testimony submitted to Congress last year, Harris pointed out that the Chinese Rocket Forces possessed more than 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles, almost 95 percent of which would violate the INF treaty, were China a signatory.
“Over the past two decades, China has developed numerous ground and air launched missile systems that far outrange U.S. systems. They have done this at a fraction of the cost of some of our more expensive systems. Constrained in part by our adherence to the INF treaty, the U.S. has fallen behind in our ability to match the long-range fires capabilities of the new era,” he said.
But arms control advocates, former officials, and even Russia watchers argue that the abrogation was a bad idea, even if does help the Army field a weapon with longer range in 2023.
Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center and author of Better Safe than Sorry: The Ironies of Living with the Bomb, noted that the United States is behind Russia and China in developing new ground-based cruise missiles with ranges beyond 499 kilometers. Russia has already deployed a ground-based INF-violating missile, the 9M729, — which the White House cited in announcing its intention to withdraw. “The Pentagon is working on a similar ground-launched cruise missile, but will have a difficult time finding a basing country in Europe or Asia,” Krepon said. “Even if Trump can find a taker, this move makes little sense when sea-based and air-delivered options are in play. The Congress would be wise to kill the ground-based cruise missile initiative in R&D.”
Michael Kofman, a research scientist at CNA Corporation and a fellow at the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington,, said bowing out of the INF “unties Russian hands to pursue breakout capability in ground-based long-range cruise missiles and [intermediate-range ballistic missiles], while the U.S. is unlikely to deploy similar such systems in the near future, especially on the European continent.”
Said Kofman, “The U.S. has no good choices here and has misspent years of time in a failed policy to bring Russia back into compliance, which is not going to happen. So the most important determination to be made is whether or not keeping the treaty at all constrains Russia, because the INF is, and remains, highly favorable to the United States as an arms control agreement.”
A former State Department official agreed that withdrawal from the treaty would be counterproductive to the aim of curbing Russian missile proliferation, since, after the required notice of six months, “Russia will be completely unconstrained to build as many intermediate-range missiles as they want to.”
The official said the move would endanger Russia’s immediate neighbors, such as Ukraine and other Western allies in Eastern Europe.