The United States military-industrial complex which drives America’s foreign agenda needed a justification for Washington’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and, in this posting, I will take a more detailed look at the excuse being touted; Russia’s Novator 9M729 cruise missile.
Let’s look at some important background first. Under the terms of the 1987 INF Treaty, an intermediate-range missile is defined as a ground-launched ballistic missile that has a range of between 1000 and 5500 kilometres and a short-range missile as a ground-launched ballistic missile with a range of between 500 and 1000 kilometres. When the agreement was signed, both the United States and the Soviet Union were required to eliminate and permanently forswear all of their unclear and conventional ground-launched and cruise missiles with ranges falling from 500 to 5500 kilometres. Here is a map showing the deployment of missiles that fell under the INF Treaty on November 1, 1987:
The INF Treaty also put into place an inspection and verification protocol. Both states were allowed to inspect and inventory each other’s intermediate-range nuclear forces 30 to 90 days after the agreement went into force to establish a baseline for future inspections. The treaty also allowed the signing nations to conduct up to 20 short-notice inspections per year at designated sites during the first three years after the treaty was signed as a means of guaranteeing that no new missiles were being built. According to a recent report from the United States Director of National Intelligence, a total of over 2600 missiles were destroyed.
The INF Treaty has been undergoing a slow demise since the mid-2000s. Russia argues that, under the terms of the treaty, it is not allowed to develop weapons that China is allowed to field, increasing their vulnerability to an attack. In July 2014, the U.S. Department of State found Russia to be in violation of the treaty by producing and testing a ground-launched cruise missile, now known as the 9M729 aka SSC-8, an accusation which Russia argues has no merit since it does not meet the 500 kilometre cutoff established in the INF Treaty as you will see later in this posting.
Let’s take a closer look at the 9M729/SSC-8 cruise missile. Development of the 9M729 began in the mid-2000s and flight testing began in 2008. It was first test-fired in July 2014 and again on September 2, 2015.
Here is what Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov had to say about the 9M729 on November 26, 2018 and how it relates to the INF Treaty:
After the United States finally focused the discussion on a specific missile with the 9M729 index, a “technical” information exchange ensued, during which we received several questionnaires. Many questions focused on things that were far from Russia’s obligations under the Treaty and were reasonably perceived by us as an attempt to get a glimpse of our progress in rocket technology. Nevertheless, we considered it possible to allow in good faith some transparency with respect to the 9M729 missile, even though it does not fall within the scope of the INF Treaty because of its range. In doing so, we largely went beyond what is required of us under the INF Treaty.
In particular, we informed the United States that the timeframe it previously specified for testing activities regarding the 9M729 missile was incorrect. We provided the actual timeframe and clarifications on Washington’s erroneous ideas about the types of launchers that were used in testing.” (my bold)
Here is a quote from a November 30, 2018 report given by the Director of National Intelligence, Daniel Coats, on the testing of the 9M729:
“While the INF Treaty bans all ground-based missile systems within the prohibited range, it allows you to test missiles from a fixed launcher as long as you do not intend to base them on the ground. For example, basing missiles on ship or aircraft. Aware of this treaty provision, Russia initially flight tested the 9M729 – a ground based missile – to distances well over 500 kilometers (km) from a fixed launcher. Russia then tested the same missile at ranges below 500 kilometres from a mobile launcher. By putting the two types of tests together, Russia was able to develop a missile that flies to the intermediate ranges prohibited by the INF Treaty and launches from a ground-mobile platform. Russia probably assumed parallel development – tested from the same site – and deployment of other cruise missiles that are not prohibited by the INF Treaty would provide sufficient cover for its INF violation.” (my bold)
Obviously, there is a very significant disagreement between Russia and the United States over the 9M729’s flight distance capability with the United States claiming that the missile has a range that falls within the INF Treaty “no fly zone” of 500 to 5500 kilometres and Russia claiming that it falls short of the 500 kilometre cutoff point.
Let’s look at a bit of technical background on the 9M729. According to Global Security and Missile Threat, the ground-launched and road-mobile 9M729 cruise missile is being built by NPO Novator, a Yekaterinburg-based defense company and is capable of carrying a single 450 kilogram warhead. The missile is likely a ground-launched variant of the Russian Navy’s 3m-54 Kalibr missile or the Iskander-K and an iteration of the 9M728 cruise missile. Here is a graphic from a January 2019 Russian Ministry of Defense presentation showing the differences between the 9M278 and 9M729 from a recent presentation by Russia’s Defense Ministry:
The 9M729 is equipped with a starting solid propellant which fires after the missile is launched. The guidance system was developed by Russian defense manufacturer GosNIPP. The control system and guidance is inertial with Doppler sensors correcting drift angle and uses active radar homing in its final stage. The missile is approximately 6 to 8 metres in length and 0.533 metres in diameter. Its mobile launcher closely resembles the INF-compliant Iskander-M TEL which would complicate future arms control verification.
In January 2019, Russia’s Defense Ministry put the 9M729 on display for foreign military attaches and held a briefing on the missile which was not attended by the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, the European Union or NATO despite being invited. Here is a video from the presentation which shows the missile and launch vehicle which can carry four 9M729 missiles rather than two for the 9M728 variant:
If you wish to watch the entire briefing with Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister and General Lieutenant Matveevsky , it is available here.
This “pissing contest” between the United States and Russia over the INF Treaty should concern all of us. While the American defense industry will, no doubt, enrich itself even further thanks to the removal of the constraints on developing and manufacturing medium-range ballistic missiles and their accompanying launch vehicles and warheads, it is ultimately all of us who will pay for this escalation through our taxes and through the growing threat of a nuclear war that no one will win.
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