David Wright: Why Did the Pentagon Conduct a Treaty-Violating Test?

The US decision to conduct this test appears to be “spherically stupid”—stupid from any direction you look at it.

Aug. 21, 2019 – On Sunday, the Pentagon announced that it had launched a Tomahawk cruise missile with a range “more than 500 kilometers” from a ground-based launcher at a test site in California.

The purpose, it said, was to use “data collected and lessons learned from this test” to “inform the Department of Defense’s development of future intermediate-range capabilities.”

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The real purpose of the test, however, appears to be to underscore the US decision to leave the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by conducting a launch that would violate the terms of the treaty. INF prohibited all US and Russian land-based missiles, or launchers for those missiles, with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km.

Was this really needed?

Some people have argued that the United States needs to develop these weapons to fill a “gap” in its capabilities. But since the US has thousands of cruise missiles of different kinds on planes, ships, and submarines, it’s hard to make the case that launching one from the ground fills a meaningful “gap” of any kind.

For example, the US fired more than 100 Tomahawk missiles from ships at targets in Syria in 2017 and 2018. (While Tomahawks were designed to carry either nuclear or conventional explosives, they currently only carry non-nuclear warheads.)

Something isn’t right

Two things about Sunday’s test seem particularly odd:

First, the test ironically seemed to confirm concerns Russia has raised for years about a possible US violation of the INF Treaty. In particular, Russia has noted that the US missile defense system in Romania and soon to be placed in Poland uses ground-based launchers for its interceptors, and that those launchers could also be used for firing offensive missiles like the Tomahawk. This interoperability would allow the missile defense sites in Romania and Poland to be quickly converted to offensive sites.

While the United States has consistently denied this possibility, Sunday’s test indeed used the Mark-41 launch tube that is part of those missile defense systems. The Pentagon insists the system is “configured” differently to launch Tomahawks rather than interceptors, but the difference appears to be in software and not hardware. Russia would not know how long it would take to make such a change, or whether the change had already taken place.

So while US concerns about Russian violations of the INF Treaty appear to be valid, Sunday’s test appeared to verify that Russian concerns about US violations were also valid.

Second, since this system does not add any meaningful new capabilities to the US arsenal, the primary result of the test may be to increase tensions with Russia and China and potentially spur a competitive arms buildup. Doing that for no particular gain seems senseless, and potentially costly and dangerous.

The US decision to conduct this test appears to be what we sometimes call “spherically stupid”—stupid from any direction you look at it.

David Wright, physicist and co-director of the UCS Global Security Program, is an established expert on the technical aspects of arms control, particularly those related to missile defense systems , missile proliferation, and space weapons.
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