New missiles and old treaties

Russia tested a potentially much more lethal nuclear missile yesterday. At the same time the US seems ready to abandon hard-won current arms control treaties.

Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool Photo/via AP
Russian political and military leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, oversee the test launch of the Avangard hypersonic missile from the Defense Ministry's control room in Moscow Dec. 26. The Kremlin says it successfully hit a designated practice target in Kamchatka, 3,700 miles away.

Twenty-seven years ago Russia was destroying nuclear weapons. 

Monitor correspondent Dan Sneider was on hand at Kapustin Yar, the “windswept flatlands of the vast Russian steppe,” as he wrote in May 1991. “In a burst of orange explosive fire, the last Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missile in existence was destroyed” while US inspectors and officials looked on. 

The event ended a multi-year process that eliminated “an entire class of nuclear weapons,” a culmination of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. 

“This road was not easy,’’ Lt. Gen. Vladimir Medvedev, chief of the Soviet National Nuclear Risk Reduction Center, said at the time. “But the struggle for peace and common sense won.’’

On Dec. 4 U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States would abandon the INF Treaty within 60 days if Russia did not remove a deployment of missiles banned under the treaty. 

Russia has not agreed to do so. Instead, yesterday Mr. Putin attended the test launch of a new class of intercontinental missile capable of traveling as fast as 20 times the speed of sound (15,000 miles per hour) and able to adjust its course en route to further avoid defense systems. The hypersonic missile’s speed could leave an opponent only seconds after a launch to decide on a response.

Russia declared the test a success. The new nuclear missiles, dubbed the Avangard, will begin to be deployed in 2019 and “will reliably ensure the security of our state and of our people for decades to come,” Putin said, according to Tass, the government news service.

(The Avangard is not banned under the INF Treaty, still in place at this moment.)

The test is being taken seriously by US observers. But some questions remain, including whether Russia has developed heat shields capable of protecting the missile at such high speeds. More important, perhaps, is whether Russia will commit the rubles to build the missiles in significant numbers.

If deployed, “these missiles will trigger a new arms race for offensive superiority,” concluded Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence website, referring to hypersonic weapons in general earlier this year. China and the US are also believed to be developing such weapons, but now apparently lag behind.

Another existing missile treaty with Russia, New START, reduces deployment of strategic nuclear missile launchers by half. It expires in 2021. US National Security Adviser John Bolton hasn’t shown any enthusiasm to renew it. 

“We could end up sleepwalking into a new international arms race,” warns Richard Burt, the chief US negotiator for the original START signed with the Soviet Union in 1991. Together, he says, the US and Russia are now spending more than $1 trillion “on a new generation of nuclear arms systems.”

All this eagerness to rebuild nuclear capabilities is part of what some observers see as an emerging new or second cold war. What’s happening needs to be questioned by Congress when that body reconvenes next month.

Why can't the US move toward outlawing hypersonic missiles instead of developing them?

The US administration also needs to explain what it sees as the advantages of abandoning hard-won treaties. Presumably it is to make even better ones. And it should explain how a policy of developing ever more lethal nuclear weapons will promote more peace and stability in the world.

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