By Wes O’Donnell, Managing Editor InMilitary & InCyberDefense. Veteran U.S. Army & U.S. Air Force.
In the mid-1970s, Russia developed and introduced its intermediate-range missile, the RSD-10. Known by NATO as the SS-20 Sabre, the missile could hit a target up to 3100 miles away and was built to carry a nuclear payload.
At 3100 miles, the missile didn’t have the range to hit the continental United States, however, it could pose a significant risk to America’s European allies in NATO. In response, the United States developed its own intermediate-range missiles, the Gryphon and the Pershing II.
America’s intermediate missiles posed a significant problem for the Soviet Union. With an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) fired from the States, or a nuclear missile fired from an American boomer submarine, the Soviet Union would have, in theory, close to an hour to respond in kind.
An intermediate-range nuclear missile, however, if fired from a U.S. ally in Europe, could strike Moscow in only 8 minutes. This gave NATO a potential “first strike” capability that could destroy Moscow’s command and control before Russia could react.
As a result, Russia was very keen to negotiate to outlaw these medium-range missiles and in 1987, President Reagan and Premier Gorbachev met to do just that.
Known as the Treaty Between The United States Of America And The Union Of Soviet Socialist Republics On The Elimination Of Their Intermediate-Range And Shorter-Range Missiles (the INF Treaty), the agreement banned ballistic missiles from 310 miles to 3,420 miles.
This ban of intermediate-range missiles removed a crucial link in the chain of escalation, helping prevent a potential regional war from turning into a global war.
The INF Treaty Today
In 2014, the Obama Administration began to quietly raise the alarm to its NATO allies that Russia was in violation of the medium-range missile ban. From the State Department’s 2014 Compliance Report:
“The United States has determined that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations under the INF Treaty not to possess, produce, or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.”
U.S. intelligence had discovered that Russia was producing a medium-range cruise missile named 9M729 or Iskander-M. Naturally, Russia and its history of “Maskirovka” denied the allegations.
However, there is enough substantial evidence across both the Obama administration and the Trump administration, that the U.S. recently (February 2nd) began measures to withdraw from the INF agreement. In an America sharply divided along partisan lines, Russia’s violation and its result -America’s pending withdraw from the INF treaty- has clear bipartisan support.
What Happens Next?
Barring an outright reversal by President Putin of Russia, we’re about to enter a world where perhaps thousands of new nuclear weapons are about to be introduced. A reversal by Russia seems unlikely in an era when Putin feels emboldened enough to annex his neighbors, fight low-intensity conflicts in Ukraine and build continent-destroying weapons like the new Poseidon nuclear-tipped torpedo.
As America slowly disengages from its nearly 20-year Global War on Terror, the Department of Defense is moving to strengthen its position against its large nation-state adversaries; specifically, China and Russia. With the death of the INF treaty, we’re all about to go back to the Mutually Assured Destruction of 1986 only made much more dangerous in a world of multiple nuclear powers, cybersecurity threats and drone warfare.
Welcome to Cold War 2.0.