The United States could begin research and development on weapons previously barred by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, according to multiple US officials – a move likely to play into concerns about a new nuclear arms race.
Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs Andrea Thompson on Wednesday suggested that the Defense Department would begin research and development on conventional weapons systems.
“As we mentioned with the suspension announcement and intent to withdraw, now the Department of Defense will be able to conduct those research and development activities that they hadn’t because we’d been complying. So DOD will start those steps on the systems that they couldn’t before,” she said during a media briefing.
Thompson suggested there were no plans to deploy those systems to Europe – a move that was also barred under the INF treaty. Undersecretary for Defense Policy John Rood also said Wednesday there were no plans for such a deployment.
“We don’t have any plans right now and aren’t contemplating deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe or anything of that nature. That’s not what we’re thinking about right now,” he said.
Rood said that the United States is “going to look at our options” in the twilight of the INF Treaty. Both the US and Russia intend to fully withdraw from the deal in six months.
“The United States has been in full compliance with the treaty, and so we don’t have a intermediate range system or something like that that we would, that we’re talking about deploying at this time,” he said at a discussion on the 2019 US Missile Defense review at the Hudson Institute. “We’re going to look at our options in this regard.”
“We’re going to have to see how we adapt our defense posture in response to that new reality,” he said.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu also pledged to develop new land-based cruise and land-based hypersonic missiles in the next two years, according to Russian state media outlet TASS.
Asked whether the US intends to respond to these developments, Thompson said, “The US doesn’t do things based on reactions for Russia.”
“We take actions that will support and defend the security of the American people, whatever that takes. We’ll develop systems and we’ll continue to refine and innovate those systems that increase the security of the American people,” she said.
The comments from the US and Russian officials are likely to contribute to concerns that the global arms infrastructure is crumbling and might be replaced by a new nuclear and conventional arms race.
“We are heading into a direction we have not been in in 40 years: no arms control limits or rules that we are both following, and that is very dangerous,” Lynn Rusten, a senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council during the Obama administration and now a vice president at the Washington, DC-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, said after the INF announcement last week.
Thompson sought to assuage some of those concerns by pointing the partnership between the US and its allies on next steps and its commitment to nonproliferation.
“For the control of nuclear arms, there is no change for the United States. We continue to uphold our obligations and the standards that we’ve set,” she said. “I just returned from the P5 in Beijing where we talked about the importance of nonproliferation and the standards for our nuclear weapons and our nuclear programs. I had those discussions with my Chinese counterpart, my Russian counterpart, British and French. So those standards remain unchanged. A steadfast commitment to upholding our obligations with that.”
But the long-standing concerns are driven in part by political currents: many observers point to national security adviser John Bolton’s well-known hostility to treaties he sees as limiting US power and his dismissal of what he has called “the church of arms control.”
Bolton was a driver behind President George W. Bush’s 2002 decision to unilaterally withdraw the US from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which limited the US and the then-Soviet Union to deploying no more than a single ballistic missile defense system.
Bolton was once again in a position of influence as the US announced on February 1 that it would suspend involvement in the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty because of Russia’s ongoing non-compliance. And there is concern that he could prove equally as damaging to the New START treaty, a US-Russia nuclear arms reduction treaty that expires in 2021. New START limits the number of nuclear weapons Washington and Moscow can deploy and gives each side the chance to inspect the other’s nuclear facilities up to 18 times a year.
“He has been equally hostile towards the New Start Treaty in the past,” Thomas Countryman, a former acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security under Obama and the current Arms Control Association board chairman, told CNN last week. He added that he would be extremely concerned about the potential for an arms race if that treaty goes away.
Thompson said both the US and Russia were complying by the terms of that treaty and said it was “is a relatively simple treaty to extend.”
The INF’s likely disintegration is just the latest development that concerns arms control proponents who point to Russia’s decisions to modernize its nuclear weapons program and to develop the ground-launched cruise missile that violated the INF.
They also flag worrying developments in the US, including the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement, though US intelligence services and the United Nations say Iran was complying with its terms.
The US is also significantly modernizing its nuclear arsenal, a step President Barack Obama took in order to win Republican support in 2011 for ratifying the New START Treaty. That treaty – the last remaining agreement between the US and Russia to limit strategic offensive nuclear weapons – expires in 2021 and President Donald Trump has indicated that he’s skeptical about renewing it, despite Russian interest.
The nuclear modernization program Obama began locks the US into maintaining New START numbers of warheads for the foreseeable future, meaning there will be no foreseeable reduction in the arsenal, and Trump has doubled down.
The Trump administration’s 2017 Nuclear Posture Review would fund two new tactical nuclear weapons, which groups such as the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists say could lower the threshold for using nuclear weapons.
CNN’s Alla Eshchenko contributed to this report.