The US military tested Thursday a conventional missile that was previously banned by the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty that the Trump administration exited earlier this year, citing Russian violations.
“The Department of Defense conducted a flight test of a conventionally-configured ground-launched ballistic missile at approximately 8:30 a.m. Pacific Time, today, Dec. 12, 2019, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Robert Carver told CNN in a statement.
The test comes just two days after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Washington for talks with President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. During the visit, Lavrov criticized the US decision to leave the INF Treaty and urged Washington to renew the New START Treaty, the last remaining nuclear arms control pact between Russia and the United States.
Carver said that the missile tested Thursday “terminated in the open ocean after more than 500 kilometers of flight. Data collected and lessons learned from this test will inform the Department of Defense’s development of future intermediate-range capabilities.”
The 1987 INF Treaty banned land-based ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and missile launchers with ranges of 500 to 1,000 kilometers, but the US and NATO have long accused Russia of testing and fielding missiles that were in violation of the pact.
This is the second test of an intermediate range land-based missile by the US since it left the INF Treaty. The US military launched a land-based cruise missile in August that would also have been prohibited.
The US and its NATO allies have said that Moscow has already fielded such a missile, the SSC-8/9M729. Russia has denied fielding an intermediate missile and has blamed the US for the treaty’s demise.
“We have directed the attention of our partners at the negative consequences of the US stepping out of the INF Treaty,” Lavrov said Tuesday during a news conference with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington.
Lavrov said Russia was announcing “a unilateral moratorium on deploying such missiles and they will not be deployed up until then and in those regions, up until the point where the similar systems appear, the American systems appear.”
The Russian foreign minister said that “suggestion was made to our Western partners, including the US, for such a moratorium to become mutual. This offer remains on the table.”
China, which was not party to the INF Treaty, also fields a significant number of intermediate range missiles.
The development of a new American intermediate range missile has been opposed by some members of Congress. The recently passed National Defense Authorization Act “prohibits the procurement and deployment of new ground launched INF-range missiles in fiscal year 2020 and requires information on the analysis of alternatives to such new missiles, basing options and foreign countries consulted, including NATO” according to the bill’s summary.
Asked Thursday if the test meant that the US will deploy intermediate range missiles, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told reporters at the Pentagon “once we develop intermediate range missiles and if my commanders require them, then we will work closely and consult closely with our allies in Europe, Asia and elsewhere with regard to any possible deployments.”
But there is also concern that America’s European and Asian allies would be unwilling to host intermediate range missiles if the US sought to deploy them to counter Russian or Chinese deployments.