Ground-launched cruise missiles: US moves closer to action over alleged Russian breach

Ground-based intermediate nuclear-capable weapons could make an unwelcome return to Europe if a US–Russia treaty unravels.

Cruise missile launcher in Greenham Common air base. ©Getty

By Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace

As part of package of proposed measures in response to what it alleges is a Russian breach of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the US has taken a step closer to developing a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM), although with a comparatively modest amount of funding for it included in the draft annual defence-policy bill.

Moscow insists that it remains in compliance with the INF Treaty, which prohibits either country from fielding ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500–5,500km. Washington has so far said little more than it is sure that Russia has materially breached the treaty. US concern is almost certainly focused on a dual-capable cruise missile designated 9M729 by Russia and SSC-8 by NATO.

The US has shown no inclination to withdraw its allegations. If Washington is determined to pursue the matter further, it faces a series of challenges: having to convince several constituencies of the veracity of the allegations, the validity of the response options it chooses (which include the GLCM route) and the acceptability of its course of action.

The defence-policy bill included US$58 million in research and development funds, covering a number of areas related to the INF concerns. As well as the GLCM-related work, it identified ‘active defences to counter ground-launched cruise missiles’ and ‘counterforce capabilities to prevent attacks from these missiles’.

Washington appears to be trying to convince Moscow that unless it returns to compliance with the treaty the US will go ahead with the development and deployment within effective range of Russian territory of a road-mobile GLCM. If it does believe the US, Russia may consider whether it is in its interests to halt such a project. This could be achieved through either private or public channels, but would almost certainly require a volte face on the part of the Kremlin, and more than likely an agreed method of robust verification for both sides to return to the status quo ante. However, at the moment, neither side seems ready to budge from its declared positions.

So far, the US has not released publicly any of the intelligence underpinning its claim, although some may have been shared with the ‘Five Eyes’ partners: Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Assuming there is no change in approach from Moscow, and that it does not withdraw from the INF Treaty, Washington will likely need to try to further convince the wider NATO community of the rationale for its actions, and that these stand the best chance of bringing Russia back into compliance. And if deploying a new GLCM on European soil is part of the diplomatic leverage, NATO nations likely need to craft some kind of unified message over such a deployment – no small task, even if they are willing, and any lack of coherence would be exploited by Moscow.

Assuming that the US goes ahead with initial study work with regard to a GLCM, Russia may well claim this is just another example of the US and its allies’ aggressive nature, while maintaining that it has not violated the treaty. Credible or not, it is an allegation that could undermine alliance cohesion, particularly if Russia continues to deny any violation and the US declines to declassify convincing evidence that SSC-8 has been deployed.

There also remains a public hangover in some European states from the 2003 war with Iraq – that hostilities were predicated on erroneous intelligence about Baghdad’s weapons-of-mass-destruction capabilities. This might require that any intelligence made public regarding the SSC-8 be near incontrovertible.

In the years preceding the signing of the INF Treaty, the deployment of the Pershing II intermediate-range ballistic missile and the BGM-109G Gryphon GLCM in Europe provoked a public divide and protest within NATO. The deployment of these systems was in response to the Soviet Union’s recapitalisation of its own intermediate nuclear forces, including the development of the SSC-X-4 Slingshot GLCM. At the same time as the US moved to deploy the Pershing II and the BGM-109G, it also pursued arms-control talks with the Soviet Union, which was to lead to the INF Treaty and what then appeared the elimination of a class of nuclear-delivery systems.

The treaty is now in danger of unravelling, while ground-based intermediate nuclear-capable weapons may be on the brink of an unwelcome return to Europe.

This analysis originally featured on the Military Balance+, the new IISS online database that enables users in government, the armed forces and the private sector, as well as academia and the media, to make faster and better-informed decisions. The Military Balance+ allows users to customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

Back to content list