The Russian cruise missile 9M729 has yet again attracted both attention and criticism from the United States. Russian missile systems over the years have been criticized by the US on the grounds that some of them violated the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The INF Treaty bans ground launched nuclear capable ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 500-5000kms.
The 9M729, or SSC-8 ground launched cruise missile (GLCM), has also been accused by the US of violating the INF Treaty. But the US is now in the withdrawal process from the treaty.
One of the reasons why the United States decided to suspend its obligations under the treaty is the SSC-8 cruise missile. Russia in January 2019 put parts of the missile on display for a foreign audience for the first time to be more transparent with its missile capabilities, to prove they do not violate any arms control regime that Russia is a party to. These parts included launcher canisters and a transporter erector launcher (TEL), but Moscow did not display the missile as such. This is because the US set Russia a February 2, 2019 deadline to abide by the INF Treaty. This move by the US deterred Russia, and instead in March there were reports that Russian President Vladmir Putin had signeda decree that would also suspend Russia’s participation in the INF Treaty.
However, in 2018, there were reports that “Russia initially flight tested the 9M720 ground based missile to distances over 500kms from a fixed launcher. Russia then tested the same missile at ranges below 500kms from a mobile launcher. By putting the two types of tests together, Russia was able to develop a missile that flies to the intermediate ranges prohibited by the treaty and launches from a ground mobile platform.” Canister launched missiles and TELs make the missile more mobile in nature, thereby increasing its survivability and increasing its chances of being able to retaliate better. Russia also refused to allow the US to carry out an inspection of its missile systems on the grounds that the US refused it permission to carry out inspections on many submarines under other arms control treaties. Russia also raised concerns regarding US missile defense interceptor launchers, namely the MK41 that Moscow suspects could be used to launch nuclear capable cruise missiles of INF range.
Further complicating strategic stability is the fact that the missile is capable of carrying very powerful warheads and improvised guidance system. The INF allows ground testing of missiles to be used by the air force and navy, and Dan Coats, Director of US National Intelligence, accused Russia of testing this ground launched missile so it would be used by the navy/air force. Again, the fact the Kremlin did not display the missile system in January 2019 further raises concerns on the claims made by Russia.
The missile is estimated to have a range of 2,500kms and is a direct to threat to the European continent. It is estimated to be an improvised version of the 9M728 missile. However, the Kremlin claims there is no way to modifythe system. Russia also clarified that contrary to the US accusation it had tested this missile at the Kapustin Yar missile site, it had only tested intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at the site, which do not fall under INF Treaty.
The Russians have time and again raised concerns on the US missile defense system in Europe under the European phased adaptive approach (EPAA). Although the US maintained the EPAA was aimed at countering missile threats from Iran and North Korea, the Russians always felt it was meant for countering its nuclear deterrence. Moscow has also time and again threatened to develop retaliatory measures against the missile defense system. However, according to reports, the US EPAA is not capable of destroying Russian ICBMs and Moscow is not supposed to possess missiles within the range of 500-5,000kms under the INF Treaty, and, hence, the system poses a minimal threat to Russia.
Thus, it is evident the Russians would develop retaliatory capabilities that could negate the missile defense system and cruise missiles acting as a viable option to render a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system useless.
Debalina Ghoshal is a non resident fellow at the Council on International Policy.