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US tests ground-launched missile concept previously banned under INF

20 August 2019 Jane's Editorial Staff

No longer bound by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, Washington announced that it is officially flight-testing ground-based cruise missiles that can fly between 500 km and 5,500 km.

On San Nicolas Island, California, on 18 August, the Department of Defense (DoD) conducted a flight test a Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missile (LACM).

"The test missile exited its ground mobile launcher and accurately impacted its target after more than 500 km of flight," the department said on 19 August. "Data collected and lessons learned from this test will inform the [DoD's] development of future intermediate-range capabilities."

A DoD spokesperson toldJane's that the US Navy (USN), in partnership with the Strategic Capabilities Office, used a Mark 41 Vertical Launching System (Mk 41 VLS) to fire a "variant" of the Tomahawk LACM.

The flight test came just after Washington formally withdrew from the INF Treaty on 2 August citing that Moscow's 9M729 missiles, launchers, and associated equipment violated the treaty.

However, prior to theUS withdrawal, Russia accused the US of also violating the treaty. Moscow charged that theUS deployment of the Mk 41-based Aegis missile defence systems inPoland and Romania enabled the deployment of LACMs ashore, a development that would be banned under the treaty.

While the Aegis missile defence system uses an Mk 41 launcher, the DoD spokesperson said the "system tested" is not the same as the Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System currently operating in Romania and under construction forPoland.

"Aegis Ashore is purely defensive," the spokesperson toldJane's . "It is not capable of firing a Tomahawk missile."

The spokesperson did not clarify why the Aegis Ashore was unable to fire offensive weapons such as a Tomahawk, saying the department "can't get into specifics on its configuration".

An industry source familiar with the weapon system said the Aegis Ashore can be configured to fire a Tomahawk missile.

Dr Lee Willett writes that the US test may be more political than operational in its significance. Such capability is already present in the NATO and wider Euro-Atlantic theatre, onboard USN surface ships and submarines and on UK Royal Navy submarines.

The test may be demonstrating to Russia that the US has the ability to deploy this capability in a ground-based format if needed. This does not mean the US necessarily will do so. The test could also be seen as a step in developing the 'bargaining chip' approach to reducing Russian incentives to deploy intermediate-range systems, an approach outlined in the Trump administration's 2018 Nuclear Posture Review .

Russia's reaction may be that the test simply has demonstrated what it believed all along - that the US has the ability to deploy Tomahawk in the ground-based Mk 41 launchers sited inPoland and Romania that support the 'Aegis Ashore' European Phased Adaptive Approach element of the ballistic missile defence network designed to deter Middle Eastern missile threats, and that this potential development demonstrated thatRussia was correct (set against its own strategic context) to withdraw from the INF agreement. Indeed, in his annual address to parliament earlier in 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin argued that theUS deploying launchers in Poland and Romania that are fit for launching Tomahawk cruise missiles means Washington has "openly violated" INF.

Moreover, Putin said in his speech that "the United States has plans for this [to deliver such a capability ashore in Europe]", adding, "at least, we have not heard otherwise". Such a deployment, Putin continued, "[would] dramatically exacerbate the international security situation, and create a serious threat to Russia, because some of these missiles can reach Moscow in just 10-12 minutes".

Thus, the test may only see Russia argue that its fears are being confirmed, and perhaps announce its own intermediate-range missile deployments (that theUS and NATO have alleged it has carried out already with the 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile, which Russia has denied but which prompted theUS to withdraw from INF in the first place).

Reporting by Ashley Roque and Dr Lee Willett. This text originally appeared in Jane's Defence Weekly, Michael Fabey contributed to this article from Washington, DC.

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