By: Debalina Ghoshal
In September, Russia test fired a solid fuelled RS-24 Yars category intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from a silo. The ICBM can hit targets up to a range of 12,000 kilometers. The warhead used in the test was “experimental,” and the RS-24 is an upgraded version of the Topol-M ICBM.
The missile is capable of carrying multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) that enable the Yars to evade missile defense systems. The missile is under the custody of the Strategic Missile Forces (SMF), the main component of Russia’s Strategic Nuclear Forces (SNF).
Each time Russia has test fired a missile system, concerns have been raised on whether it is violating the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The INF treaty dates back to the Cold War and prevents the two Cold War super powers - the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union (now, essentially Russia) - from developing and testing nuclear capable missiles - both ballistic and cruise - for the range of 500km-5,500km.
Time and again Russia has been accused of violating the INF treaty. However, Moscow has denied all allegations that it violated any INF norms. Russia has also raised concerns over the INF treaty, especially as at present it faces threats from INF category missiles.
The RS-24 has been a subject to criticism ever since it was first test fired. The US identified it to be less than 5,500km in range, and under Article VI of the INF Treaty, both the US and Russia - parties to the INF Treaty - are prohibited from developing missiles of intermediate range.
Russia has several reasons why it could violate the treaty. One, as mentioned above, the growing missile threats from countries like China that are developing medium and intermediate range dual capable missiles. Russia also shares a border with North Korea, which has nuclear and missile programmes of concern not only to the US, but also Russia. An ICBM for Russia would be an expensive deterrent posture vis-à-vis North Korea or, for that matter, China.
Russia also has a territorial dispute with Japan over the Kuril Islands. Amid these threats, Russia’s shift to developing INF forces would not be a surprise. In addition, the US Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) programme in Europe (the European Phased Adaptive Approach), as well as the US BMD in Asia (the Asian Phased Adaptive Approach), both of which Russia has opposed, could also be a triggering point to violate the treaty.
The Russian defense budget has also decreased due to sanctions imposed over the Ukrainian crisis. Amid the deterrence choices to be made, nuclear weapons of intermediate range are a viable choice for Moscow, given its budgetary constraints.
While these are all reasons why Russia could violate the INF Treaty, the Yars test firing should not be viewed as a treaty violation. The RS-24 missile is an ICBM which Russia is allowed to develop and test, as such a missile category does not fall under the INF treaty. The US test fired the Minuteman III ICBM as late as this year. As regards the range of the RS-24, which has been the topic of much debate, ballistic missile ranges can easily be increased or decreased, either by making them fly at lofted or depressed trajectories, respectively, or by increasing or decreasing the payload, respectively.
Therefore, there are concerns regarding the Yars ICBM as its range, just like the range of any other ballistic missile, can be decreased, bringing it down to an intermediate level.
In the coming years, Russia is likely to continue to test its ICBM forces as a part of its nuclear forces modernization programme. The role of strategic nuclear forces is to ensure deterrence by either pre-emptive strike, counter strike or retaliatory strike, and also working on the survivability of the nuclear forces. This requires modernizing the age-old missile forces capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
At the moment, it is only strategically conducive if both the parties adhere to the treaty. Russia should not develop any missile that fall under the INF category. At the same time, it would be impossible to prevent Moscow from modernizing those categories of nuclear forces that do not fall under the purview of the INF Treaty.
Debalina Ghoshal is an independent consultant specializing in nuclear issues and missile and missile defense issues.