Asia Pacific | ANALYSIS

U.S. test of previously banned missile raises fears of new nuclear arms race

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The U.S. military has conducted a flight test of a type of missile banned for more than 30 years, under a treaty from which it bolted earlier this month, the Pentagon said Monday, in a move experts said was likely to have been closely watched by China, Russia and even North Korea.

Conducted Sunday, the test of the medium-range ground-launched cruise missile came just weeks after the U.S. and Russia formally left the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that saw them eliminate that class of nuclear-capable weapons.

It was expected to further stir debate over the possibility of a fresh arms race, especially after the U.S. defense chief said earlier this month that Washington hoped to deploy intermediate-range weapons to Asia. Sunday’s test used a type of missile launcher that is part of the Aegis system, currently in use in a defensive configuration on Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers, as well as its land-based counterpart, Aegis Ashore.

“The test certainly won’t be welcomed in either Beijing or Pyongyang, as neither country is keen on seeing U.S. ground-based missiles deployed to Asia — a proposal which, ostensibly, was a key driver behind the U.S. withdrawal [from] the INF Treaty,” Matt Korda, a research associate at the Federation of American Scientists, told The Japan Times.

“The timing of the test is also noteworthy: The fact that it took place only 16 days after the death of the treaty shows that the Trump administration clearly wanted to send a message to U.S. adversaries or kick-start the development of a ground-based INF missile program,” Korda added.

In a statement, the Pentagon said that the “test missile exited its ground mobile launcher and accurately impacted its target after more than 500 kilometers (310 miles) of flight,” noting also that the weapon had been launched from the U.S. Navy-controlled San Nicolas Island off the coast of Los Angeles.

“Data collected and lessons learned from this test will inform the Department of Defense’s development of future intermediate-range capabilities,” it added.

While the missile was described as “conventionally configured,” meaning it was not nuclear-equipped, the launch was widely seen as a sign of Washington boosting its nuclear war-fighting capabilities in the wake of the collapse of the INF Treaty.

The treaty had banned all land-based missiles, conventional and nuclear, that could travel between 500 km and 5,500 km (310 miles and 3,400 miles), in an effort to abolish a class of nuclear arms being deployed by the United States and the then-Soviet Union that had threatened Europe and Asia.

The missile tested Sunday was a version of the nuclear-capable Tomahawk cruise missile. The ground-launched version of the Tomahawk had been removed from service after the INF was ratified.

In addition to the land-variant of the Tomahawk, the Pentagon has said it also intends to begin testing, probably before the end of this year, an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) with a range of roughly 3,000 km to 4,000 km (1,865 miles to 2,485 miles). Both missiles are said to be non-nuclear.

U.S. defense chief Mark Esper said this month that he hopes the Pentagon can develop and deploy IRBMs to Asia “sooner rather than later,” but no specific time line has been announced. He also disputed the notion that doing so would spark an arms race, saying that the U.S. plans should not come as a shock to China.

“That should be no surprise because we have been talking about that for some time now,” he said.

China has lashed out at the proposal, saying earlier this month that it “will not stand idly by” and that it will take countermeasures if the U.S. deploys IRBMs in the Indo-Pacific region.

According to the U.S. military, approximately 95 percent of the missiles in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force arsenal fall in the 500 to 5,500-km range — meaning that key U.S. facilities throughout Japan could already be within range of thousands of difficult-to-defeat advanced ballistic and cruise missiles.

Sunday’s test of a Tomahawk also used the MK 41 vertical launcher, which is a component of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System and Aegis Ashore — its land-based variant that Japan is planning to purchase and deploy in Akita and Yamaguchi prefectures in fiscal 2023 to counter the threat of North Korean missiles.

While Aegis systems are defensive and launch interceptor missiles, they employ MK 41 launchers, which by design are capable of firing Tomahawks — a reconfiguration that some experts have said would be relatively painless.

The U.S. test raised eyebrows among observers since it was the deployment of the Aegis Ashore system to Romania and one currently being built in Poland that Russia had for years said could launch Tomahawks in violation of the INF, prompting Moscow to build its own treaty-busting weapons.

Asked about the potential for offensive use, a Pentagon spokesman confirmed to The Japan Times that the launcher used in Sunday’s test was an MK 41, but denied it was the same as the Aegis Ashore system currently operating in Romania or the one under construction in Poland.

“Aegis Ashore is purely defensive,” the spokesman said. “It is not capable of firing a Tomahawk missile. Aegis Ashore is not configured to fire offensive weapons of any type.”

But Malcolm Davis, a senior defense analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank in Canberra, said the launch from an MK 41 “implies it could be adapted to Aegis Ashore,” while also noting that if the U.S. were to do that, “there would be political implications … and it would tend to confirm Russia’s narrative that the U.S. was secretly violating INF.”

Korda, of the Federation of American Scientists, also noted that, despite the fact that the U.S. retired its nuclear-tipped Tomahawk missile in 2013, North Korea reportedly continues to view the weapon as nuclear-capable and regards the Aegis Ashore system as a threat to itself and its allies.

“This is not for defense, but there is a sinister intention behind it,” the North’s ruling party newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, wrote in a June commentary.

“If they truly believe this,” said Korda, “then they would certainly be concerned about the prospect of the United States reconfiguring the Japan-based Aegis Ashore to launch offensive Tomahawks.”

But, he added, “my guess is that they, like China, are more likely to be most concerned about the general deployment of missile defenses in the region, and the open question regarding the system’s offensive capabilities is a good pretext for raising concerns about the deployment itself.”