Russia’s Cruise Missiles, a Major Reason Why the US Quit the INF

Ramin Nadimi
December 2018

One October 20, 2018, US President Donald Trump announced that due to various violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (IFN) by Russia, his administration had decided to quit that treaty. Explaining about his decision, Trump noted that the United States does not allow Russia to continue its “banned weapons” activities at a time that the United States avoids working on such weapons. Following his remarks, the White House’s National Security Advisor John Bolton paid a visit to Moscow during which he explained to Russian officials his country’s decision to withdraw from the INF. Bolton argued that the treaty belonged to the Cold War era and there was no necessity for the United States to remain committed to it in a new multipolar world where in addition to Russia, other countries like China, North Korea and Iran are now capable of producing and launching medium-range missiles.
The INF treaty was signed on December 8, 1987 by then US president, Ronald Reagan, and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was secretary general of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party at the time. According to this agreement, the two countries have been banned from using and stockpiling ground-launched nuclear ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 500-5,500 kilometers. Following the signing of the treaty, the United States and the Soviet Union destroyed 846 and 1,846 medium- and short-range missiles respectively. Due to low range of these missiles, most of them had been actually designed for possible nuclear wars in Europe. Short flying time and an unpredictable flying pattern had made interception of such missiles very difficult. At that time, analysts believed that such missiles would increase instability under critical conditions that prevailed in Europe during the period of the Cold War and, as such, would increase the possibility of the beginning of an unwanted nuclear war. However, it must be noted that the INF does not care about whether missile warheads are nuclear or not, because it puts restrictions on all missiles with the aforementioned range of flight. In addition, the said treaty was solely concerned with ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles and did not cover air-launched and sea-launched missiles. Although the INF was solely signed between the United States and the Soviet Union, after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, a number of countries that emerged from it, including Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, acceded to that agreement.
Implementation of this agreement has been so far considered as a major step toward nuclear disarmament. American officials, however, have been constantly accusing Russia in recent years of violating this treaty, claiming that Moscow continues to produce and test land-launched cruise missiles. It was in July 2014 and under the former US president, Barack Obama, that the US Department of State claimed for the first time that the Russian Federation had violated the INF treaty by producing a cruise missile, which had a final range of 2,000 kilometers. For its turn, Russia rejected the Americans’ claim and alleged that it was Washington, which had violated the treaty by deploying its missile defense shield to Europe. However, at the beginning of the current year, Russians put another nail in the INF’s coffin by reporting that they were trying to test a nuclear intercontinental cruise missile, which was equipped with a small nuclear reactor to provide it with needed energy. This plan by Moscow caused more international concern, especially within scientific circles and Russia’s neighboring countries in Northern Europe. Since this missile took advantage of a small nuclear reactor in its engine, it was potentially able to cause considerable environmental contamination even during its test runs, and a number of reports have been so far published in this regard. What follows represents an effort to take a look at various characteristics of two different types of this Russian cruise missile. In doing this, more light will be shed on major reasons, which made the United States leave the INF.
9M729 (SSC-8) cruise missile
According to available reports, Russia started building the ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) known as Novator 9M729, codenamed SSC-8, in the middle of 2000s, and its test launches started as of 2008. It is said that the first test launch of this missile from ground launching pads took place in 2014. The body of the missile is 6-8 meters long and 0.533 meters in diameter and is capable of delivering a conventional warhead weighing 450 kilograms. According to estimates by the United States’ aerospace information center, this missile has a maximum range of 2,500 kilometers. This missile is equipped with the Russian Gos NIPP guiding system. Based on the current estimates, this missile has been designed on the basis of missiles made to attack surface targets such as 3M14T or 3M14K, which is called S-N-30A by NATO. This is a type of anti-ship supersonic Kalibr cruise missile with an approximate range of 2,500 kilometers. Based on some reports, the 9M729 missile can be fired on roads using 9K720 Iskander-M mobile missile launching pads. The report has noted that 9M729 has been made operational and supplied to some units of the Russian army since 2017. The main goal of designing SSC-8 missiles was to attack the US ballistic missile shield as well as NATO’s air defense systems in Europe. It was also meant to increase Russia’s conventional and nuclear deterrence against China.
9M730 (SSC-X-9) cruise missile
During his annual national speech on March 1, 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his country’s defense industries had started building an intercontinental cruise missile equipped with nuclear thrust. Putin added that the missile had a very powerful, though small, nuclear reactor, which can be installed within the body of a cruise missile like air-launched X-105 (Kinzhal) missiles or even be mounted on Kalibr sea-launched missiles. As put by the Russian president, that feature allowed the new missile to have a very long and even unlimited range. It can also fly at supersonic speed (up to Mach 3) and can fly at a low altitude and over an unpredictable course. This means that existing missile defense systems will be vulnerable, inefficient and practically useless in the face of such a missile. Putin also revealed that the first test launch of this missile, which uses a nuclear ramjet engine and is called 9M730 and “Burevestnik” with a NATO code of SSC-X-9 or “Skyfall,” took place in 2017. During that test, the missile’s nuclear reactor reached the energy output designed for it.
According to available reports, this missile, which is considered as a new type of strategic weapon, has been designed to hit a wide range of major enemy targets, including command centers, missile and radar bases, missile defense systems or even a group of naval vessels equipped with Aegis ballistic missile defense system. According to various assessments, the range of this intercontinental missile, which is capable of carrying nuclear warheads, is 10,000-20,000 kilometers. Nonetheless, the Pentagon officials have said in interviews with American media that during its latest test, this missile fell over Russia's polar region. Of course, European observers have not released any confirmed report on possible radioactive contamination following the incident.
In an interview with Fox News, an American official claimed that Russia's launches of cruise missiles with nuclear engines have been a failure on several occasions and they have fallen down, causing concerns about environmental consequences of such incidents. According to information released recently, one of such missiles fell into the Barents Sea in northern Russia in 2017 and Russians sent three special ships to retrieve the missile’s nuclear reactor in August 2018.
According to this report, from November 2017 to February 2018, Russia conducted four 9M730 missile launches. The longest time that such missiles flew and the maximum distance they covered stood at two minutes and 35 kilometers, respectively. In the shortest of such tests, the missile flew for a few seconds and only for eight kilometers. Failed M730 tests have given rise to concerns that Moscow’s missile tests have caused nuclear fallout from engines of these missiles in waters surrounding Novaya Zemlya in Russia's polar region. At the same time, the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority managed to find small traces of radioactive contamination with Ruthenium-106 in October 2016. Its officials noted that such contamination could be the result of 9M730 missile test. They argued that such isotopes are not normally found in nature. Of course, the Russian government has denied the allegation that such contamination was the result of its missile tests. However, the presence of vehicles belonging to Russia's state-run nuclear agency, Rosatom, during the launch of the first missile, indicated that nuclear materials have been involved in that test. As put by Russian media, 9M730 missile will be made available to the country’s army within the next ten years.
Experts believe that diversity of Russia's nuclear arsenal clearly shows that those behind Russia's nuclear war designs are deeply concerned about advances in the Western missile defense systems and are fearful that their ability to deal retaliatory (secondary) strikes would be affected by those systems. In addition, as noted by analysts at the US Department of Defense, the Pentagon, and in view of Putin’s remarks, Russia has put a powerful focus on producing tactical nuclear weapons as part of the strategy, which aims to reduce tensions on one front by means of increasing tensions elsewhere. However, some believe that the existing Russian nuclear arsenal, including ground-launched, air-launched and submarine-launched missiles, has been already so diversified that American anti-missile systems cannot cope with all of them. Therefore, they argue that building new types of cruise missile with nuclear-powered engines is a costly, dangerous and unnecessary step. As put by some Western analysts, in view of the current problems facing the Russian economy, the country would possibly be unable to financially support production and deployment of all its new weapons. However, if it does so, the world will certainly turn into a more dangerous place.