WASHINGTON -- NATO's top military commander says Russia tested a missile last month that appeared to violate a Cold War-era arms control treaty that is in increasing danger of unraveling.
U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove did not identify the missile or give further details, except to say it was the latest in series of tests that may have violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, known as the INF.
“September 2nd is not the first time that we have seen testing that looks like it violates the INF,” Breedlove told a Pentagon briefing October 30. “So, the violation is not new, and yes, we are concerned.”
Last year, the United States made the initial charge that Russia had violated the 1987 treaty. Moscow, however, strenuously denied the allegations and even accused Washington of its own violations, citing new deployments of U.S.-built Aegis radar systems and other technology to Europe in recent years.
In an interview last month, Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told RFE/RL that U.S. intelligence is certain Russia’s latest violation is neither a technical error or a misreading of treaty obligations.
"We are talking about a missile that has been flight-tested as a ground-launched cruise-missile system to these ranges that are banned under this treaty," she said.
The INF agreement, signed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, was the first arms control treaty to outlaw an entire category of already-deployed weaponry: nearly 2,700 intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles, the majority of them Russian. It also allowed for physical on-site inspections and is considered by many historians and military observers as a pivotal event in European security and arguably the life of the Soviet Union.
U.S. officials have given few technical details about the specifics of the missile in question, leading many arms controls experts to sift through open sources material, blog posts and social media to try to pinpoint the exact weapon. Some news reports last month cited unnamed Pentagon officials as saying the missile tested September 2-- dubbed the SSC-X-8-- flew less than 300 miles but is capable of flying within the ranges prohibited by the INF.
Last month, as Russia stepped up its air campaign against Syrian rebel groups, a flotilla of Russian naval ships in the Caspian Sea fired cruise missiles at targets in Syria, prompting experts to look closely at the specifications of the missiles, known as the Kalibr, or 3M14.
Asked specifically about the Kalibr, a spokesperson in the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, told RFE/RL: "The missile of concern... is not a technicality, is not a misunderstanding, is not a one- or two-time mishap, is not a case of mistaken identity, is not a [submarine launched cruise missile]. Again, we are talking about a ground-launched cruise missile that has been developed, produced, and flight-tested in clear violation of the Treaty."
Some experts have looked closely at another weapon system long in use by Russian forces called Iskander, and a missile known as the 9M729, observing that if that particular missile is indeed the one in violation, it would be indistinguishable from other short-range missiles, and treaty rules might then require the elimination of the entire launch system-- something the Russians would never agree to.
"Yes, it's an awful, nearly unsolvable problem. They'd have to eliminate the entire class of Iskander launchers," said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.
Russia last month also threatened about withdrawing from the INF treaty altogether, following news reports that the United States was planning to deploy additional tactical weapons such as gravity bombs -- conventional aircraft-delivered bomb that does not contain a guidance system -- to Germany.
"We're not bringing new weapons, we are not bringing more weapons. We're ensuring the safety and the functionality of the weapons that are there," Breedlove told reporters. "So, I actually believe this is just another way to create dialogue and to try to bring pressure on our alliance."
"There is nothing new about these weapons as far as numbers, and style, capabilities etc." he said.