The the Trump Administration has charged Russia with deploying cruise missiles in violation of an arms control treaty between the two countries. The SSC-8 cruise missile is deployed from land and has a range of at least 1,200 miles, a combination that puts it in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
In 1987, the United States and the Soviet Union signed a landmark arms control agreement, the . The United States worried that Soviet intermediate-range missiles would be used to destroy NATO forces and could escalate a battlefield nuclear war to all-out nuclear war, while the Soviets feared their American counterparts in Europe that could strike Moscow in mere minutes—a capability the Soviet Union couldn't hope to match. Both sides saw they had something to gain from a treaty that banned the missiles for good.
The INF Treaty banned both countries from possessing, owning, or flight testing ground-launched missiles—both ballistic and cruise missiles—with ranges between 300 to 3,400 miles. The treaty banned both conventional and nuclear armed versions of the same missile. Finally, it allowed for monitoring of the destruction process and short-notice inspections to ensure neither side cheated. The treaty is widely considered a success, with 2,662 missiles scrapped.
Both sides complied with the treaty, at least until in Russia were reported. At the time, the U.S. government didn't issue an opinion as to whether it considered these tests as a breach of the INF Treaty— likely because nobody had actually seen the missile fly to a treaty-breaking range. By July 2014 the U.S. State Department apparently had more proof and formally . A second test in October 2015 was .
Now, in February 2017, the Trump Administration claims that the SSC-X-8 cruise missile, now just known as the SSC-8, is out of development and operational. The New York Times , one at the Kapustin Yar missile development complex. Each battalion has four firing units of Iskander missile launchers and a large number of SSC-8 missiles. Here's a video of a cruise missile, probably a shorter range version of the SSC-8, being launched from an Iskander:
Not much is known about SSC-8. The missile is Russia has launched from ships in the Caspian Sea against Islamic State targets. Sea and air launched cruise missiles, it's worth noting, are legal under the treaty. The SSC-8 probably carries a conventional warhead of about 1,000 pounds or a nuclear warhead of several hundred kilotons. The Kalibr has an inertial guidance system, a range of one thousand to 1,600 miles, and can fly low enough to stay under enemy radar. Here's an alleged sighting of a Russian cruise missile, likely a Kalibr, streaking over Aleppo:
Why field these new missiles? Despite all of the recent hype about a resurgent Russian military threat, Russian defense spending is one-eleventh that of the United States. The bulk of Russian military hardware consists leftovers from the Cold War, and getting older every day. were undercut by Western sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea and depressed commodity prices, particularly oil.
It's likely Russia thinks that missiles such as the SSC-8 can arrest the decline of its armed forces by offering a long-range precision strike capability. The missiles, which can be launched from Russian territory against military and civilian targets across Western Europe, are also useful to intimidate NATO, which is militarily stronger in almost every way.
The real question is whether the juice is worth the squeeze. It is worth it to Russia to ditch a 30-year-old treaty that kept American missiles out of Europe and out of striking range of Moscow? Was there not some other cost-effective way to negate NATO's military advantage that didn't involve the stain of breaking a longstanding international agreement? Why doesn't Moscow put the missiles on ships, where they would be legal under the treaty? Only Moscow knows for sure.