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The U.S. Missile Test: Provocative and Unnecessary

August 29, 2019

Just 16 days after formally withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the United States tested on August 18 a cruise missile that would have violated the terms of the treaty had it still been in force. Provocative and unnecessary, the action escalates a nuclear arms race the world cannot afford to have. The United States plans an additional test later this year.

Russia and China immediately condemned the test and warned about the consequences of a renewed arms race, and the United Nations Security Council met on 22 August to discuss the situation. Numerous representatives expressed fears about a new global arms race at the meeting and called for better dialogue on arms control agreements; the South African representative specifically urged the United Nations community to sign and ratify the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

The type of cruise missile tested is particularly destabilising because it can host either a nuclear or non-nuclear warhead. When launched, others might not know if it is a nuclear strike or not, but choose to respond as if it was. The ambiguity can lead to mistrust and escalation.

“The nuclear weapons arms race is here and we all have a choice,” said ICAN Executive Director Beatrice Fihn. “We can remain passive and wait for these weapons of mass destruction to be used or we can fight for the stigmatization, prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. I urge countries that have not done so to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.”

The United States and Russia signed the INF Treaty in 1987. In recent years, each side has accused the other of violating the terms of the treaty. The United States claimed Russia developed numerous noncompliant missile battalions and waited for years for Russia to return to compliance. Russia claimed that the United States’ deployment of a specific missile launcher in eastern Europe violated the treaty, while the United States maintained the version deployed in Europe could only launch defensive missiles, not offensive ones. Notably, the United States used the launch equipment in question for its test of an offensive missile this month, a fact that can only reinforce Russia’s concerns. For its part, Russia does not seem inclined to shy away from a new arms race, as President Putin has boasted about developing new “invincible” nuclear weapons.

Aside from increasing the risk of the use of nuclear weapons, this new arms race means that United States taxpayers will pay nearly $500 billion over the next ten years to maintain and modernize its country’s nuclear weapons arsenal – and an estimated $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years. Every dollar spent on nuclear weapons in any country represents a missed opportunity to improve programs that enhance social well-being and security of the people.

The devastating humanitarian and environmental impact from the development, testing, and use of nuclear weapons has been made abundantly clear by decades of evidence. In the face of this reality, the global community took a bold step to approve in 2017 a new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The Treaty universally condemns any actions related to nuclear weapons and strips them – and the underlying theory of nuclear deterrence – of legitimacy.

As some nations seem prepared to embark on a morally bankrupt, fiscally devastating arms race, the majority of the world’s states have turned to a hopeful and realistic alternative. A growing community of states have signed and ratified the Treaty, which will enter into force once 50 states have ratified it. You can learn more about it here.