The United States is looking to deploy new ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in Asia, the Pentagon chief said, a day after Washington officially withdrew from a landmark arms control treaty with Russia.
“Yes I would like to,” US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Saturday, when asked if the US was considering placing new medium-range conventional weapons in Asia now that Washington is no longer bound by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.
“We would like to deploy a capability sooner rather than later,” Esper told reporters on a flight to Sydney at the start of a weeklong tour of Asia.
“I would prefer months … But these things tend to take longer than you expect.”
The new Pentagon chief did not specify where the US intended to deploy these weapons.
The US formally left the INF treaty with Russia on Friday after accusing Moscow of violating it for years, a claim that the Kremlin has denied.
Hours after the withdrawal, Esper said in a statement that the US would jumpstart previously-stalled research banned under the agreement, which he said is in the “early stages” of development.
“Now that we have withdrawn, the Department of Defense will fully pursue the development of these ground-launched conventional missiles as a prudent response to Russia’s actions and as part of the Joint Force’s broader portfolio of conventional strike options,” the statement said.
“The Department of Defense will work closely with our allies as we move forward in implementing the National Defense Strategy, protecting our national defense and building partner capacity,” it added.
Signed in 1987 by US and Soviet Union leaders – Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev – the INF treaty was meant to eliminate the presence of land-based nuclear missiles and medium-range arsenals between 500km and 5,500km from Europe.
In February, Washington announced that in six months it would suspend its participation in the pact unless Moscow destroyed missiles which the US and its NATO allies alleged that they violate the agreement.
The treaty’s expiration now enables the US to resume development of its own medium-range, land-based arsenal.
Currently, the US military plans to test a land-based cruise missile and a ballistic missile previously banned under the INF treaty between August and November of this year.
Some Pentagon estimates have suggested that a low-flying cruise missile with a potential range of about 1,000km could be flight-tested this month and be ready for deployment in 18 months.
A ballistic missile with a range of roughly 3,000-4,000km could take five years or more to deploy. Neither would be nuclear armed.
Washington is now free to compete with China, whose arsenal is largely made up of weapons prohibited under the INF treaty, which Beijing never signed.
Esper said China should not be surprised by the US’s plans.
“That should be no surprise because we have been talking about that for some time now,” he said.
“Eighty percent of their inventory is intermediate-range systems. So that should not surprise that we would want to have a like capability,” he said.
Esper said the US should look at bringing in other nuclear powers and expand the types of weapons controlled by the treaty.
He added that he does not believe this will trigger a new arms race, but said the US needs to deploy missile capabilities that can protect Europe and the Pacific region.
In a Pentagon report published in May, the US Defense Department said that it expects China to add military bases around the world to protect its investments in its ambitious One Belt, One Road global infrastructure programme.
Beijing currently has just one overseas military base, in Djibouti, but target locations for military basing could include the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and the Western Pacific, the report noted.