NATO weighs boost to air defenses over Russia missile system

Acting U.S. Secretary for Defense Mark Esper, left, speaks during a press point with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg prior to a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, June 26, 2019. (John Thys, Pool Photo via AP)
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NATO is considering beefing up European air and missile defenses and ramping up its war games plans should Russia fail to respect a Cold War-era nuclear missile treaty by August, alliance Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned Wednesday.

The United States gave notice in February of its intention to withdraw from the landmark 1987 pact unless Russia destroyed its new SSC-8 missile. NATO allies believe the system contravenes the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, which is considered to be a cornerstone of European nuclear security.

Speaking after a meeting of defense ministers in Brussels, Stoltenberg said Russia showed no sign of returning to compliance before the U.S. deadline and “NATO is preparing for a world without the INF treaty.”

The ministers discussed “potential measures such as our exercises program, as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. We will also look further at our air and missile defenses and conventional capabilities,” he said.

Stoltenberg declined to give details, but underlined that NATO had “no intention to deploy new land-based nuclear missiles in Europe.”

Asked earlier Wednesday if the military alliance might use its nascent missile defense shield to counter the new Russian missiles, Stoltenberg said he wouldn’t divulge “exactly what we will do because we are still focused on how we can get Russia back into compliance.”

NATO allies decided in 2010 to develop a ballistic missile defense system to protect Europeans from an attack launched from outside Europe and North America. At the time, it was meant to counter any threat from North Korea or Iran. Despite Moscow’s vehement objections to the system, the alliance always insisted that it could never be turned against Russia.

The INF treaty bans production, testing and deployment of land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 500-5,500 kilometers (310-3,400 miles).

The Pentagon has shared information with NATO allies asserting that Russia’s ground-fired cruise missile could give Moscow the ability to launch a nuclear strike in Europe with little or no notice. Moscow insists the missile has a range of less than 500 kilometers and counters that the U.S., itself, has been breaching the INF treaty.

“These missiles are capable of carrying nuclear warheads. They can reach European cities within minutes. They are hard to detect,” Stoltenberg told reporters at NATO headquarters.

“Russia still has an opportunity to save the INF treaty,” he said, and warned that, if not, “we need to respond.”

NATO is keen for Moscow’s envoy to take part in talks on the standoff late next week but it was still awaiting confirmation that Russia would take part.q