US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he wants to deploy an intermediate-range conventional missile in the Pacific region within months, now that the Trump administration has formally pulled out of a Cold War-era arms control treaty with Russia.
Esper, however, added that it will likely take some time to develop the more advanced land-based missile capabilities.
The move is likely to anger China, but Esper said Beijing shouldn’t be surprised by it.
“It’s fair to say, though, that we would like to deploy a capability sooner rather than later,” Esper told reporters traveling with him to Australia on Friday. “I would prefer months. I just don’t have the latest state of play on timelines.”
Esper’s comments come as the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty expired Friday, and the US said it planned to begin testing new missiles that would have been prohibited under the accord.
The US has complained for years that Moscow has been violating the treaty and that a Russian system banned by the agreement is a direct threat to the US and its allies.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the formal US withdrawal on Friday, saying that “the United States will not remain party to a treaty that is deliberately violated by Russia.”
Esper, who was confirmed as Pentagon chief on July 23, wouldn’t detail possible deployment locations in Asia, saying it would depend on discussions with allies and other factors.
He downplayed any reaction from China, saying that “80 percent plus of their inventory is intermediate range systems, so that shouldn’t surprise them that we would want to have a like capability.”
He said that because of the great distances within the Indo-Pacific region, US development of effective intermediate-range precision weapons is important.
Some Pentagon estimates have suggested that a low-flying cruise missile with a potential range of about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) could be flight-tested this month and be ready for deployment in 18 months.
A ballistic missile with a range of roughly 3,000 to 4,000 kilometers (1,860 to 2,490 miles) could take five years or more to deploy. Neither would be nuclear armed.
The INF treaty was signed in 1987 and banned land-based missiles of ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (310 and 3,410 miles). Its demise comes as world powers seek to contain the nuclear threat from Iran and North Korea. And it signals another milestone in the deterioration of relations between the US and Russia.
Esper also added his voice to those who believe that extending the New START Treaty may not make sense. New START expires in February 2021, and is the only remaining treaty constraining US and Russian nuclear arsenals.
Trump has called New START “just another bad deal” made by the Obama administration, and has said he wants to negotiate a three-way nuclear arms control agreement among the US, Russia and China.
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 that the US needs to deploy missile capabilities that can protect both Europe and the Pacific region.
Esper arrived in Sydney for the annual meeting of US and Australian defense and foreign ministers. Pompeo is also attending.
Esper’s weeklong trip will also take him to New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and Mongolia.
It will be his first overseas trip as a Senate-confirmed secretary.
Former Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who stepped down before his confirmation, visited both Japan and South Korea in June.
Esper said he is returning to the region in order to affirm the US and his own personal commitments to the Indo-Pacific.
The Pentagon’s national defense strategy deems China and Russia as America’s top strategic competitors.