The word is that U.S. administration has finally identified the cruise missile that it suspects to violate the INF Treaty. In his remarks at the Wilson Center, Christopher Ford of the National Security Council said that the missile is known in Russia as 9M729. This was the first time the Russian name of the missile, designated in the United States as SSC-8, was announced officially. But, of course, someone leaked it to Jeffrey Lewis back in 2015, so it's not really news. I had my doubts about the 9M729 theory, but if that's what the U.S. administration builds its claim on, I am not in a position to argue.

The disclosure may seem like a big deal, but it probably isn't. The problem is that the designation alone doesn't really tell us anything, since there is not much that we know about the missile. To say more about the alleged violation we need other information that the United States gave to Russia:

Information on the violating GLCM's test history, including coordinates of the tests and Russia's attempts to obfuscate the nature of the program;

This is where it gets interesting. In my earlier post, I described a number of scenarios that would lead the United States to conclude that the missile - SSC-8/9M729 - violates the treaty. I suspected that the missile in question has not been tested to the INF range from a mobile ground-based launcher and I can now say with some certainty that that I was right - it wasn't. This means that the evidence of a violation is indirect. Of course, this does not automatically gets Russia off the hook - the INF Treaty does not require a cruise missile to demonstrate its range in an actual test. Just having a capability is enough (Article VII.4):

The range capability of a GLCM [...] shall be considered to be the maximum distance which can be covered by the missile in its standard design mode flying until fuel exhaustion, determined by projecting its flight path onto the earths sphere from the point of launch to the point of impact.

Given that the United States seems to be very confident in its conclusion about the range capability of the 9M729 missile, we should assume that it has good information about it. Who knows, maybe U.S. intelligence has detailed blueprints of the missile and all its technical characteristics. Maybe the documentation shows that extending the range of the 9M728 Iskander-M is just a matter of filling the fuel tank full. As a Russian colleague quipped, "Сколько топлива нальем, тому договору и будет соответствовать," which could be (very) roughly translated as "How much fuel we add is the treaty it will comply with."

More likely, though, is another scenario that I described in my previous post - the 9M729 missile is almost identical to a missile that was tested at the INF range, probably to the sea-launched Kalibr. As I understand, the United States observed a test of a missile from a compliant launcher (that would be an SLCM test) followed by a test (of presumably the same or a very similar missile) from a non-compliant one. Russia can still insist that these missiles were sufficiently different and that it is therefore in full compliance. But proving that would be quite difficult, especially if 9M729 is indeed capable of exceeding the 500 km threshold of the INF Treaty.

Another interesting detail that emerged from various discussions is that the United States appears to believe that the 9M729 missile uses the same Iskander-M launcher. If that is indeed the case, return to INF Treaty compliance would have to involve elimination of all Iskander-M launchers and missiles. That's a pretty high bar and it is extremely difficult to imagine that Russia would agree to this. But not all is lost. If the 9M729 launchers have what is known as "functionally related observable differences" or FRODs, then it might be possible to limit the damage and only those launchers that are capable of launching 9M729 would have to be eliminated (assuming that the missile is indeed non-compliant). [UPDATE: Or maybe not. If 9M729 was tested from an Iskander launcher even once, all these launchers will have to be eliminated. And that seems to be the case.]

The bottom line is that we still need more information to say anything conclusive about the alleged violation or chart a way out of this situation.