Esper says Pentagon to begin development of intermediate-range missiles

Esper says Pentagon to begin development of intermediate-range missiles

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New Zealand Defense Minister Ron Mark, left, welcomes Defense Secretary Mark Esper upon his arrival in Auckland, New Zealand, on Monday, with a hongi, a traditional greeting in which people press their noses together. (DoD photo)

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Mark Esper said now that the U.S. is out of the intermediate nuclear treaty he wants the Pentagon to deploy ground-based, intermediate-range missiles in Asia.

“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 Asia. “I would prefer months. I just don’t have the latest state of play on timelines.”

Washington formally withdrew from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty on Friday, after accusing Russia of repeated violations. The INF treaty was signed in 1987 and banned land-based missiles of ranges between 310 and 3,410 miles.

No other country was part of the treaty and since it was signed other nations — notably China, Iran and North Korea — have been developing missiles in that range.

Esper would not discuss locations in Asia for possible deployment, saying the placement would depend on consultations with allies. However, Australia — the first stop on Esper’s trip — will not take the missiles, Australian officials said Monday, according to news reports.

The trip is Esper’s first overseas journey since becoming secretary of defense on July 23. It includes stops in New Zealand today, then South Korea, Japan and Mongolia.

Pentagon officials have said a cruise missile version of an intermediate missile could be tested by September, suggesting preliminary development of such a missile had been underway. Full development of a new intermediate-range missile could take half a decade, they have said.

“But let’s be clear, I’m talking about conventional weapons,” Esper told reporters. “I would prefer months for development and testing). I just don’t have the latest state of play on timelines for either the cruise missile, or long-range missiles, as the Army was preparing it. But these things tend to take longer than you expect.”

Esper made his remarks over the weekend to a small group of Pentagon reporters traveling with him, known as a pool. TMN is part of the pool, and both receives and shares the information.

Esper told reporters he expected China to complain about Pentagon plans for intermediate missile development but said they did not concern him or any U.S. plans. “Eighty percent- plus of their inventory is intermediate-range systems, so that shouldn’t surprise them that we would want to have a like capability.”

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