How a surprising stipulation in the collapsing INF Treaty impacts visitors to D.C.


    A Soviet SS-20 and U.S. Pershing II nuclear missiles on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy: Sinclair Broadcast Group)

    WASHINGTON (SBG) - A nuclear arms treaty between the U.S. and Russia is having an unexpected impact on museum-goers in Washington, D.C.

    Just inside the National Mall-side entry to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, one of the most popular destination's at the nation's capital, tourists can get a glimpse into Cold War history. A decommissioned Soviet SS-20 missile donated by the Soviet Union’s Ministry of Defense stands next to a similarly inert U.S. Pershing II missile.

    Both missiles were mounted on trucks and were considered the top-of-the-line weapons in their class when they were developed in the late 70s and early 80s. The Pershing II, which was aimed at targets in the Soviet Union, was designed for one warhead that was a hundred times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. The SS-20, which was deployed in range of targets in western Europe and Asia, contained three warheads. These weapons were designed to be highly mobile and quickly deployed, making them difficult to track. As a nuclear strike could occur little warning, these mobile weapons of mass destruction were considered to represent an extreme threat to international stability.

    That's why they were among those banned by The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a pivotal nuclear arms control pact signed in 1987 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and U.S.S.R. General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev that signaled the end of the Cold War. The international agreement was the first to prohibit an entire class of nuclear weapons: specifically the intermediate range, ground based ballistic and cruise missiles that give the treaty its name.

    A lesser known fact is the INF Treaty requires that each superpower could put as many as 15 demilitarized nuclear weapons on exhibit as a means of educating the public. The agreement further states that each country must be able to track their location and the missiles can be moved only if formal notifications are sent first. If the Smithsonian curators wished to move the missiles, they would have to inform both the U.S. Defense Department and the Russian Ministry of Defense first.

    James David, the national security space curator for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, said in an interview with Sinclair Broadcast Group that the treaty was “absolutely revolutionary” because it also gave the two nations unprecedented physical evidence and access to assure the dangerous weapons were destroyed. In addition, the exchange of demilitarized weapons allowed each country to better understand the other’s nuclear technology.

    “For the first time ever the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to a limited number of on-sight inspections of the other’s facilities,” said David, who asserted that the exhibition at the museum serves to “show the world” the tangible results of the diplomatic achievement between the rival powers.

    Detail from a panel at the Pershing II and SS-20 exhibit explaining their coming to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy: Sinclair Broadcast Group)

    However, relations between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union have remained tense. The Trump Administration announced in early February that the U.S. is suspending obligations to the INF Treaty and will formally withdraw, accusing Russia of violating the terms of the agreement by deploying banned missiles. Russian President Vladimir Putin denied the allegations and responded stating they also plan to pull out of the pact as well. If the two countries cannot come to an agreement in six months, then the treaty will expire.

    Despite this falling out, the missiles are still displayed at the National Air and Space Museum per the requirements of the agreement. The question is, with so much in flux, is there any reason why they should stay there?

    Tom Lassman, the curator of the National Air and Space Museum's Cold War rocket and missile collection, told Sinclair Broadcast Group in an interview that there are no plans to change the exhibit in any way in light of international developments. Nor have the the artifacts ever been moved since their initial installment, as far as he is aware, because of their historic importance and any motion would be detected by the Russian government which he said he understands electronically monitors the missiles’ locations. Both parties can use "national technical means of verification" without interference to ensure compliance with the treaty, terminology which includes satellite surveillance.

    “The artifacts here are historical artifacts. Their significance is historical,” said Lasson, describing the exhibit as representing the many missiles taken out of active inventory by both countries through the treaty. “As curator of those artifacts, I’m just focusing on the history as it is stated presently in the gallery.”

    Detail from a panel at the Pershing II and SS-20 exhibit explaining their coming to the museum (Courtesy: Sinclair Broadcast Group)

    But if the current disagreements aren't resolved by the six month deadline, what was history may once again become reality. Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told Sinclair Broadcast Group that he fears a rebooted arms race with more powerful versions of these weapons is increasingly likely as both the U.S. and Russians are threatening to buckle down on nuclear weapons development.

    “What that means is that those types of missiles will no longer be museum pieces...They will be live objects in the fields. That's a possibility with the termination of the INF Treaty,” said Kimball, who acknowledged that there may be strategic reasons why the major powers want to exit the treaty. He said he plans on taking his interns on a field trip to see the exhibit at the Smithsonian to "give them a tangible sense of the nuclear arms control work that my organization is involved in," sharing the "visceral impact" that the weapons made on him when he first saw them at the museum in the early-90s.

    However, it's difficult to predict the results of the current diplomatic debacle will be as the nuclear landscape has changed dramatically in the years since the treaty was adopted. Smithsonian curator Jim David said thanks in part to the numerous treaties between the Soviet Union and the U.S., the number of nuclear weapons worldwide has dropped dramatically since the Pershing II and SS-20 were banned.

    According to nuclear nonproliferation organization the Federation of American Scientists, the Russian stockpile has dropped from a peak of about 40,000 warheads in 1985 to about 4,000-matching the number currently in the U.S.’s possession. However, they also state that the pace of reduction has slowed down globally and technology has advanced to make the weapons that do exist far more capable.

    “We and Russia have a lot fewer nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles than we did in the Cold War,” said David. “Are we safer because of it? A lot [of people] say yes, some people say no.”


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