One of America’s two OC-135B Open Skies aircraft prepares to depart the Russian airbase near Khabarovsk-Novy for a surveillance flight. Wikipedia

The Trump administration has moved to place a new series of restrictions on authorized Russian military spy flights over the United States which are conducted as part of the Open Skies treaty. This week, at a monthly meeting of the Open Skies Consultative Commission in Vienna, the U.S. asked that limits be placed on the length of flights over Hawaii and removed access to two air force bases the Russians use during their missions over the U.S. The retaliatory changes are in response to what America has seen as prolonged Russian violations of the treaty.

In recent years, American politicians and military leaders have begun to complain louder about the treaty, indicating that Russia is no longer fully cooperating and is deliberately attempting to circumvent the spirit of the agreement. Led by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, the stage has been set for modifications to the treaty like the ones the Trump administration has suggested, or the eventual American withdrawal from Open Skies. (Despite the widely-accepted perception, Open Skies is not a bilateral treaty between the U.S. and Russia, but a rather large, multilateral treaty between 34 nations.)


The likely changes to the Treaty on Open Skies is another blow to the faltering relationship between the two nations. On Thursday, it was revealed that those new restrictions will limit Russian flights over Hawaii to no more than 560 miles for each flight and has removed access to two American bases—Ellsworth in South Dakota and Robbins in Georgia—which the Russians had been using as refueling points and for crew rest.

Since 2002, members of the Open Skies Treaty have been conducting unarmed surveillance flights over Russia, the U.S., Canada and most nations in Europe. According to the State Department between 2002 and 2016 the U.S. had flown 196 observation missions over Russia, with another 500 flights over Russia by other members of the treaty. In the same time frame, Russia flew 71 missions over the U.S.

A Russian Tu-154M-ON Open Skies aircraft returns from a surveillance flight. Wikipedia Commons

In 2015, the State Department issued a report outlining Russia’s violations of Open Skies. These violations included placing altitude restrictions over certain areas near Moscow as well as over Chechnya. According to the Russians, the altitude restrictions over Chechnya were put in place for the safety of Open Skies aircrews who could be vulnerable to shoulder-launched missiles in the troubled region. Additionally, since 2010 Russia has refused to allow flights within a roughly six-mile corridor along its border with the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.


The most repeated Russian violation, though, and the one most stressed by those eager to see the treaty changed or eliminated, concerns the enclave of Kaliningrad. Sitting on the Baltic Sea, Kaliningrad borders Poland and Lithuania and is slightly bigger than the state of Connecticut. In 2014, Russia placed a 500-kilometer (310 mile) limit on flights over Kaliningrad despite treaty language establishing a maximum flight distance of 5,500 kilometers (3,400 miles). Prior to that, surveillance flights wound their way across Kaliningrad, creating havoc for commercial aviation and stressing the air traffic control system. As a result, Russia began enforcing the 500-kilometer limit.

In testimony Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford went as far as to say that Open Skies should no longer “be in place if the Russians aren’t complying.” Gen. Dunford’s statements come on the heels of numerous declarations and reports indicating that the Russians have been balking at flight requests and imposing flight ranges significantly less than the treaty specify, in addition to using superior digital cameras and getting more out of the spy missions than the Americans are.


History of Open Skies

The Treaty on Open Skies became effective January 1, 2002, though the idea for such a program dates to the mid-1950’s. In 1955 at the Geneva Summit, President Dwight D. Eisenhower first suggested the idea of “Open Skies,” where the U.S. and the USSR would be allowed to spy on each other using aerial surveillance. Eisenhower wanted each nation to provide one another with a complete list of military installations so that these facilities could be located and then photographed during the surveillance flights. With these flights, it was hoped that two goals could be achieved: the verification of compliance to any future arms control treaties and the ability to confirm that neither side was preparing a first strike against the other.

A sample image from flight over Russia by a Open Skies surveillance flight. OSCE Photo

Along with the Eisenhower, the French and British were also interested in the proposal. The Soviet representative, Premier Nikolai Bulganin, was not so receptive, however, and his boss, Nikita Khrushchev, declared Eisenhower’s plan to be nothing more than a plot against the USSR. Eisenhower never actually expected the Soviets to agree to his proposal, but he knew that if they declined they would be seen as anti-arms control. For the Soviets, meanwhile, their refusal was simple: allowing the overflights would merely show how inferior the Soviet military was compared to the Americans.


Within a year, though, Eisenhower would have his own “Open Skies” program over the Soviet Union, albeit without their permission. On July 4, 1956 the first U-2 overflight of the Soviet Union occurred as the spy plane took off from Wiesbaden Airfield in West Germany. The U-2 spy flights would continue periodically until May 1, 1960 when a U-2 was shot down over the USSR and the pilot captured.

President George H.W. Bush reintroduced the idea of Open Skies during his administration, and on March 24, 1992 the Open Skies Treaty was signed. Open Skies has 34 nations that are allowed to conduct unarmed aerial observation flights over the entire territories of treaty members. The purpose is to enhance security among the participating countries by promoting openness and transparency.


Despite being signed in 1992, the first flight did not occur until 2002. Approximately 1,200 flights have been conducted since then, and the vast majority have gone off without a problem. One of the few instances when it hasn’t? In February 2016, when Turkey refused a Russian flight. The Russians had requested for a portion of the flight to cover the area near the Syrian-Turkish border, and Ankara denied permission claiming that the area was off limits. As expected. Russia protested.

Film Vs. Digital

The Russian use of digital camera technology has also raised concerns about how the Russians are taking advantage of Open Skies. In February 2016, Russia asked permission to begin flying missions over the U.S. with digital cameras, replacing the film cameras that had been used since the treaty was enacted. Despite the protests from members of Congress and the U.S. military, the digital cameras will be restricted to the same 30-centimeter resolution as the earlier film cameras. Prior to the request, the Russians had been using the new optics over Europe for nearly a year, and the change was approved by the Open Skies Consultative Commission, which is the collective administrative body that oversees Open Skies.


In fact, in April 2017 the State Department released a report stating that the OSCC had approved the transition process from film to digital for all 34 members. The report said, “These decisions capped a year-long effort by the United States to provide procedures for bringing the next generation of optical Treaty sensors into use while addressing and mitigating the concerns of U.S. departments and other States Parties”.

According to the State Department, the 30 centimeter resolution is controlled by the treaty, and all technology—film or digital—are approved by all Open Skies members. This resolution allows members to tell the difference between a tank and a truck, and is quite similar to the resolution anyone can find on Google Earth. In fact, one of the leading commercial satellite providers DigitalGlobe is set to 30 cm resolution by law. America’s newest spy satellite is believed to be capable of achieving a resolution of 7 centimeters to provide a contrast in capability.


The move to digital was first discussed in 2007 within an informal group of the OSCC and in 2010 it was acknowledged that the transition to digital was not only inevitable, it was necessary. In 2012, the Department of Defense was directed to proceed on obtaining new digital technology for its Open Skies aircraft but did not begin to request funds until 2015. In a 2016 budget request, the USAF admitted it needed new digital cameras, as the current film cameras were “nearly obsolete, unreliable, hard and increasingly expensive to maintain, and repair parts must be individually manufactured. In addition, the wet film manufacturers are discontinuing production of the film stock.” The Air Force expects to have its two Open Skies aircraft outfitted with digital cameras by 2019.

What Is Behind the American Changes to Open Skies?

It is clear that within certain areas of the American government and military there is a desire to withdraw completely from Open Skies. The big question is why? Many possible reasons exist. Among them: politicians looking to reward defense-industry donors with contracts that make Open Skies redundant, military leaders not shy about crying wolf to increase budgets, and some folks who might actually be concerned the Russians could find something.


Also, there’s no question that American spy satellites are superior to the Russians’; there are also more of them. With the resolution of American satellites greater than the resolution allowed by Treaty on Open Skies, the true benefit to the U.S. of these flights is the access to information that other members of the treaty get, meaning that the U.S. can request the photos Russia took when its aircraft was over the U.S., and vice versa. Everybody knows, in other words, what everyone else has seen.

As for satellite imagery, though, the U.S. does not share what it has with most nations; it is, in fact, one of its most closely held means of intelligence. But by using the advanced capabilities of its constellation of satellites, the U.S. can pinpoint items of interest that may go undetected, and perhaps suggest possible targets for Open Skies flights. In this way, the U.S. has shared information it would normally not, due to the restrictive nature of its collection source. This has also allowed nations without sophisticated spy satellites a sense of security they would otherwise not have, creating some stability and certainty in Europe which otherwise may not exist.


The tangible benefits of Open Skies to the U.S., in other words, are not as great as those gained by Russia, but do they have to be for the treaty to be a success? The inequality of intelligence gleaned is of little importance. Russia can already learn a lot through publicly-available intelligence, and the scheduled flights, which average about six per year since the treaty began, are too few to do nothing more than update photos taken years before, and track any changes.

Two Danish Air Force F-16AMs escort a Russian An-30 on an Open Skies mission. OSCE Photo

Steffan Watkins, an expert at piecing together the jigsaw puzzle that is publicly-available intelligence, also known as open-source intelligence, writes the blog Vessel of Interest, and has, for years, closely watched the Open Skies treaty, creating maps of Russian flights over the U.S. and his home of Canada. Speaking to Foxtrot Alpha recently, he questioned the reasoning behind the Trump administration’s attempt to impose limits on Russian Open Skies flights. “The nature of the restrictions suggests to me,” Watkins said during a phone interview, “that the American government wants to force a reaction and retaliation by Moscow, which the US can use as an excuse to kill the Open Skies Treaty entirely. The restriction over Hawaii is wildly disproportionate to the restriction over Kaliningrad. I hope nobody thinks for a moment these measures are done with the hope that Russia will return to compliance, as is the statement from the White House. Russia cannot be in compliance in the eyes of the U.S. due to border disputes unrelated to Open Skies.”

Watkins is referring to the ongoing problems arising from Russia’s short war with Georgia in 2008 and the self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia is not a partner to Open Skies and treaty language is clear in pointing out that surveillance flights cannot take place within 10 kilometers of the border of a non-States Parties. Russia has every right to refuse those flight requests and has done so. The Russian new service TASS spoke to Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova about the proposed changes to Open Skies and the fact that the issues of flights near Georgia were part of the reasons given. Zakharova explained, “If some of our partners are unable to reconcile themselves with the modern political realties in the Caucasus, it is not a problem of ours, let alone a violation of the treaty.”


Open Skies has become a tit-for-tat game between the Russians and the U.S., despite the 32 other nations belonging to the treaty. Russia, for their part, can’t be trusted, as it has invaded several neighbors over the past decade to reclaim lost land, and has also made clear it does not seek to honor many of the treaties it is a signatory to, including the INF treaty. The United States, on the other hand, does not even need Open Skies. But Europe does, and for this reason the U.S. must not continue to push Russia into a corner. Just looking at a map of Russia will show you that playing games with refueling options will be a losing situation for the U.S., as the distances to be covered are much greater than Russia needs to here.

Europe, meanwhile, has become more tense in the last decade as Russia seeks to reestablish itself as a leading world power, and Open Skies is one of the few treaties that directly contributes to security and predictability. If the U.S were to pull out, how long would it be until other nations withdrew, creating a vacuum of information that is no longer available. Europe has come to depend heavily on Open Skies, and the trade-off for what Russia may discover flying over the U.S. is well worth that continent’s security.

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