Closing Open Skies

The U.S. is on the verge of withdrawing from a decades-old military treaty

In August 2017, an unarmed Russian Air Force aircraft flew over the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Joint Base Andrews at a low altitude and then landed at the McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kansas. It was not a Hollywood movie plot, nor did the Russian military jet accidentally enter U.S. airspace. It was actually a reconnaissance flight under the Open Skies Treaty, which was signed in March 1992 and went into effect in 2002.The treaty involves a total of 34 signatories across Europe and North America, and allows countries to conduct structured, almost unimpeded surveillance flights in specially outfitted aircraft to monitor one another’s militaries. Over the past 17 years, it has enabled nearly 200 flights by the U.S. over Russia and more than 70 flights by Russia over the U.S.

According to multiple media reports, President Donald Trump is considering leaving the treaty meant to increase military transparency and information sharing. At a meeting in Brussels in November, for instance, Trump administration officials laid out a series of concerns with the treaty and made clear they were seriously considering an exit.

Issues with transparency

A country that has signed onto the treaty must give another treaty-bound nation at least 72 hours’ notice that it plans to conduct an overflight, and each country must accept a certain number of overflights based on their geographical size. Then, 24 hours before the overflight the flight plan must be submitted to the host country so that the plane can be tracked accordingly.

Surveillance planes are allowed to be equipped with cameras, but of limited resolution, to identify important military equipment. All image data collected from a flight must be reproduced and given to the host country and shared with other state parties.

The main goal of the treaty is to enhance mutual understanding, reduce military tensions and strengthen security and cooperation among signatories. It also plays a role in arms control as a verification measure in other treaties, since it allows signatories to learn about one another’s military forces and activities.

Similar to other military and arms control agreements, the Open Skies Treaty has repeatedly faced disputes since its implementation. In recent years, the U.S. and Russia have been at odds over certain issues as tensions have heightened between the two countries.

In 2016, Russia imposed a 500-km limit on reconnaissance flights in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave located between Poland and Lithuania, citing its small size and the inconvenience to civil aviation flights and air control efforts. The U.S. retaliated by restricting Russian surveillance flights over its Pacific Fleet in Hawaii and Army Garrison Greely in Alaska.

Russia’s aircraft upgrade for reconnaissance flights and the replacement of film cameras with digital sensors have also angered the U.S., which believes that Russian aircraft already have the capability to perform various intelligence-gathering functions, including aerial photography, thermal imagery and signal collection. In August 2018, members of Congress pressed the Trump administration to urge the Open Skies Consultative Commission not to approve Russia’s use of the upgraded aircraft and digital sensors.

Moreover, the Trump administration is highly critical of the treaty. It saw a Russian surveillance flight under the treaty in April 2017 as an important symbol of Moscow’s return to a great power rivalry. Meanwhile, former U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the U.S. could not complete roughly one third of its scheduled Open Skies missions over Russia in 2017.

The two countries have also clashed over surveillance flights along the Russia-Georgia border, failing to agree on a flight plan for the border in 2018 due to longstanding disputes.

In November 2018, tensions between Ukraine and Russia escalated after the Russian Coast Guard seized three Ukrainian vessels in the Black Sea near the Crimean Peninsula. In retaliation, the U.S. and its allies conducted a special flight over east Ukraine under the treaty.

In addition, withdrawal from the treaty is consistent with Trump’s America First policy and its exit from other international agreements that constrain U.S. power. Since Trump assumed presidency, he has made it one of his priorities to rebuild the U.S military and strengthen U.S. power. The move would free the U.S. from its restrictions and supervision of its efforts to develop new nuclear weapons as well.

Negative effects

The Open Skies Treaty was originally intended to reduce mistrust between NATO and the Warsaw Pact states and increase military transparency, mutual understanding and cooperation among the parties. It is therefore seen, along with the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, as an important component of the framework for European security.

After the Cold War, Russia and the West, especially NATO countries along its border, established a series of arms control and confidence-building measures to avoid further aggravating already tense relations. If Trump decides to quit the treaty, it could undermine the trust built between Russia and European NATO countries through its implementation over the past years.

More importantly, it will exacerbate the growing tensions between the U.S. and Russia, considering Trump already withdrew the U.S. from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Soviet Union in August.

For its part, Russia expresses its support for the treaty. “We consider the Open Skies Treaty to be an important instrument in ensuring European security on the same level as the Vienna Document 2011 on confidence- and security-building measures,” the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C. said in a tweet.

Moreover, preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons has been a major goal of the international community, and reconnaissance flights under the Open Skies Treaty can help monitor the nuclear weapon programs of its signatories. U.S. withdrawal from the treaty would have an adverse effect on these efforts.

U.S. Democratic leaders have been quick to criticize Trump, arguing that abandoning the treaty would affect the U.S. military’s ability to conduct aerial surveillance of Russia and other states, depriving the U.S. of real national interests.

“Pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty, an important multilateral arms control agreement, would be yet another gift from the Trump administration to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” the top Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the House Armed Services Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote in a letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The author is a senior researcher with the Center for China-U.S. Relations, Tsinghua University

Source: Beijing Review