Politics and Government, Russia and Eurasia

Taking Stock of the Treaty on Open Skies

George M. Reynolds – 11.3.17

In August 2017, a Russian plane made news after it was seen flying at a low altitude over the U.S. national capital region. This may have been surprising since U.S.-Russia relations were at a low point following the 2014 Crimea annexation, Ukraine hostilities, and ongoing 2016 election interference investigations. Many Americans are not aware Russian observation aircraft—like that from August—are authorized to fly over the United States to photograph the U.S. Capitol, Pentagon, and a host of other sensitive areas. This is possible due to a long-standing multiparty agreement called the Treaty on Open Skies. The treaty’s objective is to provide a framework for transparency and confidence-building among treaty members. However, the utility of this treaty has been questioned by U.S. officials since Russia put in place a series of restrictions over its territory. Recent broader U.S. and Russian disagreements and treaty restrictions highlight that the Treaty on Open Skies can offer another important benefit: to serve as an instrument to measure the health of U.S.-Russia relations.

Proposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955, the “open skies” concept envisioned a treaty in which maps of military installations are exchanged and the sites are then overflown by unarmed reconnaissance aircraft to verify compliance with future arms control agreements. It was a bold proposal, and one that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ultimately did not support. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, President George H. W. Bush revisited the framework “to promote openness and transparency of military forces and activities.” On March 24, 1992, the treaty was signed, and it was later individually ratified by thirty-four nations. The first operational mission occurred in 2002, and there have since been hundreds of flights over the United States, Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic states, and other member countries.

These missions are heavily scripted. Nations must give at least a seventy-two-hour notice of intent and are limited to a ninety-six-hour window to observe. When U.S. aircrews support missions over Russia, they fly their observation aircraft to one of two preapproved points of entry and use designated refueling airfields. Individual mission segments must follow precise navigation, flight altitudes, and optical settings. They are unarmed flights with no logistical support other than what they can carry on the aircraft. The weather at most locations is often formidable, especially during winter months. Some destination airfields are remote and operate antiquated navigational systems that are not typically used in the United States. This creates highly demanding flight conditions for the aircrew. Mission crews are led by a U.S. officer and include host-country military personnel; this aircrew complement is duplicated for Russian missions flown over the United States. These missions are challenging and can quickly capture high-level attention from senior leaders in Washington, Moscow, and other national capitals.

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