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.
What Is the Treaty on Open Skies?
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.
A Slow Closing of the Open Skies?
The Treaty on Open Skies allows members full access to each other’s airspace, including over islands and territorial waters. Restrictions can be put in place, but only for flight safety concerns, not national security ones. However, in recent years, member states have placed restrictions on routes and altitudes. Turkey has denied overflight permissions near its border with Syria, Georgia has refused Russian missions over its territory, and, most notably, Russia has placed restrictions over Moscow and Kaliningrad and near its border with Georgia. The United States has objected to Russian restrictions through the formal Open Skies Consultative Commission (OSCC) and in bilateral meetings. In recent Senate Armed Services Committee testimony, General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “We don’t believe the treaty should be in place if the Russians aren’t compliant. And so there is a decidedly aggressive diplomatic effort right now to bring the Russians back into compliance, which we think would be the best outcome.” Since his testimony, the Wall Street Journal reported, the United States plans to reciprocate by restricting Russian flights over Hawaii.
In recent years, senior U.S. leaders have expressed reservations about the treaty’s utility due to a number of developments. First, some have argued that improvements in satellite capabilities and the arrival of commercially available satellites raise questions about the usefulness of the treaty. All thirty-four signatories can acquire this unclassified Open Skies imagery, regardless of their collection capability. However, as the State Department points out, “the treaty’s primary value is its role in building transparency and confidence, not intelligence gathering.” Second, it has been debated whether Russia has more to gain from these flights, especially after its recent switch to digital sensor technology. The United States is following suit and upgrading aircraft sensors as well. It is important to note the treaty requires all parties to conform to rigorous inspections and technical reviews before aircraft and optical systems are approved by all sides. This occurred during Russia’s upgrade. Yet, even with its acquiescence to use of filters and suboptimal settings, digital imagery provides an enhanced product that did not exist in 1992. Finally, Russia continues to place restrictions on overflight missions, and despite multiple engagements during OSCC and bilateral meetings, these restrictions remain in place.
A Measurement Tool for U.S.-Russia Ties
Notwithstanding these important points, the Treaty on Open Skies does provide a valuable benefit: it serves as a tool to measure the health of U.S.-Russia relations. Unlike arms treaties and agreements, Open Skies focuses on access and transparency, which are important ingredients for any good relationship between nations. The treaty provides preapproved implementation standards and guidelines for specific operational elements, such as flight routes, altitudes, and timing. These are quantifiable and measurable. Although parties’ interpretations of the treaty differ, the existing framework makes it possible to know when and where explicit disagreements occur and provides a forum to raise concerns. Moreover, as a multiparty treaty, one country’s restrictions can affect other signatories, which raises the potential international costs of any unilateral modification. However, as a measurement instrument, it is important the treaty functions correctly. As Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, said, “Anything that allows for transparency is worthwhile. But you got to enforce it.”
If increasingly used to measure the health of U.S.-Russia relations, then a number of new friction points could emerge. Here are five questions that need to be addressed:
First, how might Russia respond when the United States imposes restrictions over Hawaii? The optimistic outcome is that Russia will ease flight restrictions over Moscow and Kaliningrad and near Georgia; however, it could elect to introduce additional airspace restrictions or limit refueling locations as a tit-for-tat response. Regardless, either reaction would result in a U.S. recalculation.
Second, how will other member states respond? Since this a multiparty agreement, this treaty provides all parties a vehicle to raise objections. It is also not inconceivable that some may raise concerns over U.S. restrictions. More plausibly, member states could increase their own flights over Russia if they believe greater transparency is needed.
Third, will the U.S. digital optical sensor upgrades, due for completion in 2019, raise objections or be delayed? The United States must also pass extensive OSCC technical reviews and inspections, as well as demonstrate how imagery is processed, transported, and duplicated. Although treaty members have already successfully navigated through the approval process for the Russian upgrades, the U.S. upgrade process may give member states an opportunity to voice concerns, whether they are related to the upgrade or not. Once the U.S. upgrade is fully operational, it is plausible that a new set of restrictions—including navigation and altitude limitations—could emerge.
Fourth, will parties use the treaty to signal dissatisfaction over other issues? Although this was not its intent, the treaty provides a framework for addressing disagreements in a way that is less provocative than violating an arms control agreement or expelling diplomats. The real challenge for diplomats is appropriately interpreting a treaty restriction caused by a non-treaty issue and responding correctly.
Lastly, will any party move to withdraw from the treaty? It could be argued that if the United States leaves the treaty, this would further erode West-leaning international agreements and institutions, thus giving Russia a strategic gain. This may, in part, explain why Russia has progressively placed restrictions on this treaty and conducted activities that violate other arms control agreements. On the other hand, others believe that Russia has more to gain operationally than the United States. If true, then it is in its best interest to remain in the treaty and continue flying over U.S. sites. Regardless of Russia’s rationale and decisions, senior U.S. officials have indicated they would like to bring Russia back into compliance. Recent U.S. restrictions appear to have this goal in mind, versus leaving the treaty wholesale.
Over the past twenty-five years, the Treaty on Open Skies has provided transparency, confidence-building opportunities, and useful military-to-military engagements. Until recently, signatories have upheld their obligations to ensure the treaty functions correctly. And despite recent restrictions, the Treaty on Open Skies also provides a valuable instrument to measure the health of the U.S.-Russia relationship and gives signatories another forum to confront disagreements. Maybe most importantly, it can yet serve its original purpose, to rebuild confidence between parties.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.