In Brief

Open Skies: Another Dying Arms Control Agreement?

A pending U.S. withdrawal from the Treaty on Open Skies has alarmed some allies in Europe, who fear losing a valuable means of monitoring Russia.

The Donald J. Trump administration has signaled its intent to withdraw the United States from the Treaty on Open Skies, alleging that Russia has been abusing the multilateral agreement for years. A collapse of the treaty, in force since 2002, would mark a further weakening of the global arms control architecture and another grim milestone in the steady deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations.

What is Open Skies?

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Signed by the United States, Russia, and more than thirty other countries, the Treaty on Open Skies grants participants the right to fly unarmed aircraft over any portion of another country’s territory for reconnaissance purposes. Those wanting access to another’s airspace must request it in advance and keep their overflight mission to a tight script with regard to navigation, altitude, and other settings. Governments can only restrict access for safety reasons—not for national security concerns—although several states have reportedly broken this rule. Since the treaty came into force in 2002, participants have conducted more than 1,500 flights.

Why does it exist?

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The idea of an Open Skies deal spent nearly four decades in mothballs before it became a treaty in 1992. In the early years of the Cold War, the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration wanted overhead reconnaissance capabilities that could warn the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies of a military attack. On the covert side of this effort, the administration pursued projects including the high-altitude U-2 surveillance aircraft and emerging space satellite technology. The Open Skies initiative, which Eisenhower floated to the Soviets at a conference in Geneva in 1955, was the overt component. The Kremlin ultimately rejected the proposal.

An Air Force F-35 Lightning II fighter jet prepares to couple with a KC-135 Stratotanker above Estonia.
An Air Force F-35 Lightning II prepares to couple with a KC-135 Stratotanker for refueling near Estonia in 2017. Christine Groening/U.S. Air Force

President George H.W. Bush revived the idea in early 1989, seeing an opportunity to encourage Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy, and to score an intel win for the United States. “Our country is so open already that I believed the Soviets would gain little additional knowledge about us,” Bush later wrote about his thinking. “We had much to learn about the Soviet Union.”

Open Skies is one of three international agreements—the Vienna Document and the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty are the other two—crafted to increase transparency among military powers and thereby decrease the risk of war.

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Why is it in trouble?

The Trump administration says Russia has been violating Open Skies for years. It has limited flights over Chechnya, Kaliningrad, and on Georgian breakaway territories it has occupied, the State Department says. Additionally, Russia is using the treaty to identify potential targets in the United States, the administration says, and to promote its false claims regarding its annexation of Crimea and occupation of the Georgian separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia has denied violating the treaty’s terms. More broadly, Russia’s noncompliance is said to be part of its pattern of breaking commitments to European security, including the CFE, which it walked away from in 2007, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which unraveled last year.

Military analysts have noted that other treaty members, including Syria and Turkey, have also put up restrictions in recent years that have frayed Open Skies. And the United States enacted restrictions of its own in 2017, limiting foreign military flights over Hawaii in protest of Russia’s alleged treaty violations.

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Who wants to preserve it?

Many Western officials and analysts say that with the prevalence of sophisticated satellite technology, Open Skies is less useful today for intelligence gathering than it is for building trust and encouraging transparency among participants. Still, aircraft provide some reconnaissance value that satellites cannot, and some countries lack the latter.

Eleven European signatories, mostly NATO members, issued a statement expressing “regret” at the intended U.S. withdrawal and calling Open Skies “crucial” to transatlantic confidence building. While acknowledging the treaty’s problems, including Russia’s noncompliance, “this treaty remains functioning and useful,” foreign ministers said.

But there’s likely little that other parties can do to prevent the treaty’s demise. “For well over a decade, the Russian military has made clear that they’re determined to get out from under any restrictions on their weapons and forces,” says CFR’s Stephen Sestanovich. “The Trump administration doesn’t much like arms control either, which means there’s a kind of alliance between the U.S. and Russian national security establishments. Smaller European countries may be unhappy with what the big boys are doing, but can’t really influence their behavior.”

Why does it matter?

If the United States pulls out in six months as threatened, it would be the third major arms control agreement—after the Iran nuclear agreement and the INF—that Trump has discarded. It’s a worrying trend, the administration’s critics say, particularly as many look ahead to next February, when the New START treaty is set to expire unless the parties agree to extend or replace it. The 2010 agreement placed significant limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

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