Open Skies and Old Alliances: Security Cooperation and Treaty Agreements


The Trump administration is considering withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty, perceiving the costs imposed by the treaty to outweigh any guaranteed benefits. The Administration seeks to redirect money spent complying with the Treaty’s transparency requirements to other critical aspects of national defense.  However, the threat of a unilateral U.S. withdrawal from a major security cooperation treaty has divided Congress and has alarmed America’s European allies. 

Since inception on January 1, 2002, the parties of the Open Skies Treaty have conducted 1,500 flights surveillance flights through early October 2019. Signatories of the Open Skies Treaty include the United States, Canada, and 22 European Nations, most of who signed on March 24th, 1992. Today, the treaty hosts 34 members. The rationale behind these flights is transparency. Each member is guaranteed the right to survey another member’s airspace and avoid the risk of being surprised with a military buildup in their backyard. The treaty mandates a 72-hour notice before covered territory is accessible to overflights by unarmed fixed-wing observation aircraft.

Open Sky aircrafts are equipped with four types of sensors: optical panoramic and framing cameras with a ground resolution of 30 centimeters; video cameras with a ground resolution of 30 centimeters; infrared line-scanning devices with a ground resolution of 50 centimeters, and sideways-looking synthetic aperture radars (SARs) with a ground resolution of 3 meters. Both nations can participate in the observations and treaty members can purchase the flight data for their own security purposes.

However, according to the state department, Russia has violated the treaty by restricting access to the airspace over Kaliningrad, Moscow, and the Russian border shared with the Georgia regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The United States responded to limitations imposed by Russia by limiting the length of flights over Hawaii and removing access to two U.S. air force bases used during Russian missions over the United States.

Regarding our European allies, the Trump administration has given them ultimatum: Fix the Open Skies Treaty or we quit. Europe claims that Open Skies maintain Europe-wide security and serves as a rare communications channel between Russia and other signatories. The administration equates the gravity of Russia’s violations of the treaty as the same national security risk as a violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Over the last several years, senior Pentagon officials have been increasingly candid in unclassified settings about the way the treaty has outlived its original purpose.  In a September 2017 hearing, Senator Tom Cotton asked General Joseph Dunford, at the time the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Given the size and capabilities of our satellite constellation versus Russia’s, is it fair to say that Russia gets more benefits from these flights than does the United States?” The former chairman expressed that Russia needs the treaty and the surveillance flights it permits more than the United States. Why should the United States allow its near-peer competitor Russia to enjoy unfettered surveillance opportunities in its airspace?

However, Congress is divided on the treaty. Recently, Senators Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton introduced a Senate resolution to withdraw US from Open Skies Treaty with Russia.  Meanwhile, House Democrats allege that a withdrawal from the Open Skies Treat would be yet another gift from the Trump administration to Vladimir Putin. The House-passed version of the fiscal year 2020 defense authorization act included a provision that would reaffirm congressional commitment to the treaty and prohibit the use of funds to suspend, terminate, or withdraw from the agreement unless “certain certification requirements are made.” The Senate version of the bill did not include a similar provision.

As the United States security strategy becomes engulfed by the era of power competition, current treaty entanglements will have to be remeasured to ensure future defense security cooperation arrangements. The United States will continue to weigh our current treaties costs-benefit analysis. The Trump administrations seems determined to reorient the international system. With that mindset, it seems unlikely that the United States will allow its nostalgia for treaties to handicap our capability to deter the great powers future.

Topics: Air Power, International

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