Photo: Russian Tupolev Tu-154M spy plane. CC BY 4.0 - Photo: 2019

Experts Alarmed at Reports U.S. May Exit Open Skies Treaty

By Santo D. Banerjee

NEW YORK (IDN)— Yet another key arms control treaty – the 1992 Open Skies Treaty – is apparently on the verge of being abandoned by the U.S. and leading arms control and national security experts are warning that If President Donald Trump decides to unilaterally pull the U.S. out of the treaty, it would undermine the security and stability of the United States and European allies, including Ukraine.

The Open Skies is one of the most wide-ranging arms control pacts in the world. Originally an idea by President Dwight Eisenhower and made reality by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, it allows nations to conduct unarmed flights over another country’s military installations and other areas of concern.

Put into effect 10 years later, it has since helped the 34 North American and European signatories — including the U.S. and Russia — gain confidence that others were not developing advanced weapons in secret or planning big attacks.

According to Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Washington-based Arms Control Association, “The Open Skies Treaty provides information about Russian military activities for the U.S. and our allies and provides the Russians with insight on our capabilities. Such transparency reduces uncertainty and the risk of conflict and miscalculations due to worst-case assumptions.” Thereby it contributes to stability and improving each participating state’s national security.

In other words, writes Alex Ward in Vox, the treaty was put into place to prevent arms races — and even wars. “If the United States abandons this agreement, the result will likely be the collapse all that is left of conventional arms control in Europe,” says Alexandra Bell, an expert at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

She and others explain: The Open Skies Treaty includes 32 other countries but it’s really all about the U.S. and Russia. The countries have nuclear arsenals and militaries that dwarf any in the accord and staying in it allows both to gain critical information on each other.

“What’s more, the imagery they collect is shared among all the signatories, giving some less technologically advanced nations their only source of overhead intelligence. That’s important for, say, Ukraine, a treaty member that wants to know about Russian military movements on its border.”

“Withdrawal risks dividing the transatlantic alliance and would further undermine America’s reliability as a stable and predictable partner when it comes to European security,” Rep. Eliot Engel, the House Foreign Affairs Committee chair, wrote in a letter to National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien. “[I] strongly urge you against such a reckless action.”

“U.S. flights over Ukraine and western Russia have yielded valuable data, easily shared between allies,” says Kingston Reif, Arms Control Association’s director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, “The flights strengthen ties between the United States and its allies and reassure non-NATO members on Russia’s periphery.” Withdrawing from the treaty would be another step in the collapse of U.S. leadership and further alienate U.S. allies and partners, he adds.

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 quota of overflights based on how geographically big it is.

So, if the Russian Air Force wanted to fly above the most sensitive U.S. military installations, it would give its American counterparts that advance notice. Then, 24 hours before the overflights are to begin, Russia would have to give the U.S. its flight plan so the plane can be tracked accordingly.

“This isn’t just a hypothetical procedure. It’s been put into effect numerous times,” adds Alex Ward.

Besides, the treaty allows aerial imaging through short-notice, unarmed observation flights over each other’s entire territory. The flights allow observing parties to identify significant military equipment, such as artillery, fighter aircraft, and armoured combat vehicles.

Open Skies aircraft can only be equipped with cameras verifiably limited to a resolution below state-of-the-art technology, and the treaty disallows the collection of any other electromagnetic signals. All imagery collected from overflights is then made available to any state-party.

The 34 states-parties have yearly quotas on overflights and must make the collected information available to all treaty parties.

Since entering into force, the U.S. has conducted almost 200 flights over Russian territory. Russia has carried out more than 70 flights over U.S. territory. U.S. allies continue to value and rely on the Open Skies Treaty for imagery collection.

National security officials, members of Congress, and arms control experts are, therefore, cautioning the Trump administration that withdrawal would be “reckless” and reduce the ability of the United States and European allies to monitor and counter Russian aggression against Ukraine. [IDN-InDepthNews – 09 October 2019]

Related Links

Open Skies Treaty at a Glance,” Factsheet, Arms Control Association
U.S.-Russian Nuclear Agreements,” Fact Sheet, Arms Control Association
Open Skies Treaty: A Quiet Legacy Under Threat,” by Alex Bell and Anthony Wier, in Arms Control Today, Jan./Feb. 2019
U.S. Conducts Special Open Skies Flight [over Ukraine],” Arms Control Today, Jan./Feb. 2019
Open Skies Treaty Flights Resume in 2019,” Arms Control Today, April 2019

Photo: Russian Tupolev Tu-154M spy plane. CC BY 4.0

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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