How U.S. Open Skies Exit Could Undermine Arms Control

Other NATO nations are not planning to follow the U.S. exit from the Open Skies Treaty, so these camera apertures on Germany’s new Airbus A319 observation platform will continue to be used.
Credit: Lufthansa Technik

The decision by the U.S. government to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty signed two decades ago is creating ripples of discontent within the U.S. and in Europe.

Washington announced on May 22 that it would end its obligations to the arms control treaty in six months, saying that it was “no longer in the United States’ best interest to remain a party to this Treaty when Russia does not uphold its commitments,” in a statement put out by the Defense Department.

The Open Skies Treaty permits its 34 signatories to conduct observation flights over each other’s territory. Aircraft with four types of sensors—-optical panoramic and framing cameras, real-time video cameras, infrared line-scanners and sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar—may make observations anywhere over a country’s national territory. Treaty rules say that the flight may only be restricted for reasons of flight safety, not for reasons of national security. 

  • U.S. cites Russian noncompliance as rationale for withdrawal
  • U.S. Air Force OC-135 fleet modernization plan halted

NATO and European nations may share U.S. concerns about inconsistent flight restrictions imposed by Moscow but see a U.S. departure from the agreement, in place since 1992, as regrettable.

According to the U.S. and NATO, Russia has imposed restrictions on the treaty, in particular those flying near Kaliningrad, Russia’s enclave on the Baltic Sea, and near the country’s border with Georgia. The Pentagon also says Moscow blocked the overflight of a major military exercise in September 2019, “preventing the exact transparency the treaty is meant to provide.”

In an op-ed in The New York Times,  Tim Morrison, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former member of this administration’s National Security Council, added that Russia has been using its overflights to collect “military relevant intelligence on the other parties, like the means to target critical infrastructure.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, during the May 22 meeting of alliance members, called on the Russian government to return to compliance as soon as possible, noting that the U.S. could reconsider its position if Russia complied.

European Open Skies Treaty member states—including Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Spain and Sweden—said they would continue to implement the treaty, saying it has a “clear added value” for conventional arms control architecture and cooperative security. 

Russia rejects the claims of flight restrictions and contends that the U.S. had limited Russia’s own Open Skies flights over Hawaii and the Aleutian Islands. Senior Russian officials, including Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, denounced Washington’s decision. Medvedev said the U.S. had taken another step down the “path of dismantling the international security architecture that took decades to lay down.” 

Moscow believes Washington’s decision could also affect other arms control treaties, with negotiations on the next New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty potentially at risk.

In Washington, the leaders of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees (both Democrats) have written a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo contending that withdrawal from the treaty is illegal. They say it violates the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which requires Esper and Pompeo to notify Congress 120 days before the intent to withdrawal is presented.

“This notification must be based on your joint conclusion that withdrawal is in the best interests of the United States and that other states parties to the treaty have been consulted. To date, this requirement has not been fulfilled,” wrote Reps. Adam Smith (Wash.), the Armed Services chairman, and Eliot Engel (N.Y.), the Foreign Affairs chairman.

President Donald Trump and his administration have support from Repub-licans who lead the Senate for their decision to exit the treaty.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, asserts that the U.S. should withdraw if Russia is not complying with the agreement. “It will be critical for the Trump administration to continue working with our allies and partners, especially those in Eastern Europe, to ensure they have access to the intelligence they need to protect their security. That includes facilitating access to high-quality imagery.”

The U.S. had planned to upgrade the two Boeing OC-135 aircraft delivered to the Air Force in 1996. Late last year, the U.S. issued a request for information saying it was considering awarding two contracts—one for the purchase of two commercial aircraft and another to modify the airframe and provide logistics support. But the Pentagon did not include funding for OC-135 upgrades in its fiscal 2020 budget request. And in March, Esper told Congress he was not prepared to authorize funding for those upgrades until a path forward is clear.

Several signatories to the treaty have dedicated aircraft for the mission; others share or lease platforms from other nations for the task. Germany is the latest country to dedicate an aircraft for the mission, using an Airbus A319 converted by Lufthansa Technik.

Tony Osborne

Based in London, Tony covers European defense programs. Prior to joining Aviation Week in November 2012, Tony was at Shephard Media Group where he was deputy editor for Rotorhub and Defence Helicopter magazines.

Jen DiMascio

Based in Washington, Jen manages Aviation Week’s worldwide defense, space and security coverage.


1 Comment
The only arms that were controlled during "Open Skies" were those of the U.S.