President Donald Trump announced, on May 21, that the United States would be withdrawing from the 1992 Treaty on Open Skies, which permits reciprocated surveillance overflights of participating members’ military facilities as a confidence-building measure. The treaty depositary countries (Canada and Hungary) were sent official notes informing them about the intended US withdrawal and that the mandatory six-month waiting period countdown should now begin. In November 2020, Open Skies obligations will no longer apply to the US. Theoretically, during this six-month waiting period, Washington’s withdrawal could be reversed; and in fact, Trump told journalists the US might return to it if Russia itself begins to comply with the treaty. But Moscow does not seem willing to do anything of the sort: US complaints about Russian noncompliance with Open Skies have been officially rejected in Moscow as “senseless and categorically unacceptable,” according to Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov (Interfax, May 25).
Open Skies is a multinational treaty signed by 35 countries on both sides of the Atlantic (ratified by 34); the US’s withdrawal does not formally end the treaty. Washington’s European allies have expressed regret and discontent, while many in the United States, including presumptive Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joseph Biden, have condemned Trump’s decision to pull out. After some consideration, Moscow at present seems intent to stay in Open Skies despite Washington’s unilateral pullout. The Russian authorities announced that some 90 percent of Open Skies overflights are in Europe. According to Ryabkov, it was the US that has been grossly violating the treaty, while Moscow will be working to keep Open Skies functional “because it important.” Yet, according to Colonel General (ret.) Leonid Ivashov, the Open Skies treaty “does not play any significant role in maintaining the strategic balance or Russian national security” (Interfax, May 25).
Both Ryabkov and Ivashov may be right simultaneously: Moscow does not see Open Skies as essential, but it could decide to continue to abide by its term for the time being and use the opportunity to exploit and possibly widen tensions within the Western alliance. The Open Skies principle of free intelligence-gathering overflights was first officially proposed by then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955, during the easing of tensions between East and West following the death of Joseph Stalin. At that time, the US had a massive fleet of long-range, strategic, photo-surveillance aircraft, which, in fact, already frequently intruded Soviet airspace uninvited. The Soviet Union flatly refused to allow such a legalization of US aerial surveillance, investing instead in high-altitude, long-range surface-to-air missiles to stop those US intrusions. In 1989, amidst the euphoria of the end of the Cold War, then-President George H. W. Bush proposed Open Skies to help build confidence; Moscow agreed, and the treaty was signed in 1992. Test flights began almost immediately, though officially the treaty only went into force in 2001. All intelligence collected during permitted overflights is made available to all Open Skies treaty member countries “in the interest of openness.” Though Washington is still legally (for six more months) a treaty member, Moscow has already called for establishing a mechanism to exclude the US from any further treaty-approved intelligence-sharing (Militarynews.ru, May 26). Certainly, the Russian demand was designed to further undermine Transatlantic solidarity.
Under Open Skies, imagery resolution is limited to 30 centimeters per pixel, which allows for distinguishing a tank from a truck or tractor, but not much more than that. The US has access to much better intelligence, gathered by spy satellites, drones and surveillance aircraft. On August 30, 2019, Trump tweeted a classified image of the aftermath of an explosion during launch preparations of an Iranian Safir rocket at the Imam Khomeini space center. The very-high-resolution photo (better than 10 cm/pixel) was likely taken by the USA-224 spy satellite (Newsru.com, September 2, 2019). The Pentagon also has an operational constellation of five high-resolution Topaz radar spy satellites that have replaced the Lacrosse (a.k.a. Onyx) satellite constellation. These satellites can “see” through clouds, mist, sandstorms or at night and possibly also underground. European allies do not have anything of the sort, while Russia is still struggling to develop an equivalent of the Onyx or Topaz system.
Open Skies initially foresaw the use of An-30 surveillance planes, mass produced in the Soviet Union in the 1970s; several of those are still flying. Russia later certified a Tu-154MLK1 to treaty requirements, with digital intelligence-gathering equipment (Bastion-opk.ru, June 19, 2016). Two additional fully digital Tu-214ON jets were specifically built to Open Skies requirements. Canada and European countries, including Sweden and Finland, maintain a number of Open Skies–compatible surveillance planes, which they mostly use in cooperation with each other. In August 2017, the Russian Tu-154MLK1 was allowed to overfly, at low altitude, downtown Washington and the outskirts of the capital. But US requests to be allowed a similar overflight of downtown Moscow and the Kremlin were rejected. Russia imposed restrictions on overflights of the Kaliningrad exclave and of President Vladimir Putin’s dacha in Sochi; and, according to the US government, it refused to allow overflight requests during major military exercises (which the treaty permits). Additionally, the Pentagon suspects the new Tu-214ON could gather digital information that secretly exceeds Open Skies limitations. The US, in turn, restricted Russian Open Skies flights over Hawaii and Alaska (RIA Novosti, May 26).
The United States possesses two old Open Skies–compatible, fully analogue Boeing OC-135B surveillance jets, built in the early 1960s. The aging OC-135Bs need to be replaced with something akin to Russia’s Tu-214ON, but this could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and result in only a couple planes with limited capabilities, able to generate mostly insignificant intelligence. The US decision to instead abandon Open Skies due to those technical considerations is, thus, understandable; but the political fallout is considerable. Meanwhile, Russia’s investment into procuring two new Tu-214ONs is not a loss as they will still be flying over US troops and bases in Europe. US allies seem intent to continue their joint Open Skies missions over Russia, apparently believing they need an independent source of visual intelligence. This is even though a satellite-based service like WorldView-3, operated by DigitalGlobe, already provides commercially available panchromatic imagery at a resolution of 31 cm/pixel—effectively the same as under Open Skies rules. In fact, European countries could feasibly pool their resources and technologies to produce and put into orbit modern photo and radar surveillance satellites and then share the resulting intelligence. But that is not happening.