US Lawmakers to Kill Open Skies Treaty
Andrei AKULOV | 02.05.2016 | FEATURED STORY

US Lawmakers to Kill Open Skies Treaty

On April 28, US House Armed Services Committee supported a substantial increase in defense spending. At $610 billion, the legislation is one of the largest single annual budget measures considered by Congress.

The package authorizes more money for advanced fighter jets, new navy ships, and cyberwarfare. The measures are aimed against Russia and Russian interests are high on the agenda.

The US House Armed Services Committee voted to allocate $150 million to help train and equip Ukrainian government forces in their fight against self-proclaimed republics in the east of the country. They backed an administration proposal called the European Reassurance Initiative, а $3.4 billion effort to increase the US military presence in Eastern Europe. The Pentagon is planning to increase the number of combat brigades rotating into Europe, as well as station heavy weaponry and equipment.

Committee lawmakers also debated restrictions on the use of Russian-built rocket engines in launching US military satellites. Since US sanctions were imposed on Russia in 2014, American officials have proposed curtailing the use of the RD-180 engines, which are built by a Russian state-owned corporation. The debates to stop buying Russian engines continue despite the opinion of Air Force officials who have said that there won’t be a viable American-built alternative to the Russian-built engines for several years.

The bill also tackles the question of another major arms control agreement: The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty. The United States has reported that Russia has allegedly violated it.

This claim has been strenuously denied. The US is in violation of this agreement using long-range cruise missile capable Mk-41 launchers for BMD systems in Europe.

Committee members also took aim at another key confidence building treaty. The Treaty on Open Skies authorizes countries to conduct surveillance flights over one another’s territory to monitor military forces.

The bill aims to cut off funding for cooperation with Russia on US overflights until intelligence officials confirm the flights are no threat to national security.

Signed March 24, 1992, the Open Skies Treaty is also aimed at building confidence and familiarity. It permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed, reconnaissance flights over the others' territories to collect data on military forces and activities.

Observation aircraft must be equipped with sensors that enable to identify significant military equipment. The treaty entered into force on January 1, 2002. Twenty-six of the treaty’s initial 27 signatories have ratified the accord. Russia and the US conducted their first observation flight under the treaty in 2002. More than 1,100 observation flights have been carried out since the treaty came into force. All of the territory of a treaty member can be overflown. No territory can be declared off-limits. An observing state must provide at least 72 hours' notice before arriving in the host country to conduct an overflight. The host country has 24 hours to acknowledge the request. The flight plan is to be agreed on by both parties.

In February, US officials publicly complained about a Russian request for a flight using advanced digital cameras.

«I cannot see why the United States would allow Russia to fly a surveillance plane with an advanced sensor over the United States to collect intelligence», Mac Thornberry (Republican-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said back then.

At a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing on February 24, Admiral Cecil D. Haney, commander of Strategic Command, testified that he was «concerned in terms of overflights of any ability of another nation to learn more about our overall critical infrastructure».

Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said at the House Armed Services committee hearing on March 2, «The things that you can see, the amount of data you can collect, the things you can do with post-processing, allows Russia, in my opinion, to get incredible foundational intelligence on critical infrastructure, bases, ports, all of our facilities… So from my perspective, it gives them a significant advantage».

This followed on the heels of the Russian submission of a request to equip its Tu-154 Open Skies surveillance aircraft with digital electro-optical sensors.

The Open Skies transition to digital sensors has been discussed in the context of the treaty for a decade. Russian observation flights are already equipped to fly a digital electro-optical sensor (four bands: red, green, blue, and near-infrared). Treaty members have approved the installation of digital electro-optical sensors on open-skies aircraft, but the United States lags behind Russia in incorporating this technology – that’s the crux of the matter. All sensors carried by Open Skies aircraft have to be approved by all parties. There are agreed safeguards and procedures for certifying capabilities and for making sure that observation flights are not carried out in a manner that would exceed approved sensor capabilities. The Treaty has provisions to upgrade and modernize sensors. It all makes the US claims absolutely unjustified. The United States puts forward no arguments to consider. Russia has not violated the treaty’s provisions. The United States included a new $3 bln initiative to counter Russia in Europe, but failed to allocate a modest sum not to lag behind Russia in equipping the US Open Skies planes with modern digital imaging equipment. That’s it.

It is rather strange that senior US military officers have criticized the Treaty on the grounds that it would require an uncomfortable degree of transparency, which is the Treaty’s central purpose.

Actually, Russia is doing the same thing the United States is doing. It happened to be more effective. It’s not about new sensors but rather the value of the treaty itself.

The US has just violated the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement.

The major arms control treaties – the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-3) and the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty – are still in force, but their future is in doubt with the parties accusing each other of violations. Since the US unilateral withdrawal from ABM treaty in 2002 the arms control regime started to gradually erode. The NATO BMD in Europe and the US failure to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty create problems that seem to be insurmountable. They prevent further progress. Now the major committee of the US House of Representative has made another step to damage the arms control process, which is already in dire straits. One does not have to be a military expert to realize that the remaining Vienna Document on confidence- and security-building measures is limited in its ability to garner information on the ongoing military activities.

From 2014 onwards there have been fears that the Vienna Document is on the verge of becoming de facto defunct, as other arms control and security agreements continue to collapse due to the ongoing tensions in Europe. The Vienna Document and the Open Skies Treaty complement each other. Tearing up the Open Skies Treaty means killing the confidence – building regime between Russia and NATO. All the enormous diplomatic efforts to build a safer Europe and establish verifiable transparency regime will go down the drain to get us back to the worst days of the Cold War. Truth be told, Russia did not start it. The US lawmakers did. Anyone can see that.