US House Armed Forces Committee Delivers Punch Against Open Skies Treaty

US House Armed Forces Committee Delivers Punch Against Open Skies Treaty

The Open Skies Consultative Commission in Vienna is going to consider the certification of Tu-214ON, the new Russian observation aircraft equipped with advanced digital cameras. It will replace the Tu-154M-LK-1 and AN-30B planes used for Open Skies Treaty (OST) missions. Two aircraft of this type have been built. Russian Zvezda TV channel reported the planes are going through certification tests at Kubinka air base near Moscow till May 29. It’s done in accordance with agreed procedures for certifying capabilities to make sure the treaty is complied with.

The OST is a basic confidence building agreement effective since 2002. 34 parties have ratified it to conduct surveillance flights over one another’s territories to monitor military activities, including sites and forces’ movements.

Russia has asked and received permission to use sophisticated surveillance equipment. It’ll have the state-of-the-art aircraft and modern monitoring devices to carry out open skies missions.

On May 10, the US House Armed Services Committee removed the funds for two new aircraft designed for OST flights from the draft of the 2019 fiscal year defense budget. Instead, a new version of the bill was approved to retain nearly $6 million for upgrades to the two existing OC-135B aircraft. A provision was introduced to prohibit the purchase of new aircraft until the disagreements with Russia over the treaty are overcome.

And the reason behind it? If Moscow sees that the US is not interested in the OST, it may make concessions in other spheres to preserve the agreement it needs more than Washington does. This is a good example of “cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face” logic, which is really hard to comprehend. The US crews will have to fly obsolete planes and use outdated equipment to “punish” Russia for alleged violations of the treaty along with other steps that have no relation to the issue in question at all, such as extraditing Russian nationals indicted in the US for alleged meddling into the 2016 election! Is it reasonable?

OK, American lawmakers want their country to shoot itself into the foot. The USAF will have limited capability to survey Russia’s territory and the crews will not be safe but why should Moscow care? This is an internal US affair and Russia sticks to the policy of non-interference.

Now a few words about the alleged violations. All flights over Kaliningrad have been restricted by Moscow to the distance of 500km since 2014. Washington considers it a breach. It’s understandable, the area is of special interest for US military intelligence as Russia’s most sophisticated weapon systems are deployed there, including Iskander short range surface-to-surface missiles, S-400 air defense systems and shore based anti-ship missiles. The US says the sublimit of 500 kilometers is not enough for observing the entire region in one flight. But it meets the treaty’s provisions, providing for the same efficiency of observation as in other flights over Russia and contiguous countries: Poland and the Baltic States. Moscow did restrict the flights because of the problems with the use of the region’s limited airspace. It has to guarantee the safety of the aircraft landing and taking off from the Kaliningrad international airport. It’s not a breach.

Russia has also introduced “no-fly zones” in line with its national law. The OST has provisions that allow for deviations under “force majeure,” or an event beyond a state’s control. It has never been a problem until the US-Russia relations deteriorated because of Ukraine. America, Canada, Turkey and Georgia have also established restrictions – nobody has raised any objections.

The US considers the restrictions on observation flights near Russia’s borders with South Ossetia and Abkhazia to be a violation. But Moscow recognized the two republics as independent states. Not being parties to the OST, they are not subject to its provisions. The document says a ten-kilometer corridor along the border of another state must not be breached. Moscow does just that.

The US also says that equipping the Tu-214ON with modern infrared or radar imaging sensors violates the treaty. But the OST does not ban such systems.

Washington does not shy away from openly violating the document. Last year, Russian crews were refused to rest and refuel at Robins air base in Georgia and Ellsworth air base in South Dakota. It puts in question the safety of flights. Since 2018, curbs have been introduced on Russian aircraft flying over Hawaii and Alaska. The missions over the Aleutian Islands have been limited to make the observing aircraft remain within the external boundary of the adjacent zone extending for 24 nautical miles from the coast. This restriction not stipulated by the treaty significantly reduces flight efficiency.

The list can go on. The violations and misunderstandings could be easily solved if there was will but it’s not the case. There are influential politicians and military leaders in the US who would like this treaty to be scrapped along with other security accords.

America has numerous sophisticated satellites to make it without OST flights but its allies do not. The OST allows them access to the information they wouldn’t otherwise have. The absence of the treaty would make them fully dependent on the US for intelligence. Washington considers curbing the OST activities a punch delivered against Russia. It does not care about other 32 nations, which are parties to the treaty. The overwhelming majority of them are America’s close allies. The US may not need the OST but Europe does. It has risen in revolt against the US recently, ready to hit back if a trade war starts, to oppose America on Iran nuclear deal and stand up to pressure to make it buy LNG coming across the ocean instead of much cheaper Russian natural gas to be delivered by the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Europe is not happy about US attempts to tear up all the remaining arms control agreements, including the INF Treaty. Hardly will any European state be willing to host America’s medium range missiles on its soil to become the first strike targets for Russia’s military.

All the restrictions and attempts to hinder Russia’s missions in accordance with the OST could trigger a chain reaction which will ultimately bury the treaty against the background of eroding arms control. The OST provides transparency and enhances security. The House Committee’s decision reflects a trend. One thing leads to another. After all, the OST is used for INF verification. Looks like the Congress is inclined to destroy the whole preventing an unfettered arms race.