Maintaining the Treaty on Open Skies

By Abigail Stowe-Thurston

President Eisenhower first proposed the idea for an Open Skies agreement in 1955 as a confidence building measure between the United States and Soviet Union. Although no treaty came of the original negotiations, Gorbachev’s policies of openness and transparency in the 1980s made the USSR a more agreeable negotiating partner when George H.W. Bush revived the concept. The Treaty on Open Skies was signed by NATO members and successor states of the Warsaw Pact in 1992, and the treaty entered into force in 2002. Open Skies allows states that are party to the treaty to conduct observational flights on unarmed aircraft over other parties to foster openness and transparency between nations. Countries are assigned flight quotas based loosely on the size of their territory, and a state may only conduct as many flights as it accepts over its own territory. Images and data collected on an Open Skies overflight conducted by one state are available for purchase by any other state that is party to the treaty.

The Treaty on Open Skies may be a less conspicuous member of the arms control regime than its more publicly discussed counterparts like the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) or the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), but it is this little-hailed document that allows the United States to fly unarmed observational aircraft over 33 other countries, including Russia, within 72 hours of notifying a nation of a flight plan. Despite the increased access to other countries from these flights, the treaty has come under fire by legislators and Pentagon officials over the course of the past year.  Concerns have arisen because of two specific instances of claimed Russian noncompliance: the modernization of recording equipment on Russian observational aircraft, and Russia’s restrictions on Open Skies flights over certain parts of its territory.

The Russian Federation has modernized and digitized its filming technology. The new technology was thoroughly reviewed before the Open Skies Consultative Commission, the treaty’s verification body, approved it. Although some defense officials have expressed concerns that Russia’s more advanced technology will allow them to collect more detailed intelligence on the United States, the digital technology does not introduce new capabilities, and it is likely that the shift to digital recording on Open Skies aircraft is inevitable in the long run. Indeed, the United States is seeking to develop and install its own digital sensors.  Russia’s technological modernization is largely marked by a transition from film to digital recording. Just like older cameras used on Open Skies flights, the new devices have a maximum resolution of 30 centimeters, which is less detailed than commercially available 25 centimeter resolution satellite imagery.

A more open question has to do with Russian restrictions over certain parts of its territory. These limits include the denial of overflights over Chechnya or within 10 kilometers of its southern border with Georgia, and a limitation on the maximum distances of flights over Kaliningrad. According to the treaty, countries must allow overflights over the entirety of their territory, and a flight plan can only be denied because of safety concerns.

On July 14, 2016, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) introduced a non-binding Senate resolution condemning Russia’s failure to abide by the treaty. The resolution, which was approved by voice vote, calls for the United States to “…take such measures as are necessary to bring about the Russian Federation’s return to full compliance with its treaty obligations, including, as appropriate, through the imposition of restrictions upon Russian overflights of the United States.” The administration, which supports the Open Skies Treaty, has expressed that efforts are underway to address concerns about Russia’s restrictions on Open Skies overflights. The United States has issued notifications and requested that the Open Skies Consultative Commission discuss this issue.

Despite legitimate concerns regarding Russia’s restrictions on overflights, Open Skies benefits the United States and its allies by increasing and improving transparency among the 34 states that are party to the treaty. The images and data collected on Open Skies overflights are available to all states that are party to the treaty, which allows smaller states with fewer capabilities to collect valuable information and evaluate security concerns. This provision also allows the states to observe the targets of observational flights over their own territory. While overflights complement the much more detailed information gained from other methods like spy satellites, the significance of the treaty has more to do with confidence building than intelligence gathering.

Proponents of the agreement argue that the value of Open Skies is worth preserving, and that rather than responding to Russian noncompliance by placing limitations on Russia’s flights over U.S. territory, the United States should continue pursuing diplomatic means in order to resolve this dispute. Although the Russian Federation restricts overflights over certain territories, the United States continues to overfly Russia nearly three times more than Russia overflies the United States. Maintaining the treaty preserves the ability to conduct these short-notice observational flights, and to facilitate more transparent international relationships.