No Reason to Get Rid of the Open Skies Treaty

On the heels of the demise of the INF treaty this August, reports that the United States is poised to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, thus dooming it as well, are worrying. This pact has made it possible for its 34 member states to better assess one another’s military capacity and intentions. Without it, misperception and distrust will increase.

Open Skies enables member states to overfly each other’s territories and take photographs of military facilities and forces, which are then accessible to all signatories. The idea was first proposed by US President Eisenhower in the 1950s and again by President George Bush in 1989. By creating mutual transparency, the treaty was intended to prevent each side from developing dangerous misperceptions about the other’s activities. Since the treaty was signed in 1992, it has facilitated over 1500 flights, more than half of them over Russia and the United States.

Valdai Club to Hold a Discussion on the Latest Trends in Arms Control
On November 1 at 11:00, the Valdai Discussion Club will host an expert discussion, titled “Is Arms Race Under Control? The Future of Strategic Nuclear Weapons in the US-Russia-China Triangle".

The treaty has remained useful to Washington, Moscow, and its other parties. It has them helped manage mutual mistrust, avoid worst-case scenario planning, and mitigate the risk of miscalculation based on faulty assumptions. This said, there have been some recent quibbles. Disagreements centered first on Russia’s shift to digital film, which the US worried could be exploited to collect more information than the treaty allowed, but eventually agreed to. The US also opposed Russian limitations on flights over Kaliningrad, Chechnya, and, to an extent, Georgia (Editor's note: Russia for a long time did not allow flights in a ten-kilometer zone from the borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia) and its altitude limits on flights over Moscow. The United States responded by limiting flights over some of its Pacific Fleet locations. 

But despite these disagreements, member state, including American, military planners and diplomats have found the treaty valuable. Even for countries with substantial satellite networks, aircraft overflights provide visuals that satellites cannot. The fact that the data is shared is no less important. While satellite data belongs to the country that owns the satellite or buys it from a commercial firm, Open Skies data belongs to all treaty participants, including the country whose territory is photographed. Thus, the treaty fosters a multifaceted transparency rooted in an understanding that deterrence, security, and mutual understanding are enhanced if all agree on the facts. Notably, Open Skies has survived the precipitous downturn in relations between Russia and NATO member states of recent years, making it one of the few arenas in which Moscow and NATO members continue to cooperate effectively. 

Opposition to Open Skies appears to emanate largely from the White House (including from former National Security Adviser John Bolton) and parts of the US Congress. The reasons for it are not fully clear but may be linked to a general distrust of arms control pacts and the ways in which they bind the US 

Critics in the United States also argue that Moscow benefits from the treaty more than does Washington. If the US has recently made less use of Open Skies it is because America’s surveillance planes (Boeing OC-135Bs) need updating or replacement. It has still, however, flown over Russia more than Russia has overflown the US. If the Treaty’s opponents in the US Congress block funding for aircraft modernization, then that will indeed limit the benefit the US can gain from the Treaty. This will not, however, be true of other Treaty parties, including most of America’s NATO allies.

The US has not yet taken the formal steps required to withdraw from Open Skies and it shouldn’t. Jettisoning the Treaty would not only remove its direct benefits, but signal the administration’s disregard for an agreement valued by its own military and allies because it serves peace and security. In a world that is already dangerous enough, that would be the wrong signal to send.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.