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Trump Administration to Announce Exit from Open Skies Treaty, Democrats Oppose the Pollout

October 9, 2019


An OC-135 Open Skies aircraft takes off September 14, 2018 from the flight line at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska

The U.S. Air Force operates two modified Boeing 707 aircraft as part of the 1992 Open Skies treaty which allows 26 countries unrestricted overflight of domestic airspace to monitor military developments. (Charles J. Haymond/U.S. Air Force)


Top Dems warn Trump against US pullout of Open Skies Treaty

By: Joe Gould and Valerie Insinna

Defense News, October 9, 2019 


Top Democratic lawmakers strongly urged the Trump administration on Tuesday against expected action to withdraw America from a landmark treaty which allows the Russian military to be monitored from the air.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Menendez ― with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash.; House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I. ― said scrapping the 1992 Open Skies Treaty “would be another gift” to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty would be perceived as casting further doubt on the status of the United States commitment to Ukraine’s security and would advance the Russian narrative that the United States is an unreliable partner in the region,” the letter reads.

Open Skies permits unarmed flights over the sovereign territory of 34 signatory nations to monitor military activity and conduct arms control measures. The U.S. uses two aging Boeing OC-135B aircraft, which are flown by the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron out of Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.

Though the U.S. has spy satellites, the overflights have allowed the U.S. and other signatories to share unclassified imagery with Ukraine and other countries near Russia who may not have satellite capability. Last year, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a letter to Nebraska Republican Sen. Deb Fischer that the overflights were particularly useful after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and that it was in America’s “best interest” to stay in it.

The lawmakers alleged the administration was moving forward without consulting allies or Congress and that, “agencies have been directed not even to discuss this matter with Congress.” The administration, they said, had made no case for withdrawing on national security grounds.

“That the administration may now be choosing to withdraw from the Treaty would signal a troubling reversal and a lack of coherent strategic thinking,” the letter reads.

Increased discussions inside the Pentagon and State Department of late have fueled fears the National Security Council is planning a push to withdraw the U.S. from the Open Skies Treaty. “There are a lot of rumors floating around, but there are also fears in the Department of State and Department of Defense that this is on the path to happening,” said one House Armed Services Committee aide.

On Monday, Engel sent his own letter to White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien to urge against the Trump administration’s “reported plans” on Open Skies. A withdrawal would undercut NATO allies and Ukraine, which have lauded the treaty-sanctioned ability to monitor Russia’s military as check on further Russian aggression in Ukraine, Engel said.

“Withdrawal risks dividing the transatlantic alliance and would further undermine America’s reliability as a stable and predictable partner when it comes to European security,” Engel said. “If the Administration is indeed considering a change of status on the Treaty, it must be part of a transparent process that includes a thorough interagency review and consultation with Congress, and that provides other signatories a clear understanding of your intentions.”

The current controversy comes amid an impeachment investigation over Trump pushing Ukraine’s president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and whether Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine as leverage, and avoided an interagency process.

As of Tuesday morning, the White House had not directed the Defense Department to curb Open Skies activities, said Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Carla Gleason.

“The Open Skies Treaty enhances confidence and security by providing a mechanism for mutual understanding,” Gleason said in a statement, noting that Russia had previously been found in violation of the terms of the treaty.

“The United States has imposed Treaty-compliant measures on Russian Open Skies flights over the United States in response to their violations,” Gleason said. “We will continue to work with our partners to press Russia to correct these violations and return to compliance with the Treaty.”

Late last year, the U.S. flew an OC-135 over Ukrainian territory to reaffirm U.S. commitment to Ukraine and other allies ― a signal to Russia after it attacked Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea near the Kerch Strait. It was the first flight of the year after the U.S. and Russia appeared to resolve an impasse over what equipment may or may not be certified on Russia’s overflight aircraft, the Tu-214.

In September, 2018, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan certified, as required by the 2019 defense authorization act, that the U.S. had imposed consequences for Russia’s treaty violations as well as legal countermeasures.

Congress has passed action to support OC-135B recapitalization plans in recent years, but Republicans have been split over the treaty. While the House Armed Services Committee’s ranking member, Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and the Senate Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces chairman, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., have vented frustration over Russian treaty violations, Fischer and other key lawmakers from Nebraska have fought off efforts to strip funding for its modernization.

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a retired Air Force brigadier general who formerly commanded the 55th Wing, defended planned upgrades to treaty aircraft and said the treaty itself “promotes understanding, trust and stability” among its members, “grants the U.S. valuable access to Russian airspace and military airfields on short notice.”

“I understand that the administration is considering if we should remain in the treaty,” Bacon said in a statement Tuesday. “I believe the US was justified in terminating our participation in the [Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty], but I’ve yet to see a compelling reason to withdraw from Open Skies.”

Cotton, on the other hand, has called on the U.S. withdraw for years, arguing it is out of date and favors Russia, in part because it restricts surveillance flights over Kaliningrad, home to a Russian military hub, and the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

"Vladimir Putin has violated the Open Skies Treaty for years while continuing to benefit from surveillance flights over the United States,” Cotton said in a tweet Tuesday. “The president should withdraw from the Open Skies treaty and redeploy the hundreds of millions of dollars the Pentagon wastes on the flights and equipment to increase U.S. combat power.

The House draft of the annual Pentagon policy bill is full of things the White House finds objectionable. Enough for a veto? Probably not.

The funding for the OC-135 recapitalization would be better shifted to other higher defense priorities than a treaty that lets Putin play the U.S. for “chumps,” said one congressional aide, adding: “It’s the height of insanity to burn a quarter of a million to make the Europeans feel good."

The draft 2020 defense authorization bill passed by the Democrat-led House would bar DoD funding to exit the treaty. That is, unless the secretaries of state and defense jointly certify Russia is in material breach and is not trying to return to compliance, and that all the other parties to the treaty concur, or that it’s in the best interest of the U.S. to leave and all other parties to the treaty were consulted.

An Open Skies pullout would mark a reversal for Trump, who signed a 2019 budget that included $125 million towards the first of two new aircraft to replace the aging Open Skies planes. The White House budget office last year fought off an effort in Congress to defund the OC-135 recapitalization effort, arguing the Air Force needed the money to replace the existing fleet of 1960s-era aircraft with “modern, capable, and cost-effective aircraft.”

The Air Force has been preparing to replace both the aircraft and its current wet film camera system, which would move to an entirely digital sensor, processing and control suite. It began surveying industry in April 2018 and initially planned to award a contract in 2020 — although it was unclear Tuesday whether it was still on track to do so.

According to a PowerPoint presentation shown during a May 2018 industry day, the service was seeking out two new commercial airliners that could be outfitted with the existing Digital Visual Imaging System. In April 2019, the Air Force noted in an update to its solicitation that it planned to issue a request for proposals for an OC-135 replacement in June.

However, in June it amended the posting with an additional request for information about “other than new” aircraft that could fill the OC-135’s mission — indicating, perhaps, that the service was not ready to commit to buying new planes and was looking for a more economical alternative. There have been no updates to the solicitation since June 25 and no additional information on when the service might start a formal competition.

The U.S. has signed off on a Russian Open Skies plane, but the two sides remain at loggerheads over future flights.

The possible move to abandon Open Skies follows the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which banned land-based missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, and amid questions over whether the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which applies to weapons with a global reach, will continue past its 2021 expiration date.

Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, noted that U.S. flights over Ukraine and western Russia have yielded valuable data, easily shared between allies. The flights strengthen ties between the U.S. and its allies and reassure non-NATO members on Russia’s periphery, he said.

“The Trump administration has already laid waste to several international agreements designed to enhance the security of the United States and its allies and it appears the Open Skies Treaty could be next on the kill list,” Reif said. “Withdrawing from the treaty would be another step in the collapse of U.S. leadership and further alienate U.S. allies and partners.”

The reports of a possible withdrawal prompted a backlash on social media from arms control experts like Reif but also former government officials who seemed to have been blindsided.

"We are now pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty? Really? Please tell me this can’t be true,” former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said in a tweet.

“Russia hates Open Skies because it requires them to let Ukraine fly over their country,” Jon Wolfsthal, a former National Security Council official for arms control and nonproliferation said in a tweet. “This is another Trump gift to Putin.”


Trump administration expected to announce exit from 'Open Skies' treaty

By Ryan Browne, CNN, October 9, 29019

The Trump administration is expected to soon announce that it plans to exit the "Open Skies" treaty, a US official tells CNN, a move that has already drawn condemnation from Democrats in Congress.

The decision to leave the treaty -- which was signed in 1992 and went into effect in 2002 and allows 34 member states to conduct unarmed surveillance flights over one another's territories -- could affect the American military's ability to conduct aerial surveillance of Russia and other member countries. The treaty is used to help verify arms control agreements, according to the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency, part of the Defense Department.

According to the State Department, the treaty "is designed to enhance mutual understanding and confidence by giving all participants, regardless of size, a direct role in gathering information through aerial imaging on military forces and activities of concern to them."

This would be the latest major international treaty the administration has abandoned. In August the US formally withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, ending a landmark arms control pact that has limited the development of ground-based missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.

Analysts fear the developments are likely to prompt a new and dangerous arms race with Moscow and CNN has reported the US military is set to test a new non-nuclear mobile-launched cruise missile developed specifically to challenge Russia in Europe.

In a statement, a State Department spokesperson said they were aware of Democratic lawmakers' letters regarding the treaty.

"We do not comment on Congressional correspondence. We continue to implement the treaty and are in full compliance with our obligations under this Treaty, unlike Russia," the spokesperson said.

The White House and Pentagon have not responded to CNN's requests for comment on the matter.

Democrats have been quick to criticize the impending announcement.

"Pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty, an important multilateral arms control agreement, would be yet another gift from the Trump Administration to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin," the top Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs, House Armed Services, Senate Armed Services and Senate Foreign Relations committees wrote in a letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

"Not only is there no case for withdrawal on the grounds of national security, there has been no consultation with the Congress or with our allies about this consequential decision. Any action by this administration to withdraw from critical international treaties without the approval of the Senate is deeply concerning," wrote Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York and Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state.

The Russian Embassy in Washington wrote a tweet Tuesday expressing support for the treaty, saying: "We consider the #OpenSkiesTreaty to be an important instrument in ensuring European security on the same level as the 2011 Vienna document on confidence- and security-building measures."

In 2017, an unarmed Russian Air Force aircraft flew over the US Capitol, the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency and Joint Base Andrews at a low altitude as part of the treaty.

The US has in the past accused Moscow of imposing restrictions on flights near its exclave of Kaliningrad, an area between Poland and Lithuania where the Russian military maintains a robust presence.


The Open Skies Treaty at a Glance

Last Reviewed:  September 2017

Contacts: Daryl Kimball, Executive Director, (202) 463-8270 x107

Signed March 24, 1992, the Open Skies Treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed, reconnaissance flights over the others' entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities. Observation aircraft used to fly the missions must be equipped with sensors that enable the observing party to identify significant military equipment, such as artillery, fighter aircraft, and armored combat vehicles. Though satellites can provide the same, and even more detailed, information, not all of the 34 treaty states-parties1 have such capabilities.  The treaty is also aimed at building confidence and familiarity among states-parties through their participation in the overflights.

President Dwight Eisenhower first proposed that the United States and the Soviet Union allow aerial reconnaissance flights over each other's territory in July 1955. Claiming the initiative would be used for extensive spying, Moscow rejected Eisenhower's proposal. President George H.W. Bush revived the idea in May 1989 and negotiations between NATO and the Warsaw Pact started in February 1990.

Treaty Status: The treaty entered into force on January 1, 2002. Twenty-six of the treaty’s initial 27 signatories have ratified the accord and are now states-parties. Since the treaty entered into force, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, and Sweden have become states-parties. Russia conducted the first observation flight under the treaty in August 2002, while the United States carried out its first official flight in December 2002. In 2008, states-parties celebrated the 500th overflight and since then the number of flights flown has risen to more than 800.

Territory: All of a state-party's territory can be overflown. No territory can be declared off-limits by the host nation.

Flight Quotas: Every state-party is obligated to accept a certain number of overflights each year, referred to as its passive quota, which is loosely determined by its geographic size.2 A state-party's active quota is the number of flights it may conduct over other states-parties. Each state-party has a right to conduct an equal number of flights over any other state-party that overflies it. A state-party's active quota cannot exceed its passive quota, and a single state-party cannot request more than half of another state-party's passive quota.

Process: An observing state-party must provide at least 72 hours' advance notice before arriving in the host country to conduct an overflight. The host country has 24 hours to acknowledge the request and to inform the observing party if it may use its own observation plane or if it must use a plane supplied by the host. At least 24 hours before the start of the flight, the observing party will supply its flight plan, which the host has four hours to review. The host may only request changes in flight plans for flight safety or logistical reasons. If it does so, the two states-parties have a total of eight hours after submission of the original flight plan to agree on changes, if they fail, the flight can be cancelled. The observation mission must be completed within 96 hours of the observing party's arrival unless otherwise agreed.3 Although state-parties are allowed to overfly all of a member’s territory, the treaty determines specific points of entry and exit, and refueling airfields. The treaty also establishes ground resolution thresholds for the onboard still and video cameras. The aircraft and its sensors must undergo a certification procedure before being allowed to be used for Open Skies in order to confirm that they do not exceed the allowed resolutions.

Aircraft: The treaty lays out standards for aircraft used for observation flights. Aircraft may be equipped with four types of sensors: optical panoramic and framing cameras, video cameras with real-time display, infra-red line-scanning devices, and sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar. For the first three full years after the treaty entered into force, the observation aircraft had to be equipped with at least a single panoramic camera or a pair of optical framing cameras. The states-parties may now agree on outfitting the observation planes with additional sensors.

Data: A copy of all data collected will be supplied to the host country. All states-parties will receive a mission report and have the option of purchasing the data collected by the observing state-party.

Treaty Implementation: The Open Skies Consultative Commission (OSCC), comprised of representatives of all states-parties, is responsible for the implementation of the Open Skies Treaty. The OSCC considers matters of treaty compliance, decides on treaty membership, distributes active quotas, and deals with any questions that may arise during the implementation of the treaty.

The 2nd Review Conference for the Open Skies Treaty was held in Vienna on June 7-9, 2010 under the chairmanship of the United States. The Conference’s Final Document paves the way for the use of digital cameras and sensors in the future by requesting states-parties consider the technological and financial aspects of converting to digital systems. The document also encourages the expansion of the Open Skies Treaty to other countries, particularly those in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, where the OSCC is headquartered.

Images of Open Skies flights are available at:


1. Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Kyrgyzstan has signed, but not ratified the treaty.

2. For example, Russia, which shares its quota with Belarus, and the United States both have quotas permitting 42 flights per year, while Portugal is only obligated to allow two flights annually. Countries are not required to exhaust their flight quotas. In 2009, the United States flew a total of thirteen flights, twelve over Russia and one over Ukraine.

3. This limit can be extended by 24 hours if the host insists that the observing party use the host's aircraft and demonstration flight is conducted.


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