The maintenance team at Offutt Air Force Base’s 55th Wing is going to have to keep its ancient, trouble-prone OC-135 photo reconnaissance planes flying at least a few more years.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that he won’t spend money appropriated by Congress last year to buy a replacement jet for the missions, which are mandated by the 1992 Open Skies treaty, because of political uncertainty over the treaty’s future. Those two jets, both based at Offutt and flown by Offutt crews, were built in 1961 and have a checkered maintenance history.
He said he toured one of the planes during his visit to Offutt last month and talked with some of the crew members.
Congress has appropriated at least $41.5 million toward replacing the jets in its 2020 budget. About $250 million is needed. A bidding process was to be started in April, and a contract awarded in September, according to Trump administration budget justification documents. The planes were expected to be delivered beginning in 2024.
But Esper appears poised to halt the purchase in light of recent efforts by a faction of conservative Republicans to pull the U.S. out of the treaty.
“Until we make a decision about the path forward, I’m not prepared to recapitalize aircraft,” Esper said at the committee hearing March 4, adding that the U.S. and its NATO allies “need to speak out more clearly about Russian noncompliance.”
There’s little doubt new planes are needed. The OC-135Bs were built by Boeing at the dawn of the jet age. The four-engine aircraft are based on the same airframe as the Boeing 707 civilian airliner, the company’s first jet, which was last flown by U.S. airlines in 1983.
The Trump administration’s budget justification document states that the OC-135Bs have experienced “decreasing mission reliability due to age, difficulties with out-of-production parts, and increased operating costs.” The document said the planes have completed just 65% of their missions between 2007 and 2017, driven by failures in their engines, fuel system, landing gear, generators and airframe.
“By not recapitalizing the Open Skies aircraft, we are adding risk to our aircrews,” said Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a retired Air Force brigadier general who formerly commanded the 55th Wing, including the OC-135s. “The current aircraft are old, have bad maintenance rates and are prone to breakdown in Russia, putting our crews in bad situations where they are harassed by Russian authorities.”
The Open Skies treaty allows the 34 member nations — including the United States, Canada, Russia and most European countries, in addition to — the right to conduct supervised aerial photography flights over one another’s territory, using expensive cameras, known as sensors, whosewith capabilities arestrictly regulated by the treaty.
The treaty enjoyed bipartisan support until several years ago, when a hard-line faction of Republicans, including former National Security Adviser John Bolton and Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Ted Cruz of Texas, began working to scuttle the treaty. They have alleged that Russia is leveraging it to gain an unfair advantage over the United States.
“The Open Skies Treaty no longer serves to reduce tensions or build trust, if it ever did. Instead it gives Russia a spying capability it wouldn’t otherwise possess, which jeopardizes U.S. security,” Cotton said in a Washington Post op-ed published in December.
Cotton and other critics have cited restrictions of flights along the border of several conflict zones within the neighboring Republic of Georgia where pro-Russian breakaway governments have declared independence. It hasThere are also restrictions on the length of flights over Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea that is packed with military sites.
The treaty’s defenders, though, say it is still quite valuable, especially to our allies, by letting them keep an eye on each other. It also keeps NATO militaries working together, since most U.S. missions are flown in partnership with other countries.
“The Open Skies Treaty is a cornerstone of European security and stability. Crucially, it allows even small countries to get information on military activities around them,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., at a House Armed Services Committee hearing last October. “The violations should be dealt with by diplomatic means, not used as a case for hasty withdrawal.”
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Last fall, the National Security Council reportedly drafted a letter directing the U.S. to begin efforts to withdraw from the treaty. Bacon and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry co-sponsored legislation — later included in the Defense authorization bill — that would place procedural hurdles in the way of withdrawal and require notice to Congress.
“I think we needed to let the White House know, ‘Hey, we’re going to stand up and defend this,’” Bacon said in October.
Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer said in a statement that she continues to support the new aircraft, but she deferred to the Trump administration on whether the U.S. should stick with the treaty.
“I have advocated for the recapitalization of the OC-135B,” she said. “Should the administration elect to remain in the treaty, I will continue to do so.”
In his Washington Post op-ed, Cotton conceded that the old planes are in bad shape. But he sees no value in replacing them.
“Modernizing these aircraft would cost nearly a quarter-billion dollars,” Cotton said. “The money would be better spent on tools that increase the combat effectiveness and survivability of U.S. troops.”