A post-Cold War treaty set up to give the United States and Russia — and 32 other countries — the right to fly over and photograph one another’s military facilities is being strained by the two nations’ mutual anger.
U.S. and Russian officials have both slapped new restrictions on Open Skies Treaty flights in recent months. U.S. flights are conducted aboard a pair of 56-year-old OC-135B jets flown by crews from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron of the 55th Wing, at Offutt Air Force Base near Bellevue.
Late last month the Russian Defense Ministry announced that after Jan. 1 it would no longer allow the U.S. to launch flights from three designated Open Skies military bases within its borders. That followed a U.S. announcement closing one U.S. base in Georgia and one in South Dakota to overnight stays by Russian crews.
The move is a rollback of an agreement in place since 1992, one of a series of arms-control deals intended to foster trust and transparency as the relationship between the nuclear superpowers thawed at the end of the Cold War.
But it’s also part of a larger conflict that has escalated in recent years, especially since Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Each side has accused the other of violating agreements, including a 1987 nuclear weapons treaty.
The U.S. this month committed to sending defensive weapons to Ukraine, drawing an angry response from Moscow. Congress also has imposed sanctions against Russian officials in response to apparent interference in the 2016 presidential election.
After several years of complaints, the U.S. last June formally alleged that Russia was violating the Open Skies treaty by limiting the length of flights over the enclave of Kaliningrad, a noncontiguous part of Russia between Poland and Lithuania where many Russian military facilities are located. The Baltic Sea area near Kaliningrad has also been the scene of harassment of several 55th Wing reconnaissance aircraft by Russian fighters.
In retaliation, the U.S. last fall imposed limits on Russian flights over military facilities in Alaska and Hawaii.
That cheered some observers who said Russia has cheated on this and other treaties for years with little effective response from the United States.
“It’s a good thing that we’re responding to Russian violations,” said Michaela Dodge, senior defense and security policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. “We’re sending a message that violations have consequences.”
The restrictions are an inconvenience to flight crews more than they are a barrier to intelligence gathering, said Steffan Watkins, a Canadian intelligence analyst who blogs about security issues at VesselofInterest.com. Most of the areas photographed during the observation flights can be studied using commercially available satellite imagery.
To some, what’s going on looks more like diplomatic gamesmanship.
“It’s tit-for-tat, and it’s escalation,” Watkins said. “It seems to be sort of petty. But it’s getting more petty.”
Besides the sniping between the U.S. and Russia, 2018 Open Skies flights are in limbo because of a decision by the Republic of Georgia — which was part of the former Soviet Union — to deny permission for a Russian Open Skies flight over its territory. The two countries fought a war 10 years ago over disputed territories in Georgia.
The council that oversees the treaty is expected take up these issues when it meets in Vienna later this month.
The uncertainty over Open Skies also raises questions about the future of the Offutt-based jets, which are known in the Air Force for their frequent breakdowns while deployed to Russia.
Between January and August 2016 the U.S. had to scrub three of 12 missions because of mechanical failure, an Air Force spokeswoman said at the time. At least one was canceled in 2017, according to Russian media reports.
The Air Force said in a statement to The World-Herald that it would no longer release data on canceled missions “in order to protect operational security for the OC-135 aircrew.”
In 2015 and 2016, the OC-135s returned from about one in four flights too broken to fly again without repairs, a rate near the bottom among all of the Air Force’s aircraft types. Still, they are currently scheduled to continue flying until 2040.
The problem is serious enough that last February the Air Force asked the aerospace industry to submit ideas for a replacement aircraft. The “request for information” cited difficulty in finding spare parts for the jets, which were built in 1962.
Russia already has upgraded its Open Skies platform. It began using a modern Tu-214 jet aircraft and up-to-date digital cameras. The U.S. continues to use obsolete wet-film photo equipment.
The difference in technology upsets Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan Washington think tank focused on defense and national security policy.
“They have new planes, new sensors. We have decrepit planes and old sensors. Why?” Krepon said.
The disparity has also alarmed some senior military leaders, who warned that Russia is getting more out of the treaty flights than the United States is. One of those sounding the alarm was Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of the Offutt-based U.S. Strategic Command from 2013 to 2016.
“We have to be careful as we look through the technology advances using digital media versus film,” Haney told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2016. “They’re ahead of us.”
Installing upgraded cameras will cost about $45 million, Krepon said. Congress tucked $23 million into its 2018 budget for the work — though a Republican congressional source said that money won’t be spent while Russia is deemed to be in violation of the treaty.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford told the same Senate committee last fall that he would like to see the Open Skies treaty continue — but only if the Russians comply.
“There is a decidedly aggressive diplomatic effort right now to bring the Russians back into compliance,” Dunford said.
Krepon believes just as strongly that the U.S. ought to stick with Open Skies. It’s not because the U.S. gets valuable intelligence from the photos — the military gets much better imagery from satellite-mounted cameras.
But, Krepon said, many U.S. allies don’t have access to that imagery. Some of those allies were once part of the Soviet bloc, or the Soviet Union itself, and have a strong interest in keeping an eye on what the Russians are doing.
He would like to see a stronger diplomatic effort to iron out the two countries’ differences.
“A few of us think this is very important,” Krepon said. “The issues are so fixable.”
This report includes material from Bloomberg News.