Up to six times a year, a Russian Air Force Tu-214 surveillance jet flies over sensitive U.S. military sites, snapping medium-resolution photos and video.
And every year, one of the two U.S. OC-135B jets based at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska flies as many as a dozen similar missions over Russia.
Those flights have been happening for two decades under the Open Skies treaty, signed by 34 nations after the Cold War ended. The missions have helped verify compliance with treaties reducing the number of conventional forces in Europe as well as nuclear weapons.
“The idea was to demonstrate that it was a new era of cooperation,” said Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Washington-based Stimson Center and an expert in nuclear threat reduction. “Lo and behold, the treaty worked.”
Lately, though, relations between the U.S. and Russia have deteriorated to lows unseen since the Cold War. And senior U.S. military leaders — including Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of the Offutt-based U.S. Strategic Command — have begun to worry that Russia is gaining a lot more from the flights than is the United States.
One major concern is that Russia has upgraded the cameras aboard its Open Skies aircraft to four-band digital sensors, while the U.S. is still using obsolete wet-film cameras. Haney and other defense officials fear that the upgrade will help the Russians make up for shortcomings in their deteriorating network of surveillance satellites.
“There’s really no reason to give them better access to seeing what we are doing,” said Michaela Dodge, senior defense and strategic policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation.
Last month Russia sought permission to fly over the U.S. using the improved system, which it has already used in Europe. The international committee that oversees the flights has 120 days to respond.
“Clearly I’m concerned about any Russian ability to gain intelligence on our critical infrastructure,” Haney said this month at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We have to be careful as we look through the technology advances using digital media versus film.”
“They’re ahead of us,” he added.
The origin of the Open Skies treaty stretches back to a proposal by President Dwight Eisenhower in the mid-1950s. At the time, however, the idea of such transparency was unthinkable to leaders of the Soviet Union.
“It was summarily rejected in Eisenhower’s time as espionage,” Krepon said.
But President George H.W. Bush revived the concept during the era of glasnost, or openness, ushered in after Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in the mid-1980s. Open Skies seemed consistent with President Ronald Reagan’s mantra of “trust, but verify.”
The treaty was signed in 1992 and flights began soon after that, although the treaty officially took effect 10 years later. It allowed unarmed aerial observation flights over the entire territory of its 34 members — mainly European nations on both sides of the former Iron Curtain, as well as the U.S. and Canada. The flights operate with the oversight of the Open Skies Consultative Commission, in Vienna.
The Offutt-based 45th Reconnaissance Squadron has operated Open Skies flights for the U.S. at a rate of about 15 per year, mainly over Russia. Combined, all the member nations fly nearly 100 per year, according to figures from the commission.
Though Open Skies essentially amounts to an approved form of spying, treaty advocates say the flights serve an important purpose beyond any intelligence gathered. The flights help build trust because countries can see what other nations are doing.
“This isn’t about espionage,” Krepon said. “This is about confirming obligations of openness.”
It’s also designed to involve U.S. allies in arms control. Former Soviet client states like Hungary, Czech Republic and Poland — all U.S. partners in Open Skies flights — have a huge stake in making sure the Russians stick to arms-control limits.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, said the concerns expressed by Haney and others are out of proportion.
“They ignore the value of this treaty to the U.S. and its allies in Europe,” he said.
Brian Humphrey, 47, of Papillion worked on Open Skies for 11 of his 24 years in the Air Force — including a stint as commander of the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron. He flew 15 of the flights during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Humphrey said each mission is preceded by consultations with allies.
Then they iron out a route and submit a flight plan. No location in a country is supposed to be off-limits, Humphrey said, unless it is unsafe for the aircraft.
“We’ve flown over places where civilian or even military flights don’t normally go,” Humphrey said.
But in recent years, Russia has increasingly restricted U.S. flights, according to the State Department’s 2015 report on treaty compliance. It has either barred or placed altitude restrictions on flights over Chechnya, Kaliningrad, South Ossetia, southwest Russia and parts of Moscow.
Once a U.S. flight is approved, an Open Skies jet leaves Offutt with a flight deck crew and equipment maintainers. It stops at Joint Base Andrews, near Washington, D.C., to pick up observers from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The agency, which works closely with StratCom to combat the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, operates the sensors on Open Skies flights.
After the U.S. gives 72 hours’ notice, the jet flies to a designated site in Russia. There, it picks up Russian observers and must complete the flight within 48 hours.
Russian flights over the U.S. do the same — with U.S. observers — often starting from Travis Air Force Base in California or Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C.
“Russian overflights of our territory are very carefully circumscribed,” Kimball said. “Our personnel are on the flight. We know what they’re looking at.”
All of the images captured are available to any nation that signed the treaty.
The cameras on Open Skies flights are sensitive, but not too sensitive. The camera resolution is strictly limited.
“This is kind of the cheap man’s ISR program,” Humphrey said, using the military acronym for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. “You can tell there’s a fighter airplane on a ramp, but you can’t tell the configuration.”
Krepon said the photographs themselves aren’t especially important, given that high-resolution satellite photos of almost any place on Earth now are available from commercial vendors.
“Anyone can now purchase imagery that provides better resolution than the Open Skies plane,” Krepon said.
Haney has said he believes, though, that Russia depends more than the United States does on the intelligence gained during the flights. Russia has placed a higher priority on upgrading from wet film to digital technology than has the U.S.
The new Russian sensors also include infrared scanners and a type of radar that can see through clouds — something the U.S. package lacks.
“When we overfly Russia, we don’t get a vote on the weather,” Humphrey said. “You hope you fly through clear air. But half the time you just get pictures of clouds.”
Krepon estimates the cost of upgrading the Open Skies sensors at $45 million. The Obama administration’s overall budget request for the Air Force next year is $167 billion.
“This is so cheap, it gets lost in the Air Force budget,” Krepon said. “The sad truth of the matter is that Air Force procurement and budget folks have not given this any kind of a priority.”
He believes Congress would listen to Haney if he asked for the new technology.
“If Adm. Haney said ‘We need this package, we need it yesterday, procure it,’ we’d have it,” Krepon said. “Let’s get it moving.”
At one time there was a spirit of collegiality between the U.S. and Russian crews. But that has slipped as tensions have grown in recent years over conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.
Humphrey recalled meeting the Russian Open Skies team at an air show in Great Britain during the 1990s.
“They treated me like a long-lost brother,” Humphrey said. “Those days, unfortunately, are in the past.”
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