The Trump administration is believed to be preparing to pull out of the 34-nation Open Skies Treaty, a plan that would idle two Offutt-based OC-135B reconnaissance jets and their crews.
The treaty, proposed by President George H.W. Bush following the Cold War, allows member nations to fly supervised photo-reconnaissance flights over one another’s countries. This week, the U.S. and Germany are partnering on an Open Skies mission over Russia.
The planes are crewed and maintained at Offutt by the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, which is part of the 55th Wing. Several dozen Offutt airmen are involved in the program.
The Trump administration hasn’t made public comments regarding withdrawal from the treaty, but congressional sources say there are strong indications the administration wants to get out.
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Some congressional leaders, mostly Democrats, are trying to head off the effort.
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-New York, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, warned against taking such a “reckless action” in a sharply worded letter to National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien.
“American withdrawal would only benefit Russia and be harmful to our allies’ and partners’ national security interests,” the letter said.
Two Democratic House committee chairmen and the senior Democrats on two key Senate committees jointly released a letter urging Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not to leave the treaty.
“Pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty, an important multilateral arms control agreement, would be yet another gift from the Trump Administration to Putin,” the letter said, describing the treaty as “a critical element of U.S. and European security.”
Members of Nebraska’s congressional delegation, all Republicans, have also questioned the move.
“As a signatory to the treaty, we get valuable access to Russian airspace and military airfields on short notice,” said Rep. Don Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general who once commanded the 55th Wing, in a statement. “Planned upgrades to our observation aircraft and sensors will further improve our ability to monitor military activity in Russia.”
The Offutt-based U.S. Strategic Command retweeted a message from Bacon in support of the treaty.
RT @RepDonBacon: Based @Offutt_AFB, OC-135B supports #OpenSkies Treaty by flying peaceful, unarmed flights over 30+ participating countries to observe military forces and activities. This helps build confidence & increase transparency. #DeterrenceTuesdays pic.twitter.com/hARdgcSv30— US Strategic Command (@US_Stratcom) October 8, 2019
Congressional Democrats, and some Republicans, fear Trump would withdraw unilaterally and without consulting Congress, as he did when he pulled out of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Missile Treaty with the Russians earlier this year.
A source with inside knowledge of the Open Skies program told The World-Herald that Trump has signed a memo drafted in part by his former national security adviser, John Bolton, directing the United States to withdraw from the Open Skies treaty by Oct. 26.
Bolton is one of several Russia hawks who have called for the U.S. to leave the treaty, arguing that Russia gets more useful information from the photographic overflights than the U.S. does.
Tim Morrison, a Bolton ally recently named the National Security Council’s top adviser on Russia, and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., are both foes of the treaty.
Opponents argue that the treaty benefits Russia more than the United States because the imagery obtained by the “sensors,” or cameras on board the planes, isn’t as strong as the imagery from U.S. spy satellites. They also say Russia has failed to comply with the treaty by placing restrictions on certain flights. The U.S. has countered by imposing tit-for-tat restrictions of its own.
“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,” Cotton said Tuesday on Twitter.
The program’s boosters say the program promotes cooperation between Russia and the United States and is one of the few remaining areas where the two sides work together. They also say the imagery is useful for U.S. allies who don’t have access to spy satellites.
“U.S. treaty flights over Ukraine and western Russia have yielded valuable data, easily shared between allies,” Kingston Reif, director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association, told The World-Herald in an email. “The flights strengthen ties between the United States and its allies and reassure non-NATO members on Russia’s periphery.”
The two U.S. Open Skies planes were built in 1961 and have been prone to breakdowns. In a letter to Nebraska Republican Sen. Deb Fischer last year, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the planes completed only 64% of their flights in 2017. (Flights in 2018 were canceled because of a diplomatic row between Russia and its neighbor, the Republic of Georgia, but resumed in early 2019.)
In one case, the pilot of a March 2016 flight out of Khabarovsk, Russia, declared an emergency after a generator failure was compounded by a fire in the pressurization system that filled the cabin with smoke. The following year, a flight was cut short after the landing gear failed to retract.
Mattis supported an effort by Nebraska’s congressional delegation last year to purchase two new Open Skies planes. Fischer and Bacon, who serve on the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, respectively, and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, fought off an attempt by the Russia hawks to kill funding. They ultimately secured $146 million in the 2019 budget to buy one of the two new planes.
“I have advocated for the full utilization of our rights under the agreement by procuring aircraft that can properly and fully execute this mission,” Fischer said in a statement. “I will continue advocating to give the airmen flying these missions the full support they need.”
Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank focused on national security, acknowledged that Russia isn’t fully complying with the treaty. But he said the U.S. should counter noncompliance with “strong diplomacy,” not withdrawal.
“Trashing this treaty makes no sense on national security grounds. It helps stabilize an unsettled region,” Krepon said in an email. “The biggest beneficiary of leaving will be Russia. The two biggest losers will be the United States and Ukraine.”
Fortenberry said the treaty is about trust.
”The Open Skies Treaty is one of the last remaining points of contact between the United States and the Russian Federation,” he said, “in order to deter the unthinkable.”