The commander of the Nebraska-based U.S. Strategic Command has raised concerns about a Russian request to fly a spy plane equipped with advanced digital cameras over the United States.
Russia filed the request Monday under the international Treaty on Open Skies, which was first approved in 1992 and took effect 10 years later.
It allows signatories to fly unarmed aircraft carrying video and still cameras, infrared scanning devices and certain forms of radar over the territory of other treaty members. Inspections are carried out to make sure the cameras meet the terms of treaty and are not too powerful.
But Adm. Cecil Haney, StratCom’s commander, worries about allowing more Open Skies flights over sensitive U.S. facilities at a time when tensions between the two countries are rising nearly to Cold War levels because of disagreements over Ukraine and Syria.
Senior U.S. defense officials have identified Russia as the No. 1 existential threat to America.
Haney said the treaty has become a critical component of Russia’s collection of intelligence against the United States.
“In addition to overflying military installations, Russian Open Skies flights can overfly and collect on Department of Defense and national security or national critical infrastructure,” Haney wrote last year in a letter to Rep. Mike Rogers R.-Ala., obtained by the Associated Press. “The vulnerability exposed by exploitation of this data and costs of mitigation are increasingly difficult to characterize.”
Lt. Col. Martin O’Donnell, a StratCom spokesman, said Haney is scheduled to testify today before the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on strategic force. Omaha Rep. Brad Ashford serves on the subcommittee.
“I wouldn’t be surprised, given the recent reporting, if (Haney) is asked about it,” O’Donnell said.
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the treaty helps prevent any misinterpretation of military action that could lead to armed conflict.
“While we have pretty good intelligence on a lot of the world, a lot of other countries don’t necessarily have that great of intelligence on us,” Davis said. “So, in the interest of transparency and (avoiding) miscalculation on their part, sometimes it’s worthwhile to allow them to have a look at what you’re doing or what you’re not doing.”
The United States carries out 10 to 12 Open Skies flights a year using two OC-135B observation aircraft from Offutt Air Force Base, said Staff Sgt. Rachelle Blake, a 55th Wing spokeswoman. They are assigned to the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron.
The four-engine jet typically carries a crew of about 16 — pilots, navigators and maintenance personnel from Offutt, supplemented by additional crew members from the Defense Department’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, according to an Air Force news release.
The U.S., Russia and 32 other nations are members of the Open Skies Consultative Commission, which holds monthly meetings in Vienna to implement the treaty.
The treaty allows unarmed aerial observation flights over the entire territory of its members, stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok.
The commission will have 120 days to review Russia’s request.
Treaty members have examined how to modernize the agreement to account for digital cameras, rather than “wet film” devices that were widely used when the treaty was adopted.
This report includes material from the Washington Post.