After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the George H.W. Bush administration negotiated an agreement with 33 other countries to begin Open Skies reconnaissance flights over each other’s territory. The monitoring promotes strategic stability by verifying compliance with treaty obligations for conventional and nuclear forces.
Surveillance aircraft from the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base have played a key role in the initiative for decades. Crews with the 55th Wing have carried out as many as a dozen missions over Russia in a year.
Critics of the Open Skies program in Congress and in the Trump administration say the U.S. should end its participation. Russia gains too much from the flights, they say. But U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, a former 55th Wing commander, and other Open Skies supporters have the better argument. The flights monitor a wide range of Russian activities and provide key information about that country’s military movements in sensitive areas such as the region including Ukraine. U.S. planes have flown three times as many surveillance missions over Russian territory than vice versa.
Then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis testified before Congress in May 2018 that Open Skies flights are an important source of “greater transparency and stability” and a valuable “mechanism of engagement” with other participating nations. The bottom line, he told lawmakers, is that it is “in our nation’s best interest” to remain a partner in the initiative.
Nebraska’s congressional delegation has long supported the initiative. Bacon, U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer have all worked energetically to secure funding to replace aging Open Skies aircraft based at Offutt.
The soundest course is to modernize those aircraft to ensure the highest-quality monitoring of Russian activities in a complex, dangerous world.