Michael KreponA Simple, Unthreatening Way to Shore Up NATO

Secretary of Defense James Mattis travelled to Asia to calm nerves in Tokyo and Seoul. America’s Asian allies have been unnerved by President Donald Trump’s dismissive rhetoric about alliances based on cost/benefit grounds, and his decision to dump the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. America’s European allies are also deeply unsettled by Trump’s bad-mouthing of NATO and his inclination to view alliances as business transactions. Part of Secretary Mattis’s and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s job descriptions are to help a President who shoots from the lip and whose understanding of geopolitics is skin deep.

Secretary Mattis’s domestic audience is no less important than his interactions with foreign leaders. Much of the American public could use a refresher course on the value of alliances. Alliances are one important way in which the United States separates itself from other major powers. Russia has Belarus. China has North Korea and Pakistan. The United States has alliance partners that span the globe. These partners benefit from U.S. defense ties, while Washington benefits from their geography, bases, expeditionary forces, and military capabilities. Forward-deployed U.S. forces provide visible bonds of common purpose. It would be senseless to loosen these bonds when Russia and China are flexing their muscles and uncertainties abound about America’s direction. Backtracking would invite risk-taking, and risk-taking could invite crises and clashes, whose outcomes could alter power balances in Asia and Europe.

The Pentagon is already taking steps to reaffirm and strengthen the NATO alliance. It is rotating the presence of U.S. air, ground, and sea-based forces in Europe. It is conducting bilateral and multilateral training exercises with allied forces. Military equipment is being prepositioned in the Baltics and elsewhere. Infrastructure is being improved. These and other measures are being carried out under the aegis of the Pentagon’s European Reassurance Initiative. The Obama Administration requested $3.4 billion in fiscal 2017 for these initiatives – quadrupling funding from the previous fiscal year. One clear indicator of the Trump Administration’s thinking and Congressional intentions toward NATO will be whether this $3.4 billion investment in collective security is slashed or increased. Follow the money as well as Trump’s rhetoric.

Another step the Trump Administration and the Congress can take to strengthen NATO is to recommit to the Open Skies Treaty first envisioned by President Eisenhower and negotiated during the George H.W. Bush Administration. President Bush challenged Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to prove that he truly supported openness, or glasnost, by agreeing to accept cooperative overflights with planes carrying approved, commercially available sensors. These aren’t spy missions, since everyone knows the flight plans and the sensors use unclassified technology. Gorbachev agreed, as did the rest of the Warsaw Pact and NATO. The Treaty permitting cooperative aerial overflights from Vancouver east to Vladivostok was signed in 1992. It took a decade to revise implementing procedures to reflect the dissolution of the Soviet Union and to secure the necessary ratifications. Since 2002, more than 1,000 cooperative missions have been flown – an extraordinary testament to the foresight of Presidents Bush and Eisenhower.

What began as a symbol of openness has now become an effective means of reassuring allies and states around the periphery of Russia. The most useful aspect of the Open Skies Treaty is the ability of states to “ride-share.” This allows the United States Air Force to operate with friends and allies on board while overflying Russia. The United States is allowed 21 cooperative over-flights of Russia under the terms of the Treaty. The Air Force has partnered with Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Romania, Hungary, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Italy and others. This list might usefully be expanded to signify solidarity in these troubled times.

What’s not to like? Some critics simply don’t like treaties, and they are working diligently to dismantle them. One reason in this case is that opponents object to the Treaty’s openness – the very reason for its negotiation – because it could facilitate Russian spying. But the United States can exercise a veto over any new, unclassified sensors carried on cooperative over-flights. Another reason is that Russia isn’t entirely cooperative about Open Skies flights – especially over parts of Ukraine, Georgia, and Kaliningrad – the heavily armed Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania. The answer here is to keep pressing for full compliance, not to forfeit the benefits of the Treaty.

The biggest impediment to reaping the Treaty’s benefits lies with the U.S. Air Force. Open Skies isn’t its priority. The two U.S. monitoring planes are old and prone to mechanical difficulties – in sharp contrast to new Russian planes. A new Boeing 737 costs around $50 million; the Air Force’s requirements could double this number, so two new Open Skies planes would cost around $200 million. By adding these funds to the European Reassurance Initiative, Secretary Mattis and Members of Congress can clearly demonstrate America’s commitment to European friends and allies.

Note to readers: An earlier version of this piece was published at Breaking Defense on 2/7/17.


  1. Arms Control Guy (History)

    I work in the arms control realm and am highly supportive of the Treaty on Open Skies (OS)! I find the unclassified nature of its imagery, the concept of partner flights, and the flexible and responsive nature to react to current events to be a huge plus in the world of confidence and security building measures. While Mr. Krepon’s article clearly supports the Treaty, it presents weak policy prescriptions, and is lacking in background information, which only serves to facilitate ignorant commentary.

    I am posting this critique in both commentary sections where the article has been published in the hopes that Mr. Krepon might respond.

    Before addressing policy and background, we should address the elephant in the room: do we think the Trump administration, which has shown great disdain for multilateral treaties, and is apologist vis-à-vis Russian foreign policy aggressions, will be supportive of, or “[press] for full compliance” of the Treaty on Open Skies?

    Despite the USAF researching requirements for a new Opens Skies aircraft (as it has been for the past several years), the reality is that Trump will squander this opportunity. Even if Trump made a 180 degree policy turn and wanted to fully implement the Treaty, we can’t do it if Russia is unwilling to comply, and actively violates the spirit of the Treaty through arbitrary airspace restrictions and selective interpretation.

    If you are in doubt, I point you to the volume of literature on Russian non-compliance with arms control treaties, such as https://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/rpt/, or most recently, Amy Woolf’s 27 January 17 report on INF non-compliance for the Congressional Research Service.

    What we have is a case of unrequited love: the US is clinging to its treaty agreements, but Russia does not want to play, as is exemplified in the DoS compliance reports time and again through Russian CFE (when still playing), VDOC, INF, and Open Skies violations. No amount of “pressing for full compliance” will do anything to resolve this situation until Russia decides it wants to play again. While I agree it would be wholly detrimental to “forfeit the benefits of the treaty,” trite and pithy language, such as “The answer here is to keep pressing for full compliance,” is something I would expect from a college Freshman struggling to wrap up a paper, and not the co-founder of a leading arms control think tank—give us something of substance, not fluff!

    The reality is we can “press” until we are blue in the face, and it will not matter! Mr. Krepon, I have tremendous respect for what you do! I don’t pretend to have the answer to arms control implementation problems, but I’m not the one writing and posting articles. We have limited instruments of power to lead Russia back to fulfilling its obligations in arms control treaties, and the sad truth is the Obama admin didn’t use them, and the Trump admin won’t. What would you offer?

    In a similar theme, I think German FM Steinmeyer is barking up the wrong tree with his desire to reform European arms control measures: the agreements aren’t the problem–Russia is the problem!

    The actions of the Russian Federation, and President Trump are only two of the obstacles the OS Treaty needs to overcome. Over roughly the past 12 months several fringe websites have published a series of negative and misleading articles on the Open Skies Treaty. It’s clear that there is an active effort afoot to kill the treaty by folks offering up what we more recently would refer to as “alternate facts.” As an arms control professional it’s infuriating to read the ignorant commentary by those too lazy to do a little research to become an informed electorate. Exactly the type of people targeted by these “alt news” sites. Folks, confidence and security building measures are a good thing. They were written by bipartisan professionals, with our interests and security in mind, and passed the advice and consent of the Senate! It is time to put down your copy of ChemTrails Weekly, and consider the who/what/why of these articles!

    Now, some highlights of the treaty that were not mentioned in the article, that may clear things up for commenters (and for those not familiar with the Treaty, nor trusting of some random internet commentator, might I suggest that you read the primary source documents. You can find them, and more background information on the OSCE website: http://www.osce.org/library/14127, and http://www.osce.org/oscc.)

    The Treaty on Open Skies (and follow up decisions) provides for:

    · optical sensors—film and digital, with resolution “no better than 30 centimetres”
    · video cameras—with resolution “no better than 30 centimetres”
    · IR—with resolution “no better than 50 centimetres”
    · SAR imaging—with “resolution no better than three metres”
    · Sensors must be commercially available for purchase by any States Party, so they can examine the sensors to ensure compliance with the above resolutions
    Please note these resolutions—they were written in a different era, and by today’s commercially available imagery, they stink!

    The crew of the “Observation Flights” consist of members from both the “observing Party” and the “observed Party.” This is to say that when the Russian Federation flies an observation flight over the United States there will be both Russian and US mission crew aboard the Russian jet.

    The US mission crew are from the Open Skies team at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), and serve as “flight monitor(s).” They are technical experts that understand the Treaty, and many speak Russian; they make sure all treaty rules are being observed during the course of the mission, monitor that the observation aircraft flies the agreed upon profile, staying on course and at proper altitude.

    The same thing happens when the US goes to Russia: Russian aircrew fly on the USAF OC-135 Open Skies aircraft, alongside the USAF aircrew and DTRA mission crew to ensure we play by the rules, too. This system of onboard checks and balances by trained crew members is one of several things that would preclude the use of UAVs (as one commenter suggested) as there would be no way to verify what was happening during the course of the mission.

    Observation Missions
    · Require at least 72 hours’ notice (not going to catch anyone by surprise, and observed parties have time to put their shiny things away…)
    · The observing party must provide the observed party with a copy of all imagery taken, thus both sides know exactly what was observed, it’s unclassified and it’s at resolutions that are often worse than what Google Earth provides for free.
    · A copy must be made available to any State Party, even if they were not part of the Observation Flight, for a very small fee
    · Are limited by flight distances that are specific to each Open Skies airfield enumerated in the Treaty (i.e. you can’t fly for as long as you want)
    · With very few exceptions, Observation Missions are able to overfly the entirety of the observed party (though the Russian Federation consistently does not live up to this obligation)

    One final note, the hyperlink provided in the passage “Another reason is that Russia isn’t entirely cooperative about Open Skies flights …” has nothing whatsoever to do with the Open Skies Treaty! Articles about non-compliance shouldn’t be difficult to find; please find one and fix your hyperlink.