Michael KreponIn Defense of the Open Skies Treaty

With the Republican Party in tear-down mode, it’s no surprise that demolition efforts on Capitol Hill have extended to the Open Skies Treaty, which has impeccable Republican lineage. Nor is it a surprise that the demolition crew has gotten an assist from Vladimir Putin, whose record of treaty compliance is not stellar. What’s surprising is that some senior U.S. military officers have criticized the Treaty on the grounds that it would require an uncomfortable degree of transparency, which is the Treaty’s central purpose. In truth, the Open Skies Treaty has never been more useful, demonstrating solidarity with friends and allies deeply concerned about dangerous Russian behavior.

The origins of Open Skies date back to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike had a decision to make after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. He could accept the Kremlin’s right to traverse space above the United States or resolve to deny this form of intelligence-gathering by military means. Ike chose to embrace increased transparency rather than place future leaders of both countries on a collision course toward warfare in space.

Ike made this choice over the misgivings of senior military officers, but his reasoning was sound: The Soviet Union was a closed society, and U.S. policymakers and intelligence officials would have more to gain than lose by accepting mutual transparency. Using this same logic, Ike also proposed an “Open Skies” agreement for aerial observation flights, but this was inconceivable to Soviet leaders back in 1955.

When Mikhail Gorbachev tried to reform the Soviet Union through “glasnost,” or openness, President George H.W. Bush revived Ike’s idea for Open Skies. Gorbachev was true to his word. He agreed to allow foreign observers at military exercises in 1983, and then accepted Ronald Reagan’s challenge to “trust but verify” a treaty dismantling intermediate- and medium-range nuclear forces, backed up by intrusive inspections at missile production facilities and bases. Then in 1992, the Open Skies Treaty was signed. Cooperative aerial observation flights became possible from Vancouver all the way to Vladivostok.

Times have changed. Vladimir Putin isn’t Mikhail Gorbachev. Now two senior U.S. military officers have voiced misgivings about the Open Skies Treaty. STRATCOM’s Adm. Cecil Haney worries that, “The treaty has become a critical component of Russia’s intelligence collection capability directed at the United States.” DIA Director Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart believes that, “The Open Skies construct was designed for a different era,” adding, “I’m very concerned about how it’s applied today.”

The crux of these concerns is that Russian observation flights are equipped to fly a digital electro-optical sensor (four bands: red, green, blue, and near-infrared). Treaty members have approved the carriage of digital EO sensors on open-skies aircraft, but the United States lags behind Russia in incorporating this technology. As a result, Adm. Haney is quoted in the New York Times as declaring that, “The vulnerabilities exposed by exploitation of this data and costs of mitigation are increasingly difficult to characterize.” Gen. Stewart also testified along these lines before Congress:

“The things that you can see, the amount of data you can collect, the things you can do with post-processing, allows Russia, in my opinion, to get incredible foundational intelligence on critical infrastructure, bases, ports, all of our facilities… So from my perspective, it gives them a significant advantage.”

Concerns over Russia’s implementation of the Open Skies Treaty will presumably be aired in the Administration’s report on compliance with arms-control agreements. Even so, the symbolic value of these observation flights increases in troubled times. Last year, the United States carried out double the number of flights over Russia than vice versa. More importantly, the United States employs Open Skies flights to improve alliance cohesion and to reassure states around Russia’s periphery. The Treaty has a “ride-sharing” provision that allows participating states to fly together. U.S. ride-sharing partners over Russia in 2015 included Ukraine, Canada, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Great Britain, Turkey, Italy, and Romania.

As for complaints about being disadvantaged by information collected by Open Skies flights, I seek help from wonks who understand this unclassified technology better than I. Why would the use of commercially available EO sensors, operating within the agreed parameters established by the Open Skies Treaty, place the United States at a disadvantage? And if this is the case, why hasn’t the Pentagon leveled this playing field? If there is a problem here, the proper response is to equip the US Open Skies plane with similar powers of observation.

All sensors carried by Open Skies aircraft have to be approved by all parties. There are agreed safeguards and procedures for certifying capabilities and for making sure that observation flights are not carried out in a manner that would exceed approved sensor capabilities. Among these safeguards, host country representatives are allowed on Open Skies flights, flight plans must be submitted and approved in advance, and the data collected are shared.

When the Treaty was first negotiated, participating states approved the use of panoramic and framing cameras using film, video cameras, infra-red line-scanning devices, and sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar – all far less capable than what was then available to intelligence agencies. The maximum ground resolution acceptable with treaty-approved cameras is 30 centimeters. Today, anyone can buy commercial satellite imagery with a resolution of 25 centimeters.

The Treaty has provisions to upgrade and modernize sensors. Film has long ago given way to digital imagery. As noted above, Treaty members have agreed to allow a digital electro-optical sensor package upgrade, but not to allow Open Skies flights to operate so that higher resolution can be obtained. Even so, Adm. Haney and Gen. Stewart have expressed the view that Russia will be able to gain a “significant” advantage if the United States continues to rely on the old film system.

If true, then why not do what the Russians are doing and what Treaty members are willing to permit? The short answer is that the Pentagon dropped the ball. A policy directive to proceed with the upgrade was issued in 2012, but the Defense Department didn’t get around to issuing a request for proposals until 2015, and still hasn’t selected a contractor. The issue isn’t money – perhaps $45 million – which won’t bankrupt the Department of Defense. The problem is that Open Skies flights are a very low priority for the Pentagon.

Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and Bush were right in the past, and their instincts continue to be sound today: mutual transparency is a net plus for open societies when dealing with authoritarian leaders. At a time when the Pentagon is embarked on a new three-billion dollar initiative to reassure European friends and allies worried about Russian belligerence, it makes sense to speed up equipping the U.S. Open Skies plane with digital imaging capabilities, rather to complain about the disadvantages of mutual transparency.

Note to readers: A shorter version of this argument was published in Defense One on March 7th.


  1. Nik (History)

    Gorbachev couldn’t “allow foreign observers at military exercises in 1983” as he was not in power. It was still Andropov.

  2. J_kies (History)

    If I had to bet; the real reason that the US hasn’t upgraded its sensor capabilities was a failure to budget for it.

    Film is still potentially substantially better than the older generation Electro-optical sensors that the treaty will permit (not certain that the current generation commercial digital photography tools as seen at sporting events would pass treaty muster). Film is messy, few labs still support it; the exploitation tools (densitometers etc) and experienced analysts are reaching antique status.

    As an open society with social media and ubiquitous smart phones with geo-tagging, the actual ‘strategic’ yield of the Open Sky’s to the Russians versus all the open source certainly merits a giggle. I suggest the problem with our Generals is a lack of effort and lacking staff expertise to note the minimal data yield against an open society. The existence of Facebook and Google among others makes Open Sky’s of very limited value to the Russians or any other potential military rival.