Michael KreponThis Would Be A Good Time for An Open Skies Treaty Overflight

Verse of the week:

“I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
— Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things”

Vladimir Putin is behaving badly again. He’s massing troops and equipment near Russia’s border with Ukraine, a border he previously breached in 2014. The last time he upped the ante, in December 2018, Washington demonstrated its solidarity with Kiev by carrying out an “extraordinary,” short-notice overflight allowed under the provisions of the Open Skies Treaty. Canadian, French, German, Romanian and British observers accompanied U.S. personnel, as permitted under the Treaty’s ride-sharing option.

This would be a good time for another extraordinary overflight. Demonstrate U.S. leadership. Load up a brand-spanking new U.S. Open Skies Treaty plane with observers from six or so friends and allies. Demonstrate solidarity. You know the drill.

Except that this is not going to happen. There are no new U.S. Open Skies planes and the Trump administration handed Putin the gratuitous gift of withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty. Its announcement came seventeen months after the extraordinary overflight to demonstrate solidarity with Kiev.

The prime mover of U.S. withdrawal was the treaty slayer, John Bolton, who arranged for its demise before his tumultuous departure from the Trump administration, leaving the final details to his acolyte, Tim Morrison. Their dislike for arms control was greater than their wariness of Putin.

Actually, because of their wariness of Putin, they couldn’t conceive of a treaty negotiated by someone else (in this instance, George H.W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft, and James Baker) that could cause Putin more discomfort than they felt with the treaty in force.

One stated reason for withdrawal was Russian noncompliance. Putin refusal to allow overflights of “independent” enclaves carved out of Georgia, imposed constraints on overflying Kaliningrad in retaliation for an egregious Polish overflight, and engaged in other petty maneuvers. Putin gets poor grades for all of this, but his noncompliance was non-substantive, retaliated against, and worked around.

The other reason given was that Russian overflights of U.S. territory exposed weaknesses in U.S. infrastructure. Such weaknesses are decidedly mutual. And they pale by comparison to weakness via the back door rather than from overhead. Russian hackers stole U.S. secrets through malware, not the Open Skies Treaty.

Open Skies was always small potatoes compared to other instruments of alliance management and U.S. leadership. But every diminution counts. The Open Skies Treaty was also easily eclipsed by the George H.W. Bush administration’s other accomplishments. In four short years, Bush 41 & Co. negotiated treaties greatly reducing conventional and nuclear forces, undertook initiatives to remove the least safe and secure nuclear warheads from operational status, and finalized a treaty banning the possession and use of chemical weapons. Putting in place cooperative overflights from Vancouver to Vladivostok was merely a first step.

There was forethought to linking deep cuts in conventional as well as nuclear forces. These constraints were designed to protect a new status quo resulting from the demise of the Soviet Union and the Soviet empire. Putin’s opposition to this status quo hardened as NATO expanded. He couldn’t abide by constraints on conventional forces — especially limits on moving manpower and equipment within Russian territory. He began to disregard them from the outset.

The Open Skies Treaty was also an uncomfortable fit, but it was harder to walk away from. Putin needed help from treaty haters in the United States, which he received in full measure during the Trump administration.

There is no stronger argument for treaty withdrawal than Moscow isn’t abiding by its terms. The Trump administration’s exit from the Open Skies Treaty was thus accompanied by virtue signaling, but not remedial steps. Cooperative overflights were yesterday’s news, we were told; satellites could provide the data. Alliance management wasn’t a priority; Washington would lead by heading for the exit.

Consequently, there will be no extraordinary Open Skies Treaty overflight in response to the Russian buildup, at least not hosted by the United States. The two U.S. planes are old and overused; they are headed for Davis-Monthan, the boneyard where old aircraft go to rest on their laurels and to be picked apart. The Air Force didn’t want to spend the money for replacement planes and sensor suites, and after Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis left the building, there were no civilians who both understood the Treaty’s value and had the clout to keep the Open Skies planes flying.

The Biden administration has yet to publicly reveal how it plans to proceed with respect to the Open Skies Treaty, but it has reportedly told U.S. allies not to expect a reversal of the Trump administration’s decision.

A reversal would be legally complicated. It would also take time to replace the old airplanes with new ones, properly certified by treaty partners. And besides, Moscow announced its intention in January to withdraw from the Treaty.

What to do? The Biden administration will express solidarity with Kiev in multiple ways. Cooperative overflights with strategic partners, allies and friends still belong in this toolkit, even if the flight plan isn’t over Russian territory.

Here’s a thought: Find a plane, quickly. Equip it with sensors that can look far beyond the Ukrainian-Russian border and invite friends and allies to come along for the ride. Announce the flight plan before executing it. It’s not as good or as useful as an Open Skies Treaty overflight, but it’s one way to regain U.S. leadership and partially repair damage done by the Trump administration.


  1. Steffan Watkins (History)

    Most of the money allocated for USAF replacement sensors has been spent, they own the digital electro optical sensors, one was already mounted (yet non-compliant) in an OC-135. The contract for those sensors was ~$42M, that they’ve already spent.

    Despite saying returning to the open skies treaty might send the wrong message to Russia, in a diplomatic note to allies, the official statement from State stated no final decision has been made, and that’s what I’ve heard too.

    The United States does not need to have a working plane to rejoin the treaty, they can ride along while they’re certifying their new plane(s). The German Air Force used a 19 year old A319 for their “new” Open Skies Treaty plane, there’s no reason to put out a bid for something exotic or fresh off the line. The USAF should have something, like a C-40, they could mount the already purchased cameras in without much fuss.

    Russia has not withdrawn from the Open Skies Treaty. They’ve made their intentions known that they will withdraw by the end of the year so they are not in the Open Skies Treaty by 2022. They are still a party to the treaty now, and will be until the end of the year, or longer, if the Americans resume participation.

    It’s the bottom of the 11th, but there’s still a chance.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Thank you, Steffen, for these important details. Will be watching to see if any NATO allies take the initiative on an extraordinary treaty overflight. — MK