Michael KreponOpen Skies

On March 24, 1985, Major Arthur D. Nicholson, Jr. was shot in the chest by a Soviet sentry while observing a tank shed near Ludwigslust, in East Germany. The 1947 Potsdam Agreement for the military occupation and reconstruction of Germany made provision for US, UK, French and Soviet military liaison missions which carried out observations of restricted areas and military exercises behind the Iron Curtain. Major Nicholson was on one of these “tours” when he was shot.

Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was rightly incensed, but reacted wrongly. He sought to shut down the annual consultative meeting of US and Soviet naval officers implementing the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement, which obligated the two navies to talk to each other about proper conduct when operating in close proximity. President Ronald Reagan overrode Secretary Weinberger’s objections and decided to proceed with the maritime consultative meeting, as the US Navy wished.

This painful historical footnote is worth remembering after Vladimir Putin’s land grab in Crimea and his pot-stirring in eastern Ukraine. In reaction, some treaty opponents in the United States have made an issue of Russian overflights of US territory under the 1992 Open Skies Treaty. Moscow wants to use a digital camera that Washington has yet to approve.

Congressman Mike Rogers, the Republican Chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, took serious umbrage of Moscow’s request in a letter to President Obama, accompanied by a press release, portions of which are reprinted below:

Given current world events, President Putin appears to be more than willing to disregard international norms of behavior in seeking geopolitical advantage. We should not now naively believe he will unilaterally adhere to the limitations of the Open Skies Treaty.

Rogers said, ‘Putin’s attempt to upgrade Russia’s sensing capabilities now is particularly problematic. I have serious concerns about the technical advantages Russia would gain.’

Before this tempest in a teapot gains traction, here are some pertinent facts:

An Open Skies Treaty was first broached by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955. It was too radical an idea for a paranoid Kremlin to accept back then. President George HW Bush resurrected this idea in 1989 to test Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost before taking the plunge into deep strategic arms reductions. The Stimson Center was championing cooperative aerial inspections at that time with grant support from the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Amy Smithson and I edited a book, Open Skies, Arms Control and Cooperative Security (1992), covering this ground. There weren’t many in this cheering section. Most arms controllers felt that the initiative was either of limited utility or a dodge, while anti-arms controllers worried that it would be a prelude to more consequential treaties. One typical qualm was ‘Why bother? We have NTM.’ There wasn’t much of an appreciation that collaborative ventures like Open Skies could strengthen US military ties with countries that didn’t have NTM.

Gorbachev consented to the Treaty, along with 26 other original signatories in 1992. Provisional application of some provisions began right away, while the number of signatories rose to 34. By the time all states deposited their instruments of ratification, ten years had passed – quick work in the multilateral treaty biz. Conditions changed, but the utility of the treaty didn’t. One of the initial benefits perceived by treaty backers was to help prevent friction between Hungary and Romania. Both countries subsequently became members of NATO. Now the most useful open skies flights take place over Russia and Ukraine. More on this later.

Since 2002, when the Treaty entered into force, cooperative aerial observation flights have become routine from Vancouver east to Vladivostok. Last summer, treaty overflights passed the 1,000 mark. Each flight carries approved, commercially-available sensors that are operated only at permissible altitudes. The suite of sensors on board are optical panoramic and framing cameras with a ground resolution of no better than 30 centimeters “at the minimum height above ground level;” video cameras with real-time display, again with a 30 centimeter resolution; infra-red line scanning devices operated in a manner that provides no better than 50 centimeter resolution; and sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar with a ground resolution of no better than three meters. Proof of concept flights and confirmation of sensor capabilities are carried out between the host country and the observing state. The data obtained from cooperative overflights are made available to all state parties.

Every state accepts a quota of overflights (Russia and the United States are obligated to accept up to 42 per year) which are divvied up among state parties. The United States, Russia, Sweden, Turkey and a few other countries have dedicated Open Skies aircraft. They are used on a timeshare basis by other states. Prior notification of overflights occurs no less than 72 hours in advance of the airplane’s arrival at a designated point of entry. There is no right of refusal for routine Open Skies missions. Flight plans are provided no later than 24 hours prior to the overflight. Missions are conducted in conformity with International Civil Aviation Organization standards and practices, as well as with national air traffic control rules, procedures and guidelines for flight safety. Overflights of the Kremlin and the White House are not a good idea; ditto for interference with takeoffs and landings at Sheremetyevo and Dulles.

Treaty overflights provide excellent opportunities for the United States to work with friends and allies, as well as to prevent US-Russian relations from going into free-fall. The Open Skies Treaty, like the Chemical Weapons Convention, has a provision allowing extraordinary monitoring measures. This provision has recently been exercised. Three extraordinary overflights have been carried out in conjunction with Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity; a fourth is in the works. These extraordinary measures, which the Kremlin has voluntarily agreed to, could get messed up by mischief makers in Moscow and/or Washington.

As for the brouhaha about equipping Open Skies aircraft with equipment that could give Moscow a leg up on intelligence collection, here are the facts: The House and Senate Intelligence Committees have been pressing the White House to permit US commercial firms to loft satellites and sell imagery to customers, domestic and foreign, with better resolution than the Open Skies plane. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has already given his consent. It’s safe to assume that Russian NTM can also do better than commercially-available Open Skies sensors.

A long overdue Open Skies upgrade from film to four-band multi-spectral digital imagery is in the works. The new digital cameras would be operated in a manner that provides comparable ground resolution to that of the old film cameras. Treaty implementation and consultative processes have given consent in principle to the use of digital imagery, but in practice, not everyone is ready to proceed.

Russia has an Open Skies plane equipped with the new sensor. The United States does not have one ready for installation. In fact, the Pentagon’s Request for Proposals hasn’t been issued yet. The acquisition of this sensor may cost around $45 million, a pittance in the Pentagon’s proposed $500 billion budget for FY 2015 – but it’s not in the budget. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman issued a rare public complaint on April 21st about Washington’s “highly non-constructive” approach toward the Open Skies Treaty in general and allowing the use of their digital sensor in particular.

Relations between Moscow and Washington are bad and getting worse. Complaints about the Open Skies Treaty’s overflights seem trivial, mischievous or ill-informed – but could provide additional fodder for deconstructionists.


  1. Cthippo (History)

    While I fully support the open skies program, it bugs me that the Russians probably know more about US weapons capabilities and where the cutting edge is than the US taxpayers who fund these systems.

    Is the flight path information on the Russian aircraft publicly available? Can we see what they think is most important to look at?

    • krepon (History)

      Flight path info is official use only.

    • Cthippo (History)

      So, not only are we the people not allowed to see what the Russians are seeing, we’re not even allowed to know what they think is worth looking at.

      More and more I feel that secrecy in the United States is aimed at protecting us from our enemies as it is protecting the government from it’s citizens.

  2. Bradley Laing (History)

    From the Cold War space race to the Apollo-Soyuz handshake in space, to holding China at arms length from International Space Station involvement, domestic politics have determined the tone and extent of our international space cooperation.

    That is both disheartening and frightening. Disheartening because space is an inherently international domain which hosts assets providing and transmitting information key to personal, corporate and national well being in a globalized world, and it doesn’t work well without cooperation for the sustainable use of all. Frightening because of the willingness of some politicians to sacrifice space cooperation as a whipping boy for other issues, from personal religious views to disapproval regarding types of government or geostrategic land grabs, or to ignore the need for cooperation altogether.


  3. Bruce Klingner (History)

    I was working Soviet military issues in the USG at the time of Major Nicholson’s death. He had previously provided vital information on the Soviet T-64B tank obtained during a previous mission. The reports of his being shot and the US sergeant being prevented by the Soviets from providing any medical assistance were heart-breaking.

  4. Bradley Laing (History)

    PDf format document outlining United Kingdom “National Space Security Policy.


  5. Bradley Laing (History)

    “The National Space Security Policy
    should be read in conjunction with the Civil
    Space Strategy.”

    —Page 2.


  6. Bradley Laing (History)