Analysing U.S. Departure From the Open Skies Treaty.

Russian Tu-214ON, RF-64525, seen landing at Kubinka, which is the OST home in Moscow. (Image credit: Alex Snow)

Russian and Western Researchers Share Perspectives on U.S. Departure From the Treaty on Open Skies.

On May 21, 2020, President of the United States Donald Trump confirmed the U.S. decision to exit the Open Skies Treaty (OST). Washington has long complained that Moscow was repeatedly violating the Treaty, by imposing restrictions on US observation flights over certain areas, including Kaliningrad Oblast, borders with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and by using imagery gathered by its own observation missions to support its expansion goals.

The Treaty on Open Skies (this is the official name even though the version “Open Skies Treaty” is commonly used), originally signed in 1992, entered into force on Jan. 1, 2002, and currently has 34 States Parties. It establishes a regime of unarmed aerial observation flights over the entire territory of its participants with the aim to enhance mutual understanding and confidence by giving all participants, regardless of size, a direct role in gathering information about military forces and activities of concern to them. Its key tasks are to monitor the fulfillment of armament control agreements and expand capabilities to prevent crises in the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other international organizations by means of surveillance flights conducted over Russia, United States, Canada and European countries.

Although not final (“Effective six months from tomorrow, the United States will no longer be a party to the Treaty,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, adding also that “We may, however, reconsider our withdrawal should Russia return to full compliance with the Treaty”), US long rumored departure from the Treaty has caused many reactions. NATO allies have “firmly” confirmed their commitment to the OST and the preservation of effective international arms control, disarmament & non-proliferation, while the Foreign Ministries of 11 European nations insisted the accord “remains functioning and useful” and has “clear added value for our conventional arms control architecture and cooperative security.”

We have asked two researchers, one living in Russia, the other in Canada, to provide a comment on the Trump Administration’s final decision to leave the Treaty.

Here’s what a Russian aviation researcher and The Aviationist contributor who writes under the pseudonym Alex Snow told us:

Among growing tension between the U.S. and Russia, Trump administration did another bold move and officially withdrew from Open Skies Treaty.

Plagued by mutual charges and claims, this agreement has gone ahead until 2014 when the first big US-Russia crisis struck. Dragged for the following 5 years, the treaty kept working until in October 2019 when the decision was made in Washington to withdraw; a decision that took another half a year to become official.

Without diving too much into who, when and how violated terms of OST and remembering that this move arises murmurs of indignation not only among US allies in Europe and Asia, but even in the American military and politic circles, I want to highlight a very interesting and quite new, at least for me, passage from the official document composed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo:

The U.S. “cannot remain in arms control agreements that are violated by the other side, and that are actively being used not to support but rather to undermine international peace and security,” Pompeo wrote in a lengthy statement announcing the United States’ intention to withdraw from the accord, effective in six months. Russia will be formally notified on Friday.

Pompeo both cited Russian restrictions on flights and claimed Moscow has used the treaty as “a tool to facilitate military coercion.”
“Moscow appears to use Open Skies imagery in support of an aggressive new Russian doctrine of targeting critical infrastructure in the United States and Europe with precision-guided conventional munitions,” Pompeo said. “Rather than using the Open Skies Treaty as a mechanism for improving trust and confidence through military transparency, Russia has, therefore, weaponized the Treaty by making it into a tool of intimidation and threat.”

Since the start of the crisis, it’s the first time that Russia is blamed not only for “non equality” of conditions – in favor of itself by acquiring new and sophisticated plane with new and sophisticated equipment vs. old and outdated US and allies fleet, and by denying flights at some sensitive areas or at some sensitive time frames, as opposed of “open and honest” US and allies approach (smile) – but for “gathering intelligence for directly aim precision-guided weapons at targets in Europe”.

When withdrawal of US was proposed for the time, the majority of the Russian military experts was – and still is – convinced that Russia must remain in what will be left of the Treaty, name – ability to fly over EU and NATO, because if something dangerous will arise in the future, it is the primary area of possible future tension. So until now, common perception was that it must still remain Open Skies Treaty just less US.

But Pompeo claim adds a bit of salt to this image. As I see it, not only does the US want to withdraw from OST which is “not in a line” with latest “America first” idea about any participation of US in international agreements and treaties, but it also wants to convince their (mostly EU) allies to leave it too, making Europe more dangerous place.

We have also asked Steffan Watkins, a open source research consultant specializing in ship and plane movements, who writes about his personal research involving ships and planes on his blog Vessel of Interest a comment about the latest development. Watkins is one of the most well versed open source researchers who has kept a close eye on the Open Skies Treaty for many years:

The United States and Russia have been bickering about each others alleged violations of the open skies treaty since 2002, which you can read all the salacious details of in yearly reports produced by the State department expressing the United States’ view of the state of the Open Skies Treaty, and other arms control-related initiatives. The move from wet-film to digital for all open skies treaty sensors was an initiative that was fully supported by the United States, and I believe even initiated by the United States, over ten years ago. However, due to setbacks due to squabbling about money and priorities in the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Senate, it was Russia that produced the first treaty-compliant COTS digital electro optical sensor in 2013 for its An-30B aircraft, and have been flying all of their missions over Europe, where they fly the An-30B for observation missions, using their digital electro-optical sensor ever since.

It was in early 2016 that the Russian Federation requested that the RuAF Tu-154M-LK1’s digital electro optical sensor configuration be certified by the signatories of the Open Skies Treaty (the OSCC), and the faction of Republicans who were opposed to the Open Skies Treaty were not happy at all, drawing in support fro tradition opponents of all things Russian – but – they were defeated by President Obama, and the pre-Pompeo U.S. State Department, who approved the Russian digital electo optical sensor for use over the United States, just like they did in 2013, the last time they did a technical analysis of a Russian digital electro optical sensor, along with teams from dozens of other countries (not all 34 ratified signatories participate in the technical analysis, but all ratify the sensor configuration as compliant). Unanimously, all countries agreed that the digital electro optical sensor (almost identical to the 2013-approved An-30B sensor) was only capable of taking 30cm resolution imagery, and conformed to all limits set out in the treaty. Unfortunately, the media were targeted with talking points from the same Republican faction who is in power today, who portrayed the sensor as “high power”, “advanced”, and weilded the term “DIGITAL ELECTRO-OPTICAL SENSOR” in context as if it were a weapon of mass destruction. At no time did the American press print anything about the other 32 countries other than Russia and the United States, despite all of them also approving the sensor, and all also agreed that it was fully compliant; all the public heard was “ADVANCED” and “HIGH RES”.

In hindsight, considering the synergy of the quotes and opinion pieces, I believe this was a very successful influence operation by the same Republican faction who are behind the withdrawal of the Open Skies Treaty today. The enemies of all arms treaty were soundly defeated by reason and diplomacy in 2016 when President Obama’s State Department, and every country who reviewed the sensor, approved the digital electro optical sensor for use. We were told at the time by allegedly well informed DoD sources that switching from film to a digital sensor (of equivalent resolution) was like moving from Instant Polaroid pictures to 1080HD; which should go down in history as the worst comparison in changing from two equally capable cameras. We were told in 2016 by senior officials in the DoD that digital sensors posed an unacceptable risk, despite the United States government approving the digital sensor for use over Europe in 2013. We were told by US officials that digital electro optical sensors posed an unacceptable risk to national security. Today, the United States has a digital electro-optical sensor they bought and paid for, sitting in an OC-135B for use with the Open Skies Treaty; it’s already there – but they will not certify it since they’re exiting the treaty, by the request of the same faction of Republicans who frustrated funding for the digital electro optical sensor for years, and let the Russians beat the Americans to market with a suitable digital sensor in 2013. Today, the Germans already have their digital electro-optical sensor installed and ready for use; it should be certified by next year and flying over over members of the Open Skies Treaty.

What about Russia’s American-alleged violations of the Open Skies Treaty? The allegations of violations are not without warrant, but they are also not as simple, or as serious, as the faction of the United States government would like to make them out to be in the media, and Russia has been negotiating with the OSCC about all of the American-alleged violations the whole time – in fact, there were more than two violations before, but President Barack Obama’s State Department negotiated through many of them; with only two left to go. Truthfully, the alleged-violations are not the reason the United States is withdrawing from the treaty, this is only the latest excuse being used by a faction of far-right wing Republicans who are trying to destroy all multinational treaties, regardless of benefit to themselves or others. Thankfully for them, it’s against USAF policy to proactively inform the media about the Open Skies Treaty, and the USAF (likely illegally) blocks FOIA access to the flight plans, and post flight reports which are written up describing the Rusian overflight and how the mission went. Without access to information, journalists flounder and have to rely on insiders, who these days are the same opponents who were way out in right field for the Obama years, trying to kill the treaty. With a lot of luck, the United States will be the only party to leave, and they won’t extort some allies to make them leave too. The United States could re-join the Open Skies Treaty during the next administration; I can’t see much would change in the meantime, allies are already committed to continuing the treaty, and Russia may see the value in staying in as well, even without the United States.

The withdrawal from the OST also means that the U.S. aircraft tasked with this mission, the OC-135B Observation Aircraft, will not be replaced. In March, Defense Secretary Mark Esper had already made it clear that the U.S. Department of Defense would not fund a replacement for the Open Skies aircraft (initially planned for 2024) until it was decided if the country did not remain in the arms control treaty.

The OC-135B is a WC-135B modified by the Aeronautical Systems Center’s 4950th Test Wing at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. The first initial operational capability (IOC) OC-135B was assigned to the 24th Reconnaissance Squadron, at Offutt AFB, Neb., in October 1993. Two fully operational OC-135B aircraft were delivered in 1996 and are currently operated by the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron of the 55th Wing based at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. The aircraft carry equipment and systems provide direct support to the cameras and the camera operator, including one vertical and two oblique KS-87E framing cameras used for low-altitude photography (approximately 3,000 feet above the ground), and one KA-91C panoramic camera, which scans from side to side to provide a wide sweep for each picture (used for high altitude photography at approximately 35,000 feet). The interior is arranged to accommodate 35 people, including the aircrew and foreign country representatives and crew members from Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, based in Virginia. The 60-old aircraft have experienced concerning reliability rates, with engine, fuel system, landing gear and other issues that have caused the planes to complete only 65% of their assigned missions between 2007 and 2017.

OC-135B AF 2670 OF shoot landing at Kubinka in Aug. 2015 (Image credit: Alex Snow)

On the other hand, Russia uses the more modern Tu-214ON aircraft that performed its maiden flight in June 2011. The two aircraft in this variant carry the digital electro-optical sensor OSDCAM4060, the same as the An-30B and Tu-154M LK-1. Although no country has had ant SAR or IR device installed or approved/certified for use on OST observation aircraft, the Tu-204 can be equipped with M402N Ronsar side-looking radar with synthetic aperture with a range of 50 km over land and 200 km over water with a definition of 3m over land and 6-8m over water as well as dual-band Raduga IR scanner.

The certification process of the Tu-214ON was somehow troubled. Started between May 21 and 29, 2018 over the Kubinka airfield, with sorties during those Russian specialists and inspectors conducted an aerial survey of the optical test facility at the airbase located to the west of Moscow, to evaluate the digital surveillance systems along with the ground processing components, it initially came to a halt on Sept. 11, 2018, when the United States alone refused to approve the two Tu-214ONs for Open Skies flights at the end of a certification protocol that involved more than 70 experts from 23 members state of the treaty on Sept. 2-11, 2018. Although not officially disclosed, the reason for the refusal were concerns about Russia’s plans to install IR digital cameras and SAR equipment on the Tu-214ONs even though the aircraft carried was the very OSDCAM4060 digital camera used aboard the Russian An-30 and Tu-154 Open Skies certified aircraft; a sensor fully compliant to all treaty standards.

Eventually, the United States certified the Tu-214ON aircraft to operate under the Open Skies Treaty signing the certification report on the margins of the Open Skies Consultative Commission meeting in Vienna about two weeks later. The first missions over the US were flown on Apr. 25, 2019.

The rest is history.

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.