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The U.S. Should Withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies
An OC-135 Open Skies aircraft at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., September 14, 2018. (Charles J. Haymond/USAF)
Charles J. Haymond/USAF

The U.S. Should Withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies

Rebeccah L. Heinrichs

Amid reports that President Trump is considering withdrawing the U.S. from the Treaty on Open Skies, there’s been a flurry of op-eds and editorials warning about the threat to “international peace” that such a move poses.

The handwringing is overdone. Whatever purpose it used to serve, the costs of the treaty to the United States now outweigh the benefits. The Trump administration should withdraw from it for three reasons.

First, Russia is not complying with the letter or spirit of the treaty. The treaty is one of several signed near the end of the Cold War that were intended to facilitate trust and transparency between the United States, its allies, and the Russian Federation. It allows member states to conduct unarmed surveillance flights over another treaty member’s territory on short notice, and to take photographs of military assets and personnel in the process. It’s meant to verify that treaty members are doing what they say they are doing — namely, complying with other arms treaties — and, from our perspective, not acting in a way that should cause other nations to fear they might soon be invaded, à la Ukraine.

Russia has been limiting and preventing flights over those parts of its territory in which there is the most interest among U.S. allies: Kaliningrad, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Chechnya. A treaty originally meant to foster trust is doing more to stoke distrust. And even when Russia is technically complying, the timing of its flights and its choice of flight paths are highly concerning. In one instance, Russia flew the Tupolev Tu-154M spy plane over parts of Washington, D.C., and Bedminster, N.J., where President Trump was vacationing at his Trump National Golf Course. According to one U.S. official, the spy plane flew through the temporary flight-restriction (TFR) airspace that was established around the president’s golf club.

The United States has tried to persuade Russia to act responsibly. According to the last State Department compliance report, the U.S. and its allies and partners sought to engage Russia in an effort to resolve concerns about treaty compliance. Unfortunately, “after the last meeting in March 2017, the United States came to the conclusion that Russia did not share the U.S. interest in engaging substantively toward a mutually agreeable resolution.” The United States then moved forward with implementing a few measures, legal under the treaty, to encourage Russian compliance. Neither carrots nor sticks apparently worked.

Over the last several years, senior Pentagon officials have been as transparent as they can be in unclassified settings about the way the treaty has outlived its original purpose. In a February 2015 congressional hearing, Lieutenant General Vincent R. Stewart, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, was asked by Representative Mike Rogers (R., Ala.), “Can you say anything about how Russia, in this venue, is using their Open Skies flights over the United States? And as the principal intelligence officer for the secretary ofdDefense, can you tell us if that concerns you? And what are those concerns?” Stewart replied, “The Open Skies construct was designed for a different era. I am very concerned about how it is applied today. And I would love to talk about that in closed hearing.”

There is evidently far more detail divulged in classified settings about the extent to which the Russians are leveraging the treaty to their advantage. But there are some things one can deduce from the public statements.

In a September 2017 hearing, Senator Tom Cotton asked General Joseph Dunford, at the time the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Given the size and capabilities of our satellite constellation versus Russia’s, is it fair to say that Russia gets more benefits from these flights than does the United States?”

“I believe that argument has been made, and it’s compelling to me,” General Dunford responded.

That’s the second reason the United States should withdraw: The Russians need the treaty and the surveillance flights it permits far more than we do. In an era in which the United States is competing with Russia, it is a wonder why we would permit the Russians the right to conduct surveillance flights in our airspace.

Finally, the surveillance flights that are the treaty’s purpose are expensive, and without a clear advantage to staying, one can only conclude that the money is better spent elsewhere. As Senator Cotton recently said, “Vladimir Putin has violated the Open Skies Treaty for years while continuing to benefit from surveillance flights over the United States. The president should withdraw from the treaty and redeploy the hundreds of millions of dollars the Pentagon wastes on Open Skies flights and equipment to increase U.S. combat power.”

Enhanced combat power, especially in particular systems meant to help deter Russia, would strengthen the hand of U.S. diplomats. The United States can and should continue conversations with the Russians about military intentions and capabilities. As both countries conceive of new strategies and advantages to outmaneuver each other where interests conflict, it continues to be important to look for ways to foster transparency and trust. But we don’t need the Open Skies Treaty to do that.

The Trump administration has sought to reorient American national-security and defense policies toward deterring great powers such as Russia and China and defending American sovereignty. To those ends, it should not allow nostalgia for treaties of the past to handicap us now.

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