Nations resort to various measures to build confidence and avoid conflict. The Open Skies Treaty is one of those measures and caters for nations, with or without satellite resources, to make am assessment of threat from inimical nations. However, there is a strong feeling in influential quarters in the US to dump the treaty. The author provides the details of the treaty and the tug-of-war that’s on.
Open Skies treaty, a little known but an extremely important strategic confidence building measure which came into effect in 2002 is about to become history under the current US administration and join the list of ill-fated treaties such as the Iran Nuclear Deal, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). This will give a severe jolt to the already stressed security environment around the world.
The Men who initiated
Back in 1955, US President Eisenhower, a veteran of two World wars and ravages of the Korean War first proposed United States and Soviet Union to allow unarmed aerial reconnaissance flights over each other’s country and over their military installations as a confidence building measure, to dispel the growing animosity between the two nations. Soviet Union rejected the proposal, terming it a ploy for extensive spying.
President George HW Bush (1989-1993), another veteran of World War 2, revived this initiative, after illegal U2 aerial reconnaissance over Soviet Union dispelled many a strong doubt about very high state of readiness of Soviet Union to launch a war with a war machinery, highly exaggerated, including their holdings of ICBMs.
Both Eisenhower and Bush understood all too well that ramping up military capabilities in response to faulty assumptions about an adversary was not only wasteful but dangerous too. They understood how miscalculations and misunderstandings could spark a global war with nuclear dimensions.
Besides INF and START 1, Open Skies Treaty too was an achievement of US under Late President Bush and of Soviet Union under Gorbachev and Russia under Boris Yeltsin. These treaties greatly lowered major power rivalry and global tension. It ushered in an era of peace and stability, the fruits of its success and the resultant development can be seen all around the world today.
What is Open Skies Treaty
Signed on March 24, 1992, the Open Skies Treaty permits each of its 34 signatories to conduct short-notice, unarmed, reconnaissance flights over the other members’entire territories, to collect data on military forces and activities. Though satellites can provide the same and even more detailed information, not all of the 34 nations have such capabilities.
The treaty “is designed to enhance mutual understanding and confidence by giving all participants, regardless of size, a direct role in gathering information through aerial imaging on military forces and activities of concern to them.”
The treaty came into force on 1 January 2002. The 34 member states are: Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, the UK, and the US.
Kyrgyzstan has signed but has not ratified the treaty.
Key Points of the Treaty
Territory: All territory of a member can be overflown. No territory can be declared off-limits by the host nation.
Flight Quotas: Every member is obligated to accept a certain number of overflights each year known as passive quota. A member’s active quota is the number of flights it may conduct over other members. Each member has a right to conduct an equal number of flights over any other member that overflies it.
Russia conducted the first observation flight in August 2002 over US while US carried out its first official flight in December 2002. In 2008, members celebrated the 500th over flight and since then the number of flights flown has risen to more than 1500.
Process: Although members are allowed to overfly all of a member’s territory, the treaty determines specific points of entry and exit and refuelling airfields. Certain key aspects of the process are as given in the table below: –
|Conducting Nation||Time Frame||Host Nation Response Time||Remarks|
|Request to conduct flight. This may be a joint request of a few members also.||72 hours in advance||24 hours to acknowledge||Host Nation may accept request for conducting nation’s own aircraft or provide its own aircraft.|
|Flight Plan||24 hours in advance||Four hours to review and suggest changes if any, flight safety or logistical reasons only.||Observing nation have eight hours to agree to the proposed changes.|
|Time for Completion||Within 96 hours of arrival of the Observing nation(s) or as agreed||Host Nation may embed its own observers too in the flight.|
Aircraft. The treaty specifies the standards for aircraft to be used for observation flights. Aircraft may be equipped with four types of sensors: optical panoramic and framing cameras, video cameras with real-time display, infra-red line-scanning devices and sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar. They can use only unclassified cameras of 30cm-resolution, which may be inspected by the host.
Data. A copy of all data collected will be supplied to the host country. All members will receive a mission report and have the option of purchasing the data collected by the observing nation.
Treaty Implementation. The Open Skies Consultative Commission (OSCC), comprises of representatives of all members. It is responsible for the implementation of the Open Skies Treaty. The OSCC considers matters of treaty compliance, decides on treaty membership, distributes active quotas, and deals with any questions that may arise during the implementation of the treaty.
The 2nd Review Conference for the Open Skies Treaty was held in Vienna from 7-9 June, 2010, under the chairmanship of the United States. It paved the way for the use of digital cameras and sensors. The conference mooted the expansion of the Open Skies Treaty to other countries, particularly those in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, where the OSCC is headquartered.
Bone of Contention
This year US conducted an observation flight over Russia on 21 Feb 2019 and Russia conducted a routine flight over western US in end March.
On 7 October, Chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee Rep. Engel sent a letter to National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien raising concern over the rumours that US administration apparently was considering withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty.
US in the past has often raised alarm on noncompliance to the Treaty by Russia.
Russia: The treaty allows countries to keep planes 10km away from their borders with non-signatory countries. Russia uses that exemption to stop others from getting close to parts of two breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that it recognises as independent and non-signatory.
It has also placed a 500km limit, on the total length of surveillance flights above Kaliningrad, a small exclave wedged between Poland and Lithuania that bristles with missiles. In September Russia also denied a request to fly over its large scale “Center-2019” military exercise, which then went unobserved.
- US on its part has similarly restricted the movement of Russian observation flights over its Pacific and Alaskan assets. Moreover, with advanced spy systems in the space the need for observation flights aren’t considered important by US.
On 21 January 2014, the US Defence Science Board advised the U.S. military to delay upgrading its Open Skies OC-135 reconnaissance planes. The report cited the easy accessibility of satellite imagery as a replacement for the reconnaissance trips.
Open Skies Treaty is one of the few confidence building measures wherein all allies of both US and of Russia feel very emboldened and secure when either nation conducts a flight over the other.
Often, the crew of the observing nation are superimposed with the crew of the host nation. Abonhomie and rapport develops between both crews and both crews and they gauge the pulse of each other on many issues ranging from global warming to rising threats of terrorism. This helps in initiating a thaw in the mutual distrust and angst between inimical nations.
One of the most compelling reason of relevance of Open Skies Treaty is that most of the signatories cannot afford to develop and launch spy satellites and often rely on the observing nation for data. Countries launching spy satellites too may not be willing to share information gained from spy satellites and thereby the need for continuance of this treaty.
In certain instances, like the Ukrainian crisis in 2017, the US, with its allies on board, conducted an observation flight over East Ukraine to assess the situation post the Russian intrusion in Ukraine, to finalise their support to Ukraine. This highlighted that observation flights can be used to provide timely succour to a needy friendly member of this treaty.
The world today is badly stressed with disputes and wars raging almost all across the globe. US tariff war, its sanctions and protectionist attitude in trade have further worsened the situation. Tensions in MiddleEast, East Asia, South Asia, North Africa, South America, Arctic and rising terrorism have brought the world to anedge. Global Warming and its debilitating effects are already witnessing powerful nations manoeuvre to control vital resources like fresh potable water.
Amongst all this, the annulment of Open Skies Treaty, an old yet currently relevant and fruitful treaty which has stood the test of time and given a boost to confidence building amongst inimical nations and achieved transparency and peace, will create a turmoil, the ramifications of which are hard to gauge.
Considering the worsening global scenario in which misinformation is a plague affecting decision making, the scope for misunderstanding and miscalculations have increased many folds.
To prevent these from transcending into war and chaos Open Skies Policy needs to be adopted by all UN members and monitored by a UN body. This will enhance confidence building measures and help remove misunderstandings leading to maintenance of peace and stability in the world.
For the present, all allies of US and Russia must convince both the nations to adhere to the tenets of the Open Skies Treaty. It is hoped that the rumours emanating from US about withdrawal from this treaty have activated all its allies to rally in advising it not to walk out of the treaty.
Col RN Ghosh Dastidar (Retd)
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BharatShakti.in)