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Nuclear Weapons

Q&A: Open Skies Treaty

by Jasmine Owens

Questions

What is the Open Skies Treaty?

The Open Skies Treaty allows the U.S., Russia, and other countries that are part of the treaty to conduct unarmed surveillance flights over each other’s territory. The purpose is to promote openness and transparency about military activities and to build confidence between countries. President Eisenhower first proposed the idea in 1955. At the time, intelligence satellites did not exist, and the Soviet Union rejected the proposal because it saw it the same as spying. President George H.W. Bush brought the proposal back in 1989. By then both the U.S. and the Soviet Union had intelligence satellites and territorial overflights would not give either side much of an advantage. Negotiations began in February 1990 between NATO, the Soviet Union, and Soviet-allied countries. The Open Skies Treaty was signed March 24, 1992 and officially entered into force in January of 2002.

Which countries are parties to the treaty?

There are currently 34 countries party to the Open Skies Treaty, including the U.S., Russia, and Ukraine.

How does the treaty work?

The Open Skies Treaty allows each country that has ratified the treaty to conduct unarmed overflights on short notice. An observing country has to notify the host country at least 72 hours before the flight is to occur. The host country then has 24 hours to let the observing country know if it is allowed to use its own plane, or if it must use one provided by the host. Each country has to accept a certain number of overflights per year, which is called the passive quota. The passive quota is usually based on the size of the country. As well, each country is allowed a certain number of flights it can conduct over any country that has observed it. This is called the active quota. The active quota can’t be larger than the passive quota, and one country is not allowed to use up more than half of another country’s passive quota.

In general, countries are not allowed to restrict overflights. The entire territory of the country is free to be observed by other parties to the treaty. Countries can, however, restrict flights over certain areas that may present a safety concern, like flying over a nuclear power plant. Some sensors are allowed during overflights, like photographic cameras, infrared cameras, and synthetic aperture radars. This equipment allows countries to collect information on other countries’ military capabilities and activities but the equipment is not sensitive enough to provide really detailed intelligence. Each overflight collects data that is given to both the observing country and the host country, so both are aware of what information was gathered. If other parties to the treaty wish to have this data too, they are allowed to purchase a copy. Countries are also allowed to work together to conduct overflights in order to split the costs and to use equipment provided by other countries. 

Why does it matter if President Trump withdraws the U.S. from the treaty?

Those that oppose the treaty claim that it is a waste of money. The maintenance of the program and equipment for the overflights is reportedly around $146 million, according to defense appropriations from fiscal year 2019. As well, they argue that the U.S. already has spy satellites in space that do the same job. Opponents also argue that Russia has been violating the treaty for some time now. Russia recently restricted overflight access to Kaliningrad and its border near conflict zones in Georgia. The U.S. has responded in kind, limiting the length of flights over Hawaii, and refusing access to two air force bases Russia used to overnight during their missions in the U.S. The fact that Russia can monitor U.S. military action while restricting U.S. access to its own activities has some officials claiming that the treaty benefits Russia more than anyone else.

However, advocates for the Open Skies Treaty argue that the treaty ultimately benefits the U.S. and its allies more than Russia. This treaty allows countries with fewer technological resources to collect intelligence they would not otherwise have access to. This is especially true for Ukraine. The treaty has helped Ukraine and the U.S. monitor Russia’s military activity near the border it shares with Ukraine. Advocates for the treaty worry that a U.S. withdrawal will weaken Ukraine’s security environment and will present the U.S. as an even more unreliable ally in the region. If the U.S. withdraws from the Open Skies Treaty, it is likely that Russia will follow suit. This will further decrease access to intelligence about Russia’s military activity, a worrisome consequence as a new potential arms race looms ahead.

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