America is the agreement’s biggest winner
by NICK ANDERSON
Even within the defense community, many people don’t know that Russia flies surveillance aircraft over the United States, collecting intelligence on military installations, critical infrastructure and nuclear power plants multiple times a year. It’s all with the blessing of the U.S. government.
As one of 32 countries who have signed onto the Open Skies Treaty, which took effect in 2002, we do the exact same thing in Russia. Since the agreement came into force, more signatories have flown than 1,100 surveillance flights over other members’ territories.
The goal of the treaty is to improve relations among these, primarily European, partners through increased transparency. But it’s also in America’s best interests to keep the deal just as it is.
The treaty document’s Article IV specifically states that surveillance aircraft on sanctioned overflights may only carry four types of sensors. These include “optical panoramic and framing cameras; video cameras with real time display; infra-red line-scanning devices; and sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar,” according to the text.
The agreement has specific constraints to the quality of imagery from each of these individual sensor types. When asked for a rough comparison to civilian technology, one source in the Pentagon told War Is Boring that the resolution is sometimes worse than Google Maps.
Some believe that Russia was eager to sign on to the treaty initially in order to make up for a lagging spy satellite program that could not match, or even approach, the capability and capacity of U.S. space-based sensors.
But in February 2016, Russia filed a request with the international body that oversees the treaty to upgrade the dated “wet film” cameras aboard. In exchange for the existing antiquated, commercially-available imagery equipment, Russia sought permission to equip its Tu-154 surveillance planes with an improved digital sensor suite.
“The treaty has become a critical component of Russia’s intelligence collection capability directed at the United States,” U.S. Navy Adm. Cecil Haney, former chief of U.S. Strategic Command, said in April 2016, highlighting concerns over the new equipment.
By allowing Russia to expand its Open Skies capabilities, the United States would effectively be erasing the strategic advantage that it has accrued through decades of investment in high-end satellites.
One official in the Pentagon explained to War Is Boring that the proposed sensor suite would allow the collection of sums of data orders of magnitude greater than the existing systems. Analysts can more easily enhance digitally-collected surveillance through the use of software — a far less costly investment than the geospatial assets that provide high-resolution imagery to American intelligence agencies.
“Digital techniques allow Russia…to get incredible foundational intelligence on critical infrastructure, bases, ports, all of our facilities so, from my perspective, it gives them a significant advantage,” U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, head of the defense intelligence agency, told legislators on March 2, 2016.
With these concerns, along with tensions rising after reports of Russian interference with the 2016 Presidential election, many defense professionals feel that the treaty should be canceled altogether.
However, Open Skies has done a great deal to accomplish its stated goal of easing tensions between signatory nations. For example, in 2014, U.S. and Western European officials heavily leveraged Open Skies to ensure transparency as Ukrainian and pro-Russian separatist forces clashed in Crimea.
Furthermore, all nations that are party to the agreement have to concur with any changes to the treaty. Putting an end to Open Skies would have a further chilling effect on an already strained relationship between the United States, some Eastern European countries and Russia.
On top of that, as Russia conducts more operations on its Western border — near Ukraine and various NATO members — the treaty offers inexpensive opportunities to monitor those activities. Under the treaty, the surveillance planes can collect information about the construction of new installations and document large military maneuvers.
The U.S. government would likely benefit most from simply enforcing the status quo. The United States is the biggest winner in the current paradigm and is not obligated to accept modernization of the treaty.
Maintaining the steady state places the ball in Russia’s court. Officials in Moscow would find themselves forced to either leave the treaty and further sour relations with 32 nations or spend billions of dollars over many years to try and catch up with American capabilities.
Nick Anderson is a PACOM War Planner at Headquarters Marine Corps. The views in this article are his own and do not represent those of the Marine Corps or the U.S. government.