The ‘Open Skies’ treaty which the US signed in 1992 and went into effect in 2002 is the agreement which allows Russian surveillance planes to occasionally fly over the heart of North America, in an unusual arrangement which has US residents understandably freaking out when they might look up and see a large Russian Tu-214ON aircraft overhead.
The post Cold War treaty allows its 34 member states to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights to monitor other countries’ military operations in mutual verification of arms-control agreements.
However, following the Trump administration’s pullout of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), it seems the White House increasingly views the ‘Open Skies’ agreement as also obsolete. CNN reported late Tuesday the administration is expected to soon exit the treaty. “The Trump administration is expected to soon announce that it plans to exit the Open Skies treaty, a US official tells CNN, a move that has already drawn condemnation from Democrats in Congress,” according to the report.
Critics of such a move have sounded the alarm that a withdrawal will only increase the likelihood of a new global arms race between the US and Russia, given it would make it impossible for the US military to closely monitor the Russian military in its own surveillance flights.
According to the State Department, 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 even allows Russian recon flights over tightly restricted Washington D.C. airspace — in past years Russian Tupolev Tu-154s have even flown at low altitude over such sensitive sites as Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, the US Capitol, the Pentagon, and CIA headquarters in Langley.
Prior reports suggesting Trump is prepared to pull out have resulted in fierce push back by Congressional Democrats, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, writing a letter to the Trump administration saying he was “deeply concerned” by the possible withdrawal.
Among vocal supporters of Trump’s reported plan to cancel participation in the treaty is Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who called the Cold War-era agreement a waste.
“Vladimir Putin has violated the Open Skies Treaty for years while continuing to benefit from surveillance flights over the United States,” Cotton said on Tuesday. “The president should withdraw from the Open Skies treaty and redeploy the hundreds of millions of dollars the Pentagon wastes on the flights and equipment to increase U.S. combat power.”