Five reasons why the US should not withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty

By Anna Péczeli | December 11, 2019

Open Skies aircraft taking offAn OC-135B Open Skies aircraft takes off from Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, August 2015. Photo credit: US Air Force/Josh Plueger

In October 2019, reports emerged that the Trump administration was considering a withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty. According to media sources, President Trump has already signed a memorandum to leave the treaty, but the United States has not yet officially initiated the six-month withdrawal process. Before it rushes to a hasty withdrawal, the Trump administration should consider five reasons why the agreement is worth keeping.

A quick flyover. The Open Skies Treaty was signed on March 24, 1992 by the United States, Canada, and 22 European states, and it entered into force on January 1, 2002. Today, the treaty has 34 members (the 35th, Kyrgyzstan, has signed the treaty but has not yet ratified it). The treaty requires each party to allow unarmed, fixed-wing observation aircraft to fly over its entire territory to observe military forces and activities on short notice. The host cannot declare any area or military installation to be off limits. Participants can only restrict flights or request changes in flight plans for weather or safety concerns. The overflights are regulated by a quota system: all members have to accept a certain number of overflights each year (passive quota), and they can also conduct a certain number of flights over other states (active quota). The state conducting the overflight is obligated to share its collected data with the host state. Other parties can purchase the data, ensuring that all treaty members can access all information gained under the treaty provisions.

Since the treaty’s entry into force, the participants have conducted over 1,500 observational flights. Members can conduct these flights with their own aircraft, or they can join the observation mission of another member. Many of the 1,500 flights had observers on board from multiple nations. Even the observed nation can join the observer for the overflight, which means that US personnel are on board during Russian overflights in the United States, and Russian personnel are on board with US observers over Russia. These ride-sharing provisions support direct interactions between military observers and promote dialogue.

Although there have been a few disagreements between the states, most of these differences have been sorted out in the Open Skies Consultative Commission. The current problems around the treaty’s implementation date back to 2010, when reports began to emerge that Russia was prohibiting observation missions over its border area with the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In 2014, Moscow imposed additional restrictions by limiting the total length of observer flights over the Kaliningrad Oblast to 500 kilometers or less. The United States first informed the parties about Russian noncompliance in June 2017. These concerns were repeated in the State Department’s annual Compliance Report of August 2019.

Since 2015, the US government has worked with allies and partners to put pressure on Russia over these assessed violations. The United States has also taken several treaty-compliant and reversible measures of its own, including restricting flyovers of the Hawaiian Islands and disallowing courtesy overnight accommodations at certain mainland Open Skies Refueling Airfields. In October 2017, Russia stated that it would take reciprocal actions in response to the US measures.

Although Russian noncompliance is troubling and merits a response, it does not mean that the treaty has lost its value for the United States. In fact, the State Department recently concluded that the Russian constraints did not prevent US intelligence gathering over the restricted areas. Moreover, the implementation of the treaty continues to provide net benefits by directly supporting US national security and foreign policy goals in Europe. Here are five of those benefits:

The treaty helps the United States monitor Russian military activities. In the 2002–2016 period, the United States conducted 196 observation flights over Russia, while Russia conducted only 71 observation flights over the United States. In addition, the United States has access to information from the flights conducted by US allies over Russia, which amounts to over 500 observation flights since 2002. Information gained through these flights has proven crucial in getting the support of European allies and shaping public opinion about Russian activities in Georgia and Ukraine by revealing key facts on the ground that undermine Russian disinformation efforts. As former Secretary of Defense James Mattis noted in a 2018 letter to Sen. Debra Fischer, “in 2014, Treaty imagery was a key visual aid during US engagement with allies and Russia regarding the military crisis in Ukraine.”

Today, the access to Russian airspace and military installations continues to be an important tool to monitor and constrain Moscow’s further aggression in the post-Soviet space. As the amount of Russian snap exercises has dramatically grown in the past five years, these monitoring efforts add to the overall picture of their military maneuvers, and the positioning of their forces.

The case of Ukraine is the most notable example for the continued utility of the treaty. Since the annexation of Crimea, the United States and its allies have used the treaty mechanisms to monitor the activities of Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine, and they have also provided Ukraine with access to the collected data. The overflights were frozen for all of 2018 due to several disagreements among the parties, but Ukraine was nevertheless able to request an “extraordinary flight” over its Eastern territories after a Russian attack on Ukrainian naval vessels in November 2018. These measures send an important sign of support toward Kyiv, and the transparency also helps Ukraine defend itself from further aggression by putting some level of check on Russia.

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The treaty is important for US allies and it contributes to European security. The Open Skies Treaty provides small European states that do not have significant satellite capabilities with a very important tool to monitor their powerful neighbors—particularly Russia—and hold them accountable for their military activities. According to former Secretary of State George Shultz, for these states, “Open Skies is their only means of alleviating security concerns through timely overhead imagery.” The ride-sharing clause in the treaty strengthens cooperation by creating an opportunity to pool resources, conduct flights together, and share the costs between the United States and Europe. Due to the asymmetry in capabilities, continued US implementation of the treaty is a strong sign of solidarity toward our allies. Since the Trump administration was reportedly considering withdrawal from the treaty, several allies and partners expressed their desire to keep the United States in the agreement, claiming that it is important for their national security.

A US decision to leave the treaty would probably trigger reciprocal withdrawal from Russia, putting the whole agreement in jeopardy. While the US withdrawal would close the door on Russian observation flights over the United States, European allies could continue to monitor Russia and share the information with Washington. This would put Russia at a disadvantage, and Moscow is not likely to allow continued overflights in its airspace if it cannot get access to US airspace in return. While Russia and the United States could continue to monitor each other through their advanced national technical means, US withdrawal would hurt European interests by directly undercutting their ability to collect timely information on Russia.

As former Secretary of Defense Mattis argued, the treaty is in the interest of the United States because it “contributes to greater transparency and stability in the Euro-Atlantic region, which benefits both the United States and our allies and partners.” Members of Congress have voiced similar arguments, emphasizing that the agreement remains “an important multilateral arms control agreement” and there is “no case for withdrawal on the grounds of national security.” According to them, a US pullout would only benefit Russia.

The treaty has real military value in protecting US intelligence gathering methods. The Open Skies Treaty remains a source of valuable intelligence that is easy to share among states. In his confirmation hearing, the head of US Strategic Command, Vice Adm. Charles Richard, said, “The US benefits from using Open Skies images which can provide indisputable evidence without necessitating the exposure of our intelligence capabilities.” According to the New York Times, the United States very often does not share the data from its satellites or other assets because it wants to protect its own intelligence gathering methods (and even if it shares the information, the security clearance process can be extremely lengthy). By contrast, the treaty creates clear mechanisms to share data from the observation flights, making the flow of information much smoother and faster. If the United States withdrew from the treaty, Washington could still share information with Ukraine, but it would take longer and would risk revealing US intelligence sources and methods.

From an intelligence perspective, another advantage of observation flights is their promptness. Observation flights can be conducted on 72-hour notice, while it can take days to get satellites in place.

The treaty does not give Russia an unfair advantage, as treaty opponents claim. Those who favor a US withdrawal claim that Russia has gained an unfair advantage through the treaty, and they usually make this argument on two grounds. First, they claim that the overflights are a critical element of Russia’s intelligence collection directed at the United States, and they fear that with better optical technology on its aircraft, Russia could use treaty data to overcome its weaknesses in satellite surveillance. The second part of the argument is that the United States is lagging behind in the incorporation of this technology on Open Skies aircraft, which places it at a disadvantage.

Regarding the first part of the argument, it is true that Russia has upgraded its sensors. But the treaty puts clear restrictions on the ground resolution of any sensor. Even these new capabilities are so limited that some commercial satellites can provide more precise information than Russia’s new observer cameras. Moreover, the agreement is more of a tool for states to confirm things they already know, not to discover new things. As Nathan Crawford from Consolidated Resource Imaging (a US Air Force contractor that supports the digitalization of treaty data) argues, “This is a verification sensor, not an undiscovered intelligence sensor. It’s meant to verify what [the signatory nations] say [about their forces and deployments], not discover things we don’t know.”

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Plus, new technologies need to be approved by unanimous consensus before any party can place them on treaty aircraft. This gives the United States a veto power against any Russian upgrade that could potentially reveal more information than the United States is ready to share. (In 2018, the US actually used this provision to block Russia’s new cameras for two weeks before eventually relenting.)

Regarding the second part of the argument—that the US is lagging behind on its own sensors—there is some truth to the claim. But, as arms control expert Michael Krepon points out, the reason that the Department of Defense has not upgraded the sensors on US Open Skies aircraft is simply because it is not a priority. Thus, any disadvantage in sensor technology is not a structural consequence of the treaty and it can be remedied anytime.

Withdrawal from the treaty would further erode the US track record on arms control. The final reason why the United States should continue the implementation of the Open Skies Treaty is the relevance of the agreement to the overall arms control landscape. Before making such a decision, the White House should consider the potential effects of withdrawing from another arms control deal. After the Trump administration withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, there is a general perception that the current White House is hostile toward arms control. The cumulative impact of US treaty withdrawals is certain to shift the blame further onto the United States for the damage to the arms control regime, when in reality that blame largely belongs to Russia.

The weakening of the arms control architecture could undermine the implementation of the remaining agreements, such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or the New START agreement, which continue to serve the national security interests of the United States. This would put the Trump administration in an even more uncomfortable position before the 2020 NPT Review Conference, where the United States and the other nuclear-armed states are expected to demonstrate their continued commitment to global disarmament.

More importantly, withdrawal would also aggravate the international public view on the Trump administration’s arms control record. In this environment, negotiating future arms control measures with China, Iran, North Korea, or Russia—all stated priorities of President Trump—would become more difficult.

An overall bargain. In their resolution to withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty, Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Tom Cotton argued that the treaty “costs the United States millions of dollars [and] the treaty no longer serves America’s national security interests,” as it enhances Russian spying over the United States. This argument is flawed, for two reasons. First, the current disadvantage in sensor technology does not expose the United States to an increased threat of Russian surveillance. Through the treaty mechanisms, neither the US nor Russia can obtain information that they could not otherwise acquire with their satellite capabilities. Second, withdrawing from the treaty would not have any practical value for the United States; the treaty does not prevent the United States from using advanced capabilities to collect information, and pulling out would not open the door for new intelligence gathering methods.

The Cruz-Cotton resolution also emphasized that Russia is in violation of the agreement. It is true that Russian noncompliance with the treaty is problematic, and the United States should continue its efforts to bring Moscow back into compliance. But instead of withdrawing from the treaty, the White House should pursue a coordinated effort to put pressure on Russia. The United States and its allies should use the Organization for Security Co-operation in Europe and the Open Skies Consultative Commission to keep the issue on the agenda—and let President Putin take the blame for undermining yet another arms control agreement. As long as the Russian restrictions remain limited and US intelligence gathering above the debated territories is not really constrained, the money that the US spends on maintaining the treaty is money well spent.

Overall, the benefits of the agreement outweigh the negative effects of Russian noncompliance. The treaty is an important confidence-building and transparency measure that is vital for many allies and partners in Europe, and it helps the US counter Russian aggression in the post-Soviet space. A US decision to leave the treaty would only undermine Washington’s image as a reliable partner, and it would make arms control deals less likely in the future.


This work was performed under the auspices of the United States Department of Energy by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory under Contract DE-AC52-07NA27344. The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States government or Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC. LLNL-JRNL-798579

Editor’s note: This article originally misstated the length of time that the United States blocked certification of new sensors on Russian aircraft in 2018 by claiming that it did so for “months.” The actual length of time was about two weeks, and the article has been corrected to reflect this fact.

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