June 18, 2016

Cutting through misinformation about the Open Skies Treaty

There's a little-known ( in my circles anyway ) international treaty called The Treaty on Open Skies that the United States, Canada, Russia and 31 other countries are signatory to, which allows any of the member states to give a short notice that they will fly an approved plane with approved cameras of limited resolution over another signatory country, and take pictures of areas where they are suspicious might be hiding something of military value; or to establish a baseline that can be monitored in future flights. To ensure no funny business occurs, qualified members of the observed nation are on board the plane too, to verify the pre-approved cameras and sensors are aimed at what they should be, they are flying at the right height, and generally nothing fishy is going on. When the air crew of the observer plane arrives in the country which will be observed, they bring with them a "flight plan" and "mission plan" (these are the proper terms defined in the treaty). They outline what they plan to be taking pictures of and what route they are proposing. There are some basic logistical constraints; like where airports are where they can refuel, and the maximum distance allowed, but generally the requesting nation can ask to fly anywhere in the country. Once the route is tabled, members of both countries negotiate. When both parties come to an agreement on the route, the flight takes place.  Open Skies Treaty missions happen routinely over all signatory countries, but many do not publicly talk about them.  It is actually in the US Air Force Open Skies operations manual (Section to not actively disclose information to the public about Open Skies flights, not perform any public outreach, and only answer questions when asked.

The Open Skies idea was originally floated by the US President Dwight Eisenhower as a way to defuse tensions with the Soviet Union by levelling the playing field, to ensure everyone had similar imagery to base their strategic decisions on, and make sure calm heads prevailed.  All countries would fly joint missions over each other's air space to reassure themselves that the other isn't doing anything that would threaten their national security and safety.  This is ultimately the spirit of the agreement; stop by with short notice, check that everything is in order, we're not preparing to bomb or invade you, and we'll do the same.

The Open Skies Treaty was revived by George HW Bush in 1989 and signed by the initial signatory nations in 1992.  In 2002 the treaty came into force, and nations began overflights.

In the past few years the narrative being projected out of enclaves of the DoD and State Department has changed.

During the February 24th 2016 meeting of the  U.S. House Armed Services Committee on U.S. Strategic Forces Posture testimony was provided by Admiral Cecil Haney, Commander, U.S. Strategic Command.  The rhetoric from some factions in Washington is no longer favourable to the Open Skies Treaty, and I am quite certain it isn't for the reasons they claim.

At 22:00 the term "Electro Optical Sensor" is spoken of by the Chairman seemingly like it is a super-weapon.  It's a fancy word for digital camera.  Nothing more.  Admiral Haney mentions that they will be reviewing the pros and cons of the new electro-optical sensor the Russians want to use in the Open Skies overflights of the United States... but neglects to mention the same camera is being used over Europe currently.
At 55:08  Admiral Haney Suggests that Russia has no overhead capability to photograph the United States without the Open Skies Treaty flights... really?

(U) February 24th 2016 meeting of the  U.S. House Armed Services Committee on U.S. Strategic Forces Posture

On March 2nd 2016 the House Armed Services Committee hearing on World Wide Threats was interviewing Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) where he said

"I've got to keep this really simple for me. This Open Skies discussion is think Polaroids in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s versus 1080 high definition capability as we go to a digital environment. The things you can see, the amount of data you can collect, the things that you can do with post-processing using digital techniques, allows Russia in my opinion to get incredible foundational intelligence on critical infrastructure, bases, ports, all of our facilities. So my perspective, it gives them a significant advantage. And yes, we both can use the same techniques but I have a great concern about the quality of the imagery, the quantity of the imagery, the ability to do post-processing of digital imagery, and what that allows them to see as foundational intelligence that I would love to have personally and I would love to deny the Russians having that capability."

At 48:00 Congressman Turner, Ohio (R) essentially states that the US doesn't need the treaty because their space assets have extraordinary resolution.  That's the most truth I've heard yet.

The objections of the Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart are disingenuous, at best, considering the capabilities of the United States' space-borne assets and their own Open Skies flights over Russia.  The US Military can see anything, anywhere, in Russia, in relatively short order, overhead, or at an angle, without warning, and without the Open Skies Treaty, using satellites.

(U) March 2nd 2016  House Armed Services Committee hearing on World Wide Threats

In a beautiful bit of committee theatre, Mr. Brian P. Mckeon, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, DoD is grilled by a Republican congressman suggesting that the Americans are being taken advantage of by the Russians who are overflying the Unites States with impunity and taking pictures that will tip the scales of power. What isn't evident is both Mr. Mckeon and the congressman's previous statements rabidly oppose the Open Skies Treaty. This is hardly a bipartisan or objective discussion.

From the April 14 2016 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Missile Defeat Posture and Strategy of the United States (relating to budget) at 40:44 Mr. Brian P. Mckeon, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Department of Defense starts to be questioned regarding Open Skies, and at ~42:00 he states clearly that the Open Skies will be adhered to but nothing further provided; seemingly regardless of the spirit of the agreement.

(U) April 14th 2016 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Missile Defeat Posture and Strategy of the United States 

Let me state this more succinctly:
  • The American military can see every inch of Russia (and the world) with its space-borne electro-optical sensors, multi-spectral, and synthetic aperture radar, mounted on secret spy satellites, which can and do monitor anywhere, all the time, without any notification to Russia or warning to "cover up" deployed assets.
  • The American military does not want the Russian military to be able to overfly the United States with a treaty-limited-resolution electro-optical sensor, at predefined heights, on a predefined route, with prior notification, with a camera that is already being used to fly over the European Union (without objection from any EU government, BTW).
  • The American military clearly feels it has out-grown the Open Skies Treaty; it states openly it doesn't get as much intel from its own flights over Russia, as Russia gets from overflying the United States.
  • Imagery collected from Open Skies Treaty cameras must be, and is, shared across all 32 nations who are signatory to the treaty.  Imagery collected by US Spy Satellites is not shared with anyone, unless it is redacted and absolutely necessary.  If Russia spots something odd during an Open Skies flight it can share it with 32 countries; the picture cannot be refuted due to the protocols involved in taking the picture and developing the wet film; it's bulletproof.
  • The American National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has spent untold BILLIONS of dollars deploying spy satellites with bleeding edge sensors.  For the Russians to fly over in an old converted cosmonaut trainer plane, and collect good-enough imagery that they want under the treaty's defined framework, has got to sting.
It's unfortunate the American people are largely being briefed by half-cocked, partisan, ill informed, poorly researched, media organisations who don't take the time to think about what they are broadcasting or writing.  There's a lot more to the story than what is being covered by the mainstream media, and I think part of that is because the United States Government has ensured that since 2002 the public has been kept in the dark about this treaty, so nobody understands its nuances.

Here are some recent articles covering the same topic, do you think they're well researched?



I'm not critical of all articles published about Open Skies;  Leore Ben-Chorin and Steven Pifer of The Brookings Institute wrote a very well thought out piece on Open Skies earlier this year.


Here is an interview with Diana Marvin, of the State Department, on the 20th Anniversary of the Open Skies Treaty  (Published on Mar 23, 2012)

Here's Hillary Clinton in 2010 stating clearly that the way forward is to switch from using wet film to digital electro-optical sensors.  The Russians have gotten there first, and have been using digital sensors over film in Europe overflights for years.

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