July 09, 2016

In February 2016 Turkey grievously violated the Open Skies Treaty, and nobody cared.

Russian Antonov An-30 Open Skies Plane
© Flickr/ Dmitry Terekhov
I've been boring people with talk about the Open Skies Treaty for months, but what really shocked and disappointed me was the complete lack of international reaction when treaty-signatory member Turkey seriously violated the treaty; nothing publicly came of it, at all.  No public protests from the US, Canada, or any other members; just Russia, who was the signatory member who was trying to do the overflight of Turkey to begin with.

Let me explain with an example; when any nation who is signatory to the Open Skies Treaty proposes to fly over the United States, they table a flight plan on day 1, as soon as they arrive.  The US representatives review that flight plan and consider what they want to overfly, and let the military units along that route know to cover up their super-top-secret stuff because an observation flight is immanent.  But... They do have the option to send the Russians home if a "High Value Activity" would be exposed, and cannot be avoided.  It is the last possible option, and absolutely the least desirable.

Let me bring your attention to:

Air Force Manual 16-604 - Oct 2009
Implementation Of, And Compliance With, The Treaty on Open Skies

Specifically what the USAF calls a "High Value Activity" (HVA); the only reason given in the USAF manual to scrub an entire Open Skies Treaty flight.
6.3.2. In general, an HVA is an activity that: Will incur substantial monetary cost if postponed or cancelled, Cannot be concealed and reveals national security information if observed, Takes advantage of a unique set of chronological or meteorological circumstances which cannot be duplicated, or The command/agency believes special circumstances apply
Meaning, if a Russia requests an overflight, and a flight plan tabled, for an overflight of the United States, and some "high value activity" is going on, they might refuse the whole flight.  Take for an example a satellite launch that has a short window of opportunity; they can't have a Russian Open Skies plane flying over a rocket launch site; not for "national security" reasons, but practical reasons - they don't want to accidentally hit the Russian plane.  Alternatively, an HVA could be a scheduled test of a new military technology that they don't want the Russians to see, and can't be hidden or the time of the test changed for some reason.

The manual goes on to say...
6.3.5. With each HVA Report, the unit/MAJCOM must indicate their recommendation associated with this HVA. If the HVA can be deconflicted, the recommendation would likely be to report the HVA for information only. If the unit’s preference is to seek to negotiate around the event, negotiating guidance will be given to the DTRA Escort Team Chief. If the recommendation is to avoid the HVA, then the reporting unit will need to provide the name and immediate contact information for the senior flag officer supporting the HVA. This recommendation is a recommendation to violate a legally binding international treaty. This scenario is serious and will involve guidance from the HVAG or higher.
To summarise, if there is something that can't be moved or deconflicted, like a super-secret item out in the open that can't be hidden and would cause embarrassment or compromise national security if photographed, the military has the option to scrub the whole Open Skies overflight, if they can't negotiate their way out of it with the overflying nation.  They know that's the absolute worst case, since it would "violate a legally binding international treaty".  The last thing the US Military wants to do is put itself into a front-page news conflict about covering up some secret activity it was trying to hide in the first place; it is absolutely the last recourse to cancel the entire overflight.

But, that's exactly what Turkey did.  Obviously Turkey has their own playbook, and I don't have the Turkey Open Skies field manual, but I bet as a fellow NATO member they don't want to be front page treaty-violation news either.  Conveniently, Western media gave them a pass on the whole ordeal, likely because nobody understood what was going on, because the US, as a matter of policy, doesn't publicise or talk about the Open Skies Treaty unless asked directly.  It says so in the Air Force manual.

Russia provided one week of notice of its intent to overfly Turkey between February 1st and February 5th 2016.  Russia conducted its previous overflight in in December, shortly after the Turks shot down a Russian fighter bomber under contentious circumstances; you'd think their relationship would have been at it's worst, but the overflight went ahead anyway.  Upon the Russians' arrival in February, just like every other time, the Russians tabled a flight plan.  This time, Turkey and Russia could not agree on a flight plan; meaning Russia wanted to overfly something specific, and Turkey said no.  The only way out of that impasse, is for Turkey to contravene the treaty entirely, and send the Russians home.  I conclude they must have hit an HVA situation, as is outlined in the USAF manual under  I don't know what other reason they could have.  The question, of course, is what was it that was a HVA that the Russians wanted to overfly?  The proposed flight plan was not released by either the Russians or the Turks.  The flight plan is unclassified (not Secret or Top Secret), and nowhere in the treaty are signatory nations barred from being released; it can be made public if they want to make it so.  I sent requests to the Russian MFA, Russian Embassy in Canada and Russian OSCE via Twitter - with no response (nor did I expect to hear anything back, but hey, why not try?)

I think it's quite possible, since Turkey is hosting American and other NATO forces, that coalition forces that were not publically disclosed ( like... a drone base, a foreign Special Forces base, deployed Electronic Warfare equipment, foreign artillery, foreign MLRS, etc.. ) could have been dug in along the flight route, and the Turks (or foreign nation (Americans?)) did not want their forces photographed, as they were not disclosing to their citizens they had those forces in place.  If we go with the narrative the Russians are pushing in their media, the overflight was scrubbed to hide Turkish cooperation with IS/ISIL/ISIS/Daesh forces smuggling arms and oil across the border.
The Turkish statement (quoted below) to the media says that in December 2015 (right after the Russian fighter-bomber was shot down) the Russian Open Skies flight plan was approved and flown with the modifications to the flight plan; these changes were proposed by the Turks and agreed to by the Russians.  So why couldn't they negotiate through this flight plan?

None of this Russian-Turkish Open Skies hubbub was picked up on by the Western media.
No analysis or in depth reporting was done.
Why is that?

Here is the official statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, Tanju Bilgiç, regarding the failed Russian Open Skies Treaty flight:
"QA-4, 4 
February 2016, Statement of the Spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, Tanju Bilgiç In Response to a Question Concerning the Open Skies Treaty Observation Flight over Turkey that could not be conducted by the Russian Federation
The Treaty on Open Skies, envisaged as a confidence and security building measure in the OSCE geography, was opened for signature in 1992. Currently 34 states, including Turkey are parties to the Treaty. The Treaty establishes a regime that permits States Parties to conduct aerial observation flights over the territories of other States Parties in accordance with distributed quotas.
Observation flights are performed when the observing Party and the observed Party reach agreement on the mission plan. In the case of the observation flight requested by the Russian Federation for 2-5 February 2016, agreement could not be reached on the mission plan and the flight has thus not been conducted.
The limitations imposed by the Russian Federation on observation flights over its own territory is already known by all States Parties to the said Treaty. On the other hand, the observation flight of the Russian Federation in Turkey in December 2015, was conducted on the basis of mission plan changes as suggested by Turkey." (ref here)
That statement says pretty much nothing.  The Russian "restrictions" placed on Open Skies flights over Russia do not prohibit overflights, and have nothing to do with this overflight anyway.

Russian MoD Statement:
"First of all, it is to be reminded that the Russian Federation was to have conducted an observation flight over the territory of the Turkish Republic on February 1-5, 2016 in accordance with the Treaty on Open Skies. A preliminary approval for the flight had been received from the Turkish party within the time limits prescribed by the Treaty."
Meaning Russia gave Turkey seven days notice that they would be conducting an overflight, and Turkey agreed, which is normal.
"Yesterday a group of Russian observers arrived at the Turkish airport Eskisehir and submitted the route of the observation flight to Turkish representatives as it’s required under the Treaty."
This shows the Russian flight crew, and treaty-allowed plane, with appropriate sensor suite, arrived and proposed their flight plan and mission plan.  Nothing unusual.
"However, the Turkish Defense Ministry officials refused the Russian specialists to perform the observation flight over the areas adjacent to Syria, as well as over the airfields with concentrations of NATO aviation and without any specific explanation at that."
So it goes pear-shaped at this point; Turkish officials had 4 hours to negotiate and agree to a flight plan with the Russians, but they didn't like something in the flight plan, and said no - or proposed changes to go around the area of interest that the Russians didn't agree to, effectively saying no.  Russian sources have stated that the Turks haven't wanted overflights near Patriot missile batteries along the border with Syria, and at the air bases where coalition planes are operating from.  Maybe there are aircraft that are deployed to the coalition airbases that nobody has admitted to, but I can't imagine what sort of planes those would be.  Heavy strategic bombers?  Undisclosed attack helicopters?  An uptick in USAF C-17 transport aircraft landing in Turkey was noticed by plane watching enthusiasts around the same time.  Was this related?

Interestingly (to me) the Incirlik Air Base houses American and Turkish B-61 nuclear bombs.  Maybe the Russians wanted to have a look at the readiness of the hangers which have the B-61 bombs hidden underneath in vaults?
Maybe nuclear-capable fighters are already positioned in those hangers?
Could there be nuclear saber rattling going on that neither side wants to admit to in public?

I'm sure they won't tell us the real reason the Turkish Open Skies flight was denied in February 2016, but it would be nice to have a better idea of what is really going on.

TASS news stories on the Turkish refusal to grant the overflight
(which are arguably official statements from the Russian side)

Feb 2, 2016    http://tass.ru/en/defense/853806
Feb 3, 2016    http://tass.ru/en/defense/854345
Feb 4, 2016    http://tass.ru/en/world/854458
Feb 4, 2016    http://tass.ru/en/politics/854677
Feb 5, 2016    http://tass.ru/en/politics/854715
Feb 19, 2016  http://tass.ru/en/politics/858021

I believe this is the most notable event in the Open Skies world this year.


Because Syria is at war, they are a Russian ally, with Russian and Iranian troops on the ground, in Syria.  Rumours of Turkey preparing for a ground invasion of Syria had been floating around for months.  Turkey has been meddling with cross border affairs, including incursions into Syrian territory by armoured units, and shelling villages inside Syria from Turkey.  Doing an overflight of their border region to make sure they are not amassing an army to cross the border is *exactly* what the Open Skies Treaty was written for; but it was blocked easily, and without any significant media coverage.

How can that be?

No comments:

Post a Comment