October 03, 2016

DND downplays operational impact of Open Skies restrictions by Russia, contrasting the DoD

(U) Canadian and American airmen load wet film in an observation camera
 Photo by Public Affairs Photographer Warrant Officer Robert Granger,
Director General Public Affairs, Ottawa. (IS2007-6013)
Exercising their Open Skies Treaty right, the Russian Federation performed overflights of Eastern Canada at the end of August 2016. The Treaty on Open Skies is a transparency / arms control and verification agreement between 34 countries, which Canada and Russia are signatory to.  Since there was no press release put out by the Department of National Defence about the overflight, I requested an interview to discuss the recent overflight, and other Open Skies topics, with a representative of the Department of National Defence.  Lieutenant-Colonel Veillette, Section Head of Strategic Joint Staff, Arms Control and Verification 4, agreed to meet and speak with me, on the record.

As background to this, you may recall the testimony before congress of Admiral Cecil Haney (Commander, U.S. Strategic Command) February 24th 2016 at the meeting of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee on U.S. Strategic Forces Posture, if not here it is. You may remember Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart (Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency) speaking at the March 2nd 2016 House Armed Services Committee hearing on World Wide Threats; if not, here it is.  You may remember Mr. Brian P. Mckeon (Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Department of Defense) speaking at the April 14th 2016 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Missile Defeat Posture and Strategy of the United States; if not, here it is.  To sum up, they all spoke rather negatively about Russia and the Open Skies Treaty, painting the Russians as abusing the spirit of the agreement and using it to conduct "foundational intelligence", as well as slamming the Russians' plans to upgrade to an "electro-optical sensor" from wet film.  Perhaps you recall their depiction of the restrictions to Open Skies flights over Russia, phrased to suggest the flights were blocked, when they were not.  Perhaps you remember that Russia was being accused of being in contravention of the treaty.  Then there was the 2016 United States Department of State Compliance Report (here) that outlined what were supposed to be major violations of the treaty in 2015.  There were threats of retaliation, described at length by the House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes and Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry in a letter to President Obama here.

The Russians came back to Canada for their most recent overflight, with the newly painted, and digital electro-optical sensor-outfitted, Russian Federation Open Skies-approved Tupolev Tu-154M RF-85655.  It was the first Canadian overflight by the Russians to use their new electro-optical sensor, approved by the OSCC in June 2016.  One week prior, the Russians performed an overflight of the United States, with the same digital electro-optical sensor, despite the objections raised in the spring before the congress and threats from congressmen.  Regarding what some call "advanced sensors" used on the Russian open Skies missions, Lieutenant-Colonel Veillette did not use US Lt.Gen Stewart's "Polaroid vs 1080P" comparison, voiced on March 2nd 2016 before the House Armed Services Committee hearing on World Wide Threats. Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel Veillette stated:
"30cm resolution for digital, 30cm for wet film; it's like, what's heavier? 5 pounds of iron or 5 pounds of (lead)? 30cm is 30cm." 
The Lieutenant-Colonel, in stark contrast with US officials, is clearly not worried about the new digital electro-optical sensors, which were framed as "advanced sensors" by the American media, fueled by US Government officials' statements.  Before being approved, the sensors were vetted by a multi-national team representing the nations of the OSCC; 30cm resolution is the treaty-mandated imagery resolution limit, both digital and wet film cameras must adhere to the same standards in order to be used on board an Open Skies plane.  There is no significant intelligence advantage that is provided by digital cameras, other than post processing of the original image, removing the need to process hundreds of wet film images and create print duplicates.  Changing the type of sensor from analog to digital is akin to a professional photographer switching from using a 35mm DSLR camera to a digital DSLR camera, assuming both gave the same resolution image.

When asked about Russian restrictions on the Open Skies Treaty overflights over the Russian Federation, and if they impacted the observation missions the RCAF routinely flies over the Russian Federation in those same restricted areas, Lieutenant-Colonel Veillette stated ...
". . . somewhat, but at the end I don't think the treaty is degraded by any shape or form . . . operationally it makes things a little bit more complicated, but not totally (insurmountable), there's always a way."  
Specifically on the topic of the flight distance restriction of 500km imposed over Kaliningrad:
"If I cannot see everything in 500km it doesn't mean I cannot go a 2nd time and do another 500km, if I wanted to do 1000km there; so in the end, is it degraded? Somewhat, because I would rather do it once."
...which, again, is a far cry from the Pentagon / DoD narrative which depicted the Russian-imposed restrictions as being heinous acts, stopping just short of suggesting the United States should pull out of treaty because of them.

United States Marine Corps Lieutenant general Lt. Gen. Stewart, the Director of the US Defence Information Agency, accused the Russians of spying on critical infrastructure and gathering "foundational intelligence"; suggesting that some sites being photographed in the United States by the Russians aren't military in nature, and taking observation photos of them is taking advantage of the treaty for espionage purposes.  I asked RCAF Lieutenant-Colonel Veillette about Russian Open Skies overflights taking aerial photography of infrastructure, power facilities, and other areas of seemingly questionable military value in Canada:
"people have the misconception because we're flying (a) military airplane to do those missions, that (we) are solely looking at military resources . . . every country who flies Open Skies is not solely flying over (military sites)."
Many non-military sites are valuable intelligence targets that would indicate an imminent threat to Russia; rail yards, transportation hubs, factories, power stations... all have military value, and if Canada was preparing for war, they would each show changes.  Green vehicles being moved by rail.  Machines of war being produced at domestic facilities.  Fighter jets being lined up at alternate airfields.  It isn't sufficient to just look at military bases, and Canada doesn't limit our Open Skies Treaty overflights to purely military targets in Russia either. (more here)

I was very pleased to have the opportunity to speak with Lieutenant-Colonel Veillette, and hope I will be able to do so again.  As the Section Head of SJS ACV 4, the unit which performs the Open Skies overflights by Canada, facilitates Russian overflights of Canada, and facilitates transit of Russian Open Skies missions en-route to the United States, his in-depth insight and experience clarified several topics of interest.

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