December 21, 2019

An open letter to NORAD and USNORTHCOM - Let's talk about Russian Navy operations

Russian Navy Frigate Admiral Gorshkov (credit:USNORTHCOM)
Dear North American Aerospace Defense Command & U.S. Northern Command

Do you have a few minutes?  I hope so.

I'm a long time fan of your work, defending North America and all, but it looks like information operations from unknown parties are taking place in NORAD's area of responsibility, and seem for the most part unchallenged. I don't want you to take that the wrong way, and maybe tell the public less, in an effort to reduce the attack surface, and reduce any public discussion about Russian Navy operations; I'd like you to lean into it, and I think you're already half way there.

Let me try to explain what I mean with context.

Back in the summer a few of Russian Navy ships stopped in Cuba, including the new Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov, on their way around the world, and U.S. Northern Command told the public of that event; I was thrilled. No really, I was! Being so open and transparent with the public is not something I see militaries do frequently. Russian ships do still stop in Cuba occasionally, and it reminds me (and others) of old Soviet times when they had a significant military force there. While the Russians still do have a presence, somewhat, it's a shadow of those times. Their submarine base, as well as others, lie mostly as reinforced-concrete ruins.

Unfortunately, there was no follow-up saying the Russian ship left, which left an opportunity that was exploited by detractors who published rumours to social media that they were still there, days / months after they left. Being aware of a Russian warship stopping in for supplies in Havana is in the public interest, it is news, and it should be mentioned; thank you for that. However, the follow-up that they left, especially because they left within a couple of days, is equally important. I believe it is important to give the correct impression that they were passing through, not repositioning there. Not mentioning the departure gives the public the impression Russia forward deployed a frigate to be stationed in Havana, which isn't true. The Russian Navy was just passing through. In the future, I hope NORAD will be more clear about that. The initial transparency, telling the public, was fantastic, but it needed follow-through. I did notice the US Navy was tailing them as they departed the Americas; NORAD was aware of exactly where they were every moment of the day.

Just last week someone leaked to The Washington Times and CNN that the Russians were visiting in international waters off the US East Coast for their almost-yearly visit to conduct signals intelligence; NORAD could have broke that news publicly when they arrived to the region, without the leak and without help from the press. The Russian Navy AGI Viktor Leonov is well known to sail over from Murmansk every year or two. Their mission mostly out of public view because they do not use an AIS transponder, which would show where they are to ship tracking enthusiasts like myself. Without a transponder, I rely on other more creative means, including watching for others who might stumble across their location - but that's hard to come by, since they're over 12 NM away from shore, and likely only noticed by a few planes or other ships.

The earliest reference I've ever found for the Viktor Leonov coming near the US East Coast was 1998, but of course I can't find that reference anymore; I thought it was off one of the wire services published years ago. I can still find a very slim reference to their visit in 2012 (, as well as more detail in 2014 (, 2015 (, 2017 (, and 2018 ( These are facts, matters of history, that are being written by the press, that future generations will refer to. Telling the public what's going on is probably listed somewhere lower on the list of NORAD's daily activities than protecting the public. In today's age of information warfare, telling the public the truth, up front, denies NORAD's adversaries the capability of exploiting a lack of information to propagate disinformation. Publishing information from an official source has the effect of acting as an area of denial weapon in an information war; it denies the adversary the capability of waging a whisper campaign, spreading disinformation, since public information allows anyone to fact-check, and refute their statements, if the information is from a trusted source. I can't think of a more trustworthy source for Canadians and Americans than a NORAD press release. NORAD has the power to suffocate any information operations trying to misinform the public about Russian Navy operations in international waters, if they take the initiative to do so. Information is an area of denial weapon, and while NORAD knows that at some level, it is not taking advantage of the high ground it holds. By not being forthright with information, NORAD is ceding the information battlespace to adversaries who are exploiting the lack of information for agitprop.

I've seen (false!) reports alleging that Russian Navy ships (plural!) have been off the coast since Trump was elected, that they dock at Mar-a-Lago, that they drop anchor outside Mar-a-Lago, that they were snooping on Wifi (of course) at Mar-a-Lago, that they were planting nuclear mines along the seaboard, that they communicate with President Trump on his phone, that they tap his phone from offshore, and of course that they're there to pick up President Trump as he flees from his life of crime. Does anyone take these rumours seriously? Well, the problem is, there's so much disinformation it's hard for the American and Canadian public to keep it all straight. Snopes articles about each of these varieties of lies are not what we need; the public needs authoritative information from one of their most trusted guardian, NORAD.

I have three humble requests.
  • Please continue to tell the public when Russian Navy operations are taking place in NORAD's area of interest.
  • Please break the news yourself, so the public can recognize the excellent work NORAD is doing, and know it's from a trusted source.
  • Please ask the US Navy to consider leaving their transponders on, as USS Jason Dunham did in the summer, but USS Mahan did not while tailing Viktor Leonov after December 14th. If they can look out their window and see their escort, turning off AIS isn't going to improve OPSEC.
I simply don't believe there's any reason for the public to rely on rumours spread by leaks and malicious actors with their own agendas; you know where "they" are, and "they" know you know where they are. Leaving the news of their arrival and departure up to the rumour mill only enables disinformation. Please continue to tell the public about their comings, but also their goings, so the public doesn't get the impression there is a traffic jam off the coast off Mar-a-Lago. 😉

Thank you, and Happy Holidays.

Steffan Watkins
Ottawa, Canada

December 04, 2019

Taking apart the Cotton/Cruz anti-Open Skies Treaty resolution in the United States Senate

Tom Cotton participates in a conversation
about American foreign strategy
and statesmanship at the Hudson Institute
March 18, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Getty)
I find it difficult to explain how frustrating it is to watch the same stories about the Open Skies Treaty get circulated for over four years, with little understanding in the media, and almost no fact-checking of official sources, while I scream into the void, write long-form explainers, micro-blog, talk about it in podcasts, assist journalists in their research, and do interviews to inform the public about what's going on; all the while the news media is duped by officials trying to kill the treaty with deliberately misleading quotes, omissions, and half-truths. After documenting and publicising information, refuting claims made by politicians, and their favourite think tanks, I have received some good feedback from a variety of people. Some say wow, I didn't know about this treaty - even journalists covering the defence sector, members of the military (domestic + foreign), and government officials appreciate that someone is trying, however futilly, to educate the public about the Open Skies Treaty. I know that to be true, because they've told me so. That gives me hope. I'd like to think I've educated a few people along the way, but here we are, many years later; the same disinformation is making headlines, the Open Skies Treaty is on the brink of being destroyed by the Americans, and the same politicians from over four years ago are still duping the people of the world with their half-truths and flat out lies.

I'm crestfallen, but I'm not beaten.

By following the majority of published news items about the Open Skies Treaty, and asking the right questions on and off the record to  people in the know, I am very familiar with the majority of the alleged violations of the Open Skies Treaty, and some of the violations which haven't been alleged too. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) have tabled a resolution in the United States Senate ( which seems to exploit the disinformation Cotton and his proxies have been spreading for years.

Tom Cotton at CSIS Headquarters July 17, 2017
for a paid speaking engagement about the INF Treaty
I feel like this is shaping up to be a final push before their Republican POTUS is ousted. I think they're in a rush, and I think they're getting sloppy. They're recycling talking points from 2015 and 2016 that don't apply anymore. As time moves on their ammunition is running out, the allegations are being disproven or shown to be untrue. "Violations" keep getting resolved, and despite what they might tell you, diplomacy is working. Other countries, beside the Russians, have also moved to digital electro-optical sensors. I will demonstrate to you that this resolution in the Senate is the latest contrived attempt to kill the Open Skies Treaty by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), and now Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). I believe these are the death throes of Cotton's quest to kill the treaty for the interests who lobby him.

The following an excerpts of the reasons cited in the Cotton/Cruz resolution in the senate for terminating the participation of the United States in the Open Skies Treaty.

Whereas the Department of State has repeatedly assessed
and documented in its annual report on Adherence to
and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation,
and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments, that
Russia is violating the Treaty on Open Skies, done at
Helsinki March 24, 1992, and entered into force January
1, 2002 (commonly known as the ‘‘Open Skies Treaty’’);
Why not take this opportunity to explain the violations to the American people and the rest of the people of the world. The United States Department of State publishes a report every year, a report which is not sanctioned by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), or Open Skies Consultative Commission (OSCC). It is a United States Department of State account, from their view, of how the United States feels other countries are adhering, or not, to arms control agreements. While Americans likely don't want to hear this, there are 33 other signatories to the Open Skies Treaty, meaning there are 34 members of the OSCC, who have monthly meetings in Vienna, where they resolve disputes with diplomacy, and the United States does not have a special role to critique compliance. The compliance report holds no weight internationally, other than being an opinion voiced by the United States. Interestingly, the present chairperson of the OSCC is even American. Are the items that the United States Department of State calls violations, also considered violations by the entire OSCC? I don't know, they're quite tight lipped about that, so it would seem not. We do not know anything about what the 33 other members feel about the American-alleged violations, other than none of them believe the United States should leave. No country has made any statements which echo the Americans' position that they must withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty for reasons of national security. Even domestic American academics don't agree that the United States should withdraw from the treaty. You may wonder why I don't call any of the alleged-violations, just "violations". There is surely conduct that Russia has performed in the past 15+ years of flights that have been violations, but the last two outstanding "violations" are contentious, complicated, and the alleged-violations are significantly less critical than anyone who is trying to kill the treaty wants the public to understand. Amy Woolf of the Congressional Research institute goes over what they mean in her testimony before congress just a few weeks ago; let me allow her to speak for herself.

A snippet of Amy Woolf's written testimony below:

"Concerns About Russian Compliance. The 2019 version of the State Department’s Annual Report on Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments highlighted two areas of concern about Russian compliance with the Open Skies Treaty. The first notes that, while the Treaty establishes a maximum range of 5,500 kilometers for observation flights, Russia has imposed a sublimit of 500 kilometers for flights over its Kaliningrad region. Kaliningrad is a relatively small, but heavily militarized area that is geographically separate from Russia. According to some reports, Russia imposed this limit after an overflight by Poland in 2014 lingered over Kaliningrad and interfered with commercial aviation in the area. While this sublimit does not preclude flights over or observations of military activities in Kaliningrad, it is inconsistent with the terms of the Treaty and an OSCC decision that “precludes a State Party from decreasing the maximum flight distance from an Open Skies airfield.”

The 2019 Compliance Report also notes that Russia has prohibited observation flights within ten kilometers of its border with the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions of Georgia. This dispute is less about the provisions of the Treaty than it is about Russia’s dispute with Georgia over the status of these regions. The Treaty permits parties to prohibit flights within ten kilometers of independent states that are not a party to the Treaty. While Georgia is a party to the Treaty, Russia has considered South Ossetia and Abkhazia to be independent states since its 2008 conflict with Georgia. Because these regions have not joined the Treaty, Russia has argued that flights cannot approach their borders. The United States and other parties to the Treaty have not accepted this interpretation of the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia has recently indicated that it would lift the ban on flights within ten kilometers of the borders with South Ossetia and Abkhazia if Georgia were to accept Open Skies overflights from Russia. Georgia had suspended this access in 2017 and 2018."


(*correction, Georgia has restricted access to its airspace, prohibiting Russian overflights since 2012 per the Georgian Government, a violation itself - reference:

As Amy Woolf notes in her testimony to Congress, these are not core issues, these are fringe outlying issues which do not significantly impede core Open Skies Treaty objectives. This is also a view shared by the RCAF, a representative of which I interviewed in late 2016 about these same violations. I submit to you that framing these alleged violations as huge issues is purely a political stunt, they are not factual, and they are not acting in good faith; which shouldn't be entirely surprising from the likes of Cotton and Cruz.

Whereas, in 2015, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Vincent R. Stewart, testified to
Congress that ‘‘[t]he Open Skies construct was designed
for a different era,’’ and in 2016, that the treaty allows
Russia ‘‘to get incredible foundational intelligence on crit-
ical infrastructure, bases, ports, all of our facilities’’ and
provides Russia with ‘‘a significant advantage’’;
It is quite remarkable that opponents of the Open Skies Treaty keep coming back to LtGen Stewart, but it's great for me, since his misleading testimony was what motivated me to take on interviewing the Royal Canadian Air Force, to get their view. I'd been interested for years about where the Russian Open Skies Treaty flights were taking place over Canada, because I wanted to see where their flights intersected with my interest in Cold War history, to understand what they were looking at. I had a wild and crazy question in the back of my mind; did Canada have a secret base that they were checking up on? (Spoiler: Nope) but the Russians' paths did uncover (for me) that they visit the former military bases in Northern Canada, as well as current bases, naval bases, and other locations of military interest. But why were they visiting closed bases that were nothin but concrete and rubble? I spoke with a senior officer, off the record, about choosing the location for a satellite downlink, and from what I recall part of the decision was what infrastructure was already there, and that property was already owned by the Government. There's no need to buy new land for military projects, there's lots of minimally used DND land that can handle more than one use. So, the Russians were absolutely right in visiting former military bases, some of which have been converted to prisons or other facilities. They're flying over to get a better look at them, just to make sure. If you didn't know a present-day prison was actually formerly a military base, radar base, or missile launch site, I can only imagine what interesting conspiracy theories could be made up about a Russian-assisted prison break, and flying through restricted airspace above the prison. Because of LtGen Stewart's testimony I filed Access to Information requests (The Canadian FOIA) for all the Russian flight plans over Canada, and I got over ten years of them, proving they are flying over sites of clear military interest, despite the information provided to LtGen Stewart, and in turn to the United States Senate.

I don't feel entirely comfortable embarrassing LtGen Stewart for his comments, because I have reason to believe he was fed a line, several even, by people who had political motivations within or outside the DIA, who were sympathetic or directly acting on behalf of Sen. Tom Cotton. Unfortunately, despite LtGen Stewart's best intentions, he's been made to look like a fool by them. LtGen Stewart testified that the Russians switching from wet-film to digital (an American initiative that had been going on for nearly a decade at the time) was akin to going from Polaroids to 1080P. If you're of the right age, you remember what a consumer grade instant Polaroid picture looks like, and they look terrible despite your rosy memories of your childhood. You probably know what a 1080P video image looks like, which is technically 2 megapixels. LtGen Stewart was portraying that a fuzzy polaroid was equivalent to what the Russians used to see when they flew over the United States (like in 2017), and that the American government had to block ratification of the Russian digital electro-optical sensor which would give them pictures that would now look exponentially better, like 1080p. This is clearly an attempt to portray the change in the their capabilities and level of detail as superior to what it was, and it was quite absurd. If the head of the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), who is opposed to the treaty, and has been for the entire length of the treaty, can get away with making such ridiculous statements into the record, without anyone calling him out, I have to wonder what's going on. Fortunately, his testimony provides me with a clear example that anyone with a film camera who upgraded to a digital camera (of equivalent capability) can understand.

Let me digress for a minute.
My dad used to shoot 35mm slide film with a 35mm camera, and I shoot digital pictures with a digital camera now. He took great pictures of fish doing underwater photography in the Bahamas. Those slides (which are still in a box) when blown up on a projector look great, lots of detail, and while my digital camera may give a better picture than his 35mm then, it's not overwhelmingly better - but it's certainly way easier to see, edit, store, etc - it's digital after all. The wet film cameras of the Open Skies Treaty are all treaty-limited in their capability. They can only take pictures of 30 cm resolution, and do so at 3 different altitudes, using different cameras and lenses. It's a high end wet-film camera. The new digital electro-optical sensors (ahem, digital cameras) are equally high-end, but made to comply with the maximum resolution requirements in the treaty. The United States didn't raise the red flag about the German Open Skies Treaty plane and their new digital electro-optical sensor, did they? The switch to digital was an American initiative, that all countries are in the middle of right now. The German Luftwaffe is flying theirs, testing it, right now - or was earlier today. The Russians first deployed theirs for their flights over Europe in 2014. LtGen Stewart's testimony in 2016 was all about trashing the move to digital on the Tu-154M that the Russians use to overfly the United States, and his testimony wasn't compelling to the Obama administration, who approved the digital electro-optical camera in 2016, and it flew over the United States in 2017 - over the White House even (foreshadowing). It then shouldn't be surprising that the Defence Intelligence Agency has an axe to grind, and is still against having a Russian observation plane with 30 cm resolution cameras fly over the United States. The thing is, there's more to the treaty than the DIA. The State Department and STRATCOM are both in favour of the treaty, so are other departments, academics, former and current officials, as well as dozens of other allied nations. The OSCE PA has even said they would like the United States to table their issues with the Open Skies Treaty at the OSCC, and not unilaterally pull out of the treaty. There is no country in the world that believes that it is necessary for the Americans to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, and there is no reason to believe anything Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) has said based on the years of disinformation he's been spreading.

Here is LtGen Stewart's testimony for you to review and come to your own conclusions. LtGen Stewart is a highly decorated accomplished senior military officer, now retired, with an exemplary career. I think it's unfortunate he was mislead and used in this way by whoever briefed him, as he clearly is not a technical guy, by his own admission and testimony. Because of this, I do not think his testimony can be taken seriously, unfortunately. His testimony was in context of the digital electro-optical sensor upgrade, not just the Open Skies Treaty, and we know now all the FUD being spread about the sensor was just propaganda. The specifications of the camera were fully disclosed by the Russians to the public, and all treaty signatories, including the United States, and all confirmed that the sensor is limited to 30 cm resolution, as Amy Woolf stated in her testimony just a few weeks ago. Any quotes from LtGen Stewart's testimony being used by Cruz or Cotton are being taken out of context, and his cannot be used as an authority on the treaty.

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

Whereas, in 2016, the Commander of the United States Strategic Command, Admiral Cecil Haney, testified to Congress that the Open Skies Treaty gives Russia ‘‘a capability to be able to reconnoiter parts of our country and
other nations’’;

I'm not sure how Adm Haney didn't notice, but "reconnoitering" parts of the United States, and 32 other countries, is exactly what the Open Skies Treaty is meant to do. We - the American allies who are signatory to the treaty - reconnoiter Russia too, many dozens of times a year. In fact, we can do it much more often if we like; the quotas are renegotiated yearly. Doing so is not objectionable, and raises questions as to what anyone thought the treaty was for if not exactly that. Is his statement true? Yes, Russia does reconnoiter, but it's certainly not a reason to kill the treaty; it's the reason 34 countries are signatory to the treaty. What an incredibly weird justification for withdrawing from a treaty; doing what it says it's supposed to do. His testimony is not a justification to leave the treaty, it's just describing a working Open Skies Treaty mission. We do exactly the same thing over Russia as the Russians do over he United States, and all other signatory countries.

Whereas, in 2017, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,General Joseph Dunford, testified to Congress that ‘‘wedon’t believe the treaty should be in place if the Russiansaren’t complying’’;
Shockingly this is out of context, this quote is cherry picked and cropped, let me correct it.

Dunford's whole quote, in context of Tom Cotton leading questions, was to say at 58:25 "let me (..) make sure we make it clear, we believe on balance that it would be best that the treaty continue to be in place, but we do not believe the treaty should be in place if the Russians are not compliant, but there is a decidedly aggressive diplomatic effort to bring the Russians back into compliance, which we think would be the best outcome"

Tom Cotton cites four (alleged) violations in this September 2017 testimony
(remember this date)

  • Limiting flights over Kaliningrad (that's the 500km sub-limit)
  • Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgian breakaway republics; the 10km issue)
  • Chechnya, which in September 2017 was no longer an issue, per the April 2017 State Department compliance report.
    "One compliance concern cited in previous editions of the Compliance Report — a minimum altitude restriction over Chechnya — has been resolved. In early 2016, U.S. implementers observed that Russia stopped including altitude restrictions over Chechnya during pre-mission briefs. On April 18, during the OSCC plenary, the Russian representative confirmed that Russia no longer published altitude restrictions over Chechnya."
  • An altitude limit over (a part of) Moscow, which was also dropped as an issue in April 2017, after it was discovered by the American delegation to the OSCC that other countries have also imposed similar altitude restrictions for air traffic control / flight safety reasons. The issue did not reappear in 2018 or 2019, it's gone for good.
    "Russia’s imposition of a minimum altitude for all air traffic over Moscow, in the region designated as UUP-53, continued and impacted one observation flight in 2016. The United States discussed this concern with States Party in 2016, including Russia’s assertion that the altitude restriction is linked to safety of flight, and it became clear that a number of States Party impose altitude restrictions for reasons of flight safety. The United States, Russia, and other interested States Party intend to explore altitude restrictions as part of a broader discussion of air traffic control procedures and Open Skies Treaty implementation. The United States will continue to monitor this issue closely."

It serves Tom Cotton's interest to overstate the alleged Russian violations, and rounding up by a factor of 2x, reporting alleged violations which had already been resolved and reported as such, publicly, almost 6 months earlier, was not caught by the media.

Tom Cotton continued with his misleading line of questioning asking Gen Dunford if the Russians get more out of the imagery than the Americans do since the Americans have superior satellite constellations for imagery; but this is a truism and has always been accepted as such. There is nobody on the planet with a better satellite constellation for imagery than the United States. That's not a reason to kill the treaty, since it was that way when the Americans proposed and signed the treaty.
It's that way by design, and it's always been that way.

Starting at (57:32)

Whereas the Government of the Russian Federation has recently used the Open Skies Treaty for surveillance of major American cities and infrastructure, includingWashington D.C. and New York City;
...and Area51, China Lake, the Nevada Test Site, RCS sites, ICBM fields, missile testing sites, Cheyenne Mountain... Tom Cotton didn't think an enterprising OSINT afficianado with a knack for tracking planes would examine the flight paths of many past flights, at great detail, and debunk this; they're not flying over anything that doesn't have a military use. I've done this for American flights, and Canadian flights, alleging that the Russians are using their flights to survey anything that we wouldn't survey ourselves is completely untrue. I also interviewed the RCAF about this, and the RCAF on the record confirm there is nothing the Russians are flying over that we don't fly over ourselves. Suggesting they are flying over "critical infrastructure" in some sort of improper manner is not any sort of violation of the treaty even if it were true, which it is not. The flight paths of the flights, and where they take pictures, can be determined with OSINT, or if the FOIA system was working correctly, could be asked for directly, since the Russians provide all signatories to the treaty a list of where they took pictures at the end of their flight over the United States. All treaty signatories know what the Russians took pictures of, so it's completely disingenuous of Cotton to claim they are spying on critical infrastructure in two ways. Factually, they are not. Per the treaty, they're allowed to. We are also allowed to, and we do take pictures of their infrastructure if there is a need. "Infrastructure", for example rail, is of military as well as civilian use, and knowing what's on the rail cars is in the interest of the Russians, as well as being completely legal under the treaty.

Whereas the Government of the Russian Federation has installed advanced digital technology for use in Open Skies flights, enhancing its surveillance and espionage capabilities; Whereas Government of the Russian Federation has limitedand at times outright denied access for surveillance flights by the United States and other countries;
This is a two part-er;
a) The switch to digital was an American initiative from a decade ago, everyone in the treaty is moving to digital. I suspect Cotton realized this, and sped up efforts to kill the treaty, but this item is already out of date and proves their initiative to kill the treaty is disingenuous.
a1) Tom Cotton may not want the public to be aware that the Germans have already installed their digital electro-optical sensor, and are in the middle of testing it - hopefully it will be flying next year.
a2) The United States (you may have heard of them) has already installed their digital electro-optical sensor and is testing it too; maybe ready for next year, only 7 years behind the Russians.
b) Outright denied access to what? When? There isn't enough information here to make an argument, let alone expose it for the propaganda that it is. When planes arrive n country they table a flight plan, that flight plan outlines what they want to overfly, if there are flight safety issues or weather, the flight plan is changed - it's a negotiation. It's extremely rare for a flight to be denied completely, but it did happen between Russian and Turkey, when Turkey wouldn't give access to the areas Russia wanted several years ago. No Open Skies Treaty flights have been denied over Russia, that's disinformation.

Whereas Congress has repeatedly sought to limit implementation of the Open Skies Treaty in response to Russian treaty violations, including in the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 (Public Law 115–232);
He's got me there, he's flooded Congress with disinformation for years, and have made several very poor misinformed decisions. In the last NDAA it even brought up the risks of SAR, and no plane has SAR certified, or installed. Sure the treaty allows for it, but nobody is doing it, or even has any plans to do it - it looked like it was added to the NDAA to promote fear.

Whereas the United States Government has developed and deployed technology so that it does not gain significant additional intelligence from participating in the Open Skies Treaty; 
Welcome to 1992! The United States has had superior spy satellites which render part of the Open Skies Treaty flights redundant in terms of *new* information, but it isn't just about *new* imagery for most countries either; Open Skies Treaty flights serve as a manner to gather unclassified imagery of things they may already be privy to through national technical means. Resulting Open Skies Treaty imagery can be presented at the UN, NATO, or NORAD in an unclassified setting. American TOP SECRET//SI//TK//NOFORN 6 cm resolution imagery needs to be handled more carefully, but 30cm res can be carried in a binder, or even emailed to someone in a slide deck. It provides imagery that can be shared with any partner nation, even if they do not have an intelligence sharing agreement in place.

Whereas participating in the Open Skies Treaty costs the
United States hundreds of millions of dollars in unnecessary spending
Again, this is just disinformation by the Cotton cadre. All nations, even the United States, benefit from the Open Skies treaty to different degrees, filling in gaps as well as enabling unclassified intelligence sharing; and considering the American OC-135s are ~60 years old, I think they've been paid off a while. It's time to buy new planes, but you don't need anything bigger than the new German plane, which is a recycled Airbus A319. A repurposed KC-10 would do just fine as well, and be a heck of a lot more efficient; I hear they're having some growing pains anyway and might have a spare or two.

Please watch the following testimony by three expert witnesses on the hill and dispel some of the rumours that have been getting spread by Cotton and his cadre for over 4 years.

October 31, 2019

Do efforts to kill the Open Skies Treaty, and the al-Baghdadi raid, cross paths?

Aircrew members assigned to Russian air force Open Skies
and Airmen assigned to the 15th Wing, pose for a group photo
at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, Aug. 14, 2019
Photo Credit: Tech. Sgt. Heather Redman, 15th Wing Public Affairs, USAF
There have been a series of startling things in the media which have compelled me to document and draw attention to the timing of events.
Are they related, or a coincidence?

Based on information from multiple leaks, during the 1st week of October, Tim Morrison, the National Security Council’s Russia and Europe director, put some sort of letter of intent to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty under Donald Trump’s fingers while a pen was in them, finishing off the paperwork that John Bolton had drafted before leaving, and progressing a personal quest of Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) has been on for years, to kill the Open Skies Treaty. Did I mention Tim, Tom, and John are all on the same page about the Open Skies Treaty? Well, they’re three peas in a pod.
On Friday October 4th, 2019 a meeting invite went out to several departments of the United States Government for an NSC meeting on October 7th, Monday, without a set agenda.

On Saturday October 5th, Turkish President Erdogan announced an operation involving Turkish forces in Northern Syria would commence, also on Monday October 7th.

By Sunday October 6th the public was aware that the US Military would be withdrawing, leaving the Kurds to fight the Turks, and it was all defence correspondents were reporting on.

On Monday October 7th there was the aforementioned meeting between members of the NSC, and other government departments. From my understanding, all departments were told that they would have to be prepared for October 26th when they would exit the Open Skies Treaty, because Trump already signed a letter of intent to exit the treaty; which didn’t make any sense to me, since withdrawing from a treaty takes months of negotiations. I asked around if this was something about an NDAA deadline, or some other event that I was unaware of - nobody I asked knew.

On Wednesday October 9th Slate published an article giving a significant amount of detail about the story, 

Several articles were written by many experts (WSJ published one from George P. Shultz, William J. Perry and Sam Nunn), even the NYT editorial board, all in support of the treaty, and no interviews were granted to anyone at the White House or National Security Council. The leak was real, and the article by Slate was true - nobody at the NSC was ready to talk about any of it, yet.

Over the next two weeks I spent a lot of time tutoring journalists on the Open Skies Treaty, laying trails of breadcrumbs on Twitter so people could find their own information, hooking them up with experts in the field, publicising new developments about the Open Skies Treaty crisis, and tweeting background for the media and the public. All the while I was being mindful that one of the principal enemies of the treaty was at the helm, in the NSC, destroying the treaty; Tim Morrison. But what would be happening October 26th?

October 23rd, CSIS published an article on the Open Skies Treaty, and when I contacted the author for edits to the piece to make a significant detail unambiguous, he refused to make any changes - not one word - saying he stood behind every word and gave three references to other articles (including The Economist, which he may not have noticed I contributed to). Upon reviewing the articles, none supported his position.

I had contacted the author of the paper, and rethought my many objections, condensing them down to changing just one word toward the top of the article that could be changed to make it clear to the public that flights over Kaliningrad are *not* being blocked; Open Skies Treaty flights are being *frustrated*, by a 500 km limit, and the RCAF has characterised that limit as not significant to their missions over Kaliningrad.  That’s unusual, I thought, but CSIS is a think tank; there is no reason to think they would have any desire to change the piece at all. Why did they publish the piece on October 23rd, two weeks after Slate broke the story on Oct 9th? I still don’t know. That’s unusual, I thought, but CSIS is a think tank, not a newspaper; there is no reason to think they would have any desire to change the piece at all. But why did they publish the piece on October 23rd, two weeks after Slate broke the story on Oct 9th?

This is the 2nd time I’ve run into an Open Skies Treaty article related to someone at CSIS which I’ve found ambiguously worded and riddled with issues, and the author refused to make any changes then too. The last was written by Kath Hicks (and/or her research assistant), for The Cipher Brief. Not one change made out of 8 pages of feedback; I find that fascinating. Perhaps people at CSIS have been, or are being, targeted with disinformation from sources close to Cotton and Morrison; maybe John Bolton is going to appear shortly as one of their senior fellows, time will tell.

(after months of nothing in response to my email, I published the corrections publicly)

October 26th, the strike on Al-Baghdadi happened, and all leads were about the raid on Sunday, October 27th.

October 27th, the Wall Street Journal published what I would call an unusual article, it didn’t “flow” like any previous reporting about the potential Open Skies Treaty pull-out by the Americans. The article had some treaty-positive information, and also spread propaganda from the opponents of the Open Skies Treaty. I felt it missed some obvious counter-arguments about why the treaty should be kept, and it had the first quote that I’ve seen on the topic from Tim Morrison, the aforementioned NSC official who is spearheading the murder of this 34-country treaty. This was October 27th, one day after October 26th, the date given by NSC officials October 7th to be prepared for, or as we now know it, the day of the Al-Baghdadi raid. The published timeline of events so far suggests Tim Morrison would have been aware of the upcoming Al-Baghdadi raid, and I believe the leak to the WSJ was already part of the plan on October 7th. I believe it is reasonable to think Tim delayed the “leak” by “officials” to the WSJ, about their intent to kill the Open Skies Treaty until October 26th. He would be in a position to know it would take that long to get all their domestic allies on the same page, arrange information operations, get their favourite think tanks on board, “experts” lined up for interviews with the major news networks, the Al-Baghdadi raid would provide cover for the bombshell news, and would get the Open Skies Treaty announcement pushed back to a less prominent position in the daily news cycle.

  • Where does that leave CSIS and the WSJ?
  • Are they clandestinely operated by the White House?
  • Do they only publish what the National Security Council ask them to?

No, I’m not that paranoid.

I believe the answer is more human, less conspiracy. Every journalist is under deadlines, and with a limited amount of research, they need to send to press something at the end of the day, even when nobody calls them back, or maybe previous references are less than clear. Also, every journalist and researcher have their trusted sources on the topics that they’re focused on - myself included. Some of those journalists have Tim Morrison in their Rolodex (look it up kids), the guy who is actively trying to kill the treaty (and provided an exclusive quote to the WSJ), and some have John Bolton, or Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) as their sources; three different people, that will give them the same story, more or less. That’s all the due diligence a journalist might need, to prove they’ve researched a story, if their editor didn’t understand that those three people were the greatest threat to the treaty, and were actually the people trying to kill it. Isn’t it presumptive of me to assume they spoke to one of those three? What if they spoke to none of them? Well, those three people are very influential, themselves having contacts at right-wing think tanks, and other people around Washington, who will also parrot their talking points; they don’t live in a bubble. There is no shortage of former White House and DoD officials who have heard their anti-Open Skies Treaty talking points, and most wouldn’t know that they’re mostly trumped up (no pun intended). Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and his allies have been slandering the treaty with disinformation for years, feeding half-truths to the media, committees, and the public; since Obama, at least. This faction of American government does not represent the will of the people. They represent their own interests, and should be treated as a radical, well funded, fringe group, out to endanger the world for their own reasons.

The Russian air force Open Skies Tupolev Tu-154M RF-85655,
lands at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, Aug. 14, 2019
Photo Credit: Tech. Sgt. Heather Redman, 15th Wing Public Affairs, USAF

The NYT, Slate, Vox, and many others are already on record about what’s been going on with the Open Skies Treaty. Journalists have been contacting sources and writing articles since October ~8th. I can’t understand how the Wall Street Journal was able to delay by over two weeks covering the story, but I’m now watching for others who haven’t, or won’t, write about it as well because they can’t figure out what’s going on.

I hope my efforts in publicising what’s really going on disrupt any disinformation that’s being spread about the Open Skies Treaty. Any journalist with questions about the treaty or what’s been going on is free to email me questions or catch me on Twitter. I’m more than happy to brief them on the history of the treaty, give references to official documents, and referrals to more arms control academics and experts than you can shake a stick at.

Previous Important Open Skies Posts:

April 20, 2019

The HMCS Toronto had an identity crisis while deployed with NATO SNMG2 in the Black Sea

There are some things that happen in world military affairs that only I get upset about, and this is probably one of those things.

According to their AIS transponder, HMCS Toronto departed 2019-01-21 ~11:45Z from CFB Halifax for a six month tour with NATO Standing NATO Maritime Group Two (#SNMG2), and unlike previous Royal Canadian Navy-NATO deployments (like HMCS St Johns), HMCS Toronto has been operating with their AIS transponder off the whole time, for months.. until they entered the Black Sea and seem to have started broadcasting the MMSI of the HMCS Charlottetown. In some form or fashion, whatever had been entered manually into the transponder was not as it should be - but I don't know how it happened. From my seat here in Ottawa, one of my windows to the deployed maritime world is, which has a worldwide network of AIS receivers. Along the way, in the Black Sea (and now in the Med), HMCS Toronto has been near many of those receivers, and I was able to put them on a map to illustrate where they were. Each place where they were broadcasting their location using AIS was being heard by not just the receivers when they were close to shore, by design they were being "heard" by any ship, including Russian Navy SIGINT vessels in the area, without going through I mention this to make sure you have at the forefront of your mind that the HMCS Toronto itself is broadcasting their precise location, over marine VHF, and through the miracle of technology, are transmitting that location to everyone around the world; it isn't just Russian AGIs that know where the HMCS Toronto is - and that's not a problem or cause for concern!

The commander of SNMG2, Commodore Boudewijn Boots of the Royal Netherlands Navy, engages with the public over social media, bringing pictures from the bridge to Twitter, letting you know where they are regularly; so I have absolutely no doubt the location of the ships is in no way a "secret", and revealing the location of HMCS Toronto is in no way compromising their security - they are broadcasting their location themselves, but are showing up on as using the identification number (MMSI) of the HMCS Charottetown.

Are they trying to impersonate HMCS Charlottetown? What happened?

There are many Twitter accounts that are not operated by individuals, and are actually detractors put there to hijack the conversation and mislead the public; that said, I haven't given up on the platform yet, even though its extremely difficult to tell the difference between outraged soccer moms and paid disinformation operatives conducting their affairs in bad faith.

One inventive answer is that it was a prank or otherwise inside joke among the comms operators on the HMCS Toronto referencing when HMCS Charlottetown was performing exercises near Florida and labelled itself a "Pleasure Craft" (rather than a warship) over it's AIS transponder.
I'm not convinced that's the case.

I always appreciate messages from people who may know something but can't tell me anything because I don't have a need to know; "There are things at play here that are beyond the letter of the book." Okay, that's almost Yoda-worthy.

We also have at least two organisations' standard operating procedures in competition with each other, along with the personal views of the commanding officier (Cdr Martin Fluet), the commander of SNMG2, NATO itself, and the Royal Canadian Navy. Something changed, and I don't know who gave what orders to whom.

I was not paying any attention to HMCS Toronto's movements, because after they left Halifax and turned off their transponder, I didn't expect to see them for six months. When they departed the Black Sea, and I noticed they were using the MMSI assigned to the HMCS Charlottetown, I was quite surprised. You'll remember they were the ones who lost power / caught fire / broke down off the coast of Scotland and we were able to track them as they were limping around. Maybe they decided that was too transparent, and have gone in the other direction? The problem with that mentality is the underlying reason to turn off their transponder; to avoid public scrutiny, not t avoid the Russian Navy - who I'll guess are the primary adversary when conducting European war games. The Russians have their own national technical means to monitor and track NATO ships; and AIS, used by commercial ships the world over to avoid collisions, is not their primary method to detect or monitor #NATO ships. Does it help? Sure, everything helps, I'll give you that. If the Russians think the USS Ross is at a specific location, and they can "hear" USS Ross broadcasting its information from that same location, it does act as a confirmation, but if there's ever a shooting war, the first thing all the NATO ships would do is turn off their transponder - not just change their name, or pick a different MMSI.

Changing the ship's MMSI doesn't hide the location of the ship from anyone; why do it?

That is what I was losing my mind over.

It is ultimately the commander of the HMCS Toronto who is responsible for the safety of his crew and his ship. The commander's choices are guided by directives from his superiors.
  • What advice was provided to him from NATO? or the Royal Canadian Navy? I don't know.
  • Was there a new directive or was the SOP changed? I have no way of telling, 
  • Did Commodore Boudewijn Boots and Cdr Martin Fluet, actually change nothing, but someone made a typo when entering the transponder number in the system? Maybe. The MMSI for HMCS Toronto and HMCS Charlottetown are only one number off.

My frustration is fundamentally that it is unrealistic to think the Russian Navy, who were following SNMG2 the whole time, mistook HMCS Toronto for HMCS Charlottetown. Nobody in the world was fooled. There was absolutely no improvement made to the security of the ship, or the mission, as far as I can tell.

  • If it was an act of obfuscation or deception it was completely useless and didn't warrant doing.
  • If this was done on purpose, in order to deceive, what does that say about the Royal Canadian Navy's level of maritime domain awareness? Did they think it would change something?
    That's what greatly concerns me.
  • If this was a typo, a major system on the ship shouldn't have typos, and at the time they left Halifax they were using the right transponder number, meaning they changed it along the way. That's disturbing.

I would love to discover that this was all a ruse by the Royal Canadian Navy, and this was a repainted HMCS Charlottetown that actually transited to the Black Sea because the HMCS Toronto had much more extensive damage than had been previously reported; but I have no evidence to support that, I just made it up.

Derrick cracked me up with this, and it's at least partially true. The Royal Canadian Navy, and by extension NATO, and the American DoD, I believe, need a lot of help in understanding what is or isn't effective in hiding their movements. I follow the ships I do to remind the public and journalists that we (the people) can and should track our military with the transponders they broadcast their location to their adversaries with, and are aware they are using, so we can know as much as they do. Why should the Russian Navy know where Canadian ships are, when the Canadian public doesn't? If "they" know, *you* should know.

April 17, 2019

Did you hear the one about a Russian Yacht circling Puerto Rico, like a shark with lasers?

Dateline November 17, 2017: The Bermuda-flagged super-yacht "Eclipse" sailed into The Port of Palm Beach Florida. Eclipse is Roman Abramovich's yacht; and he's a very rich Russian with ties to Vladimir Putin, so naturally rumours started to circulate among a faction of people, who were still in shock over Donald Trump's election win. One of the stories was about clandestine meetings at Mar-a-Lago; Russian yachts moored off the coast, and their "oligarch" owners slipped in to shore, maybe under the cover of darkness. It was a great story to lift the spirits of those who felt they'd lost the election, and helped smooth over any criticism of Hillary Clinton's election loss. The Russian yacht-clandestine meeting narrative would fan the flames of the story it was the Russians, not the American voters, who were to blame. The yacht story would also prove to be quite absurd.

"don’t get all collusion-delusional"

-Tony Doris, Journalist with the Palm Beach Post covering the last yacht story

As reputable media organisations reported, Roman Abramovich wasn't on his yacht in Florida in 2017.
  • That's what his publicist said.
  • That's what the press said.
  • That's what I said.

Why? How can I be so sure? Because there were no helicopters, no fast cars, no entourage, no limo... and no Roman. Where Roman Abramovich goes, so does the Paparazzi. There were no Paparazzi staking out the ship, because Roman Abramovich wasn't there. Some people wanted to believe the yacht, owned by a rich Russian, was a sign of Russian influence. The yacht was parked for weeks at the end of 11th Avenue in Palm Beach, having preparations done for its usual winter season spent in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, the yacht's presence was all the evidence some people needed. Believing the yacht's owner is nearby may be a good guess for someone's weekend cabin cruiser, it doesn't scale to the mega-rich, with yachts that are the size of cruise ships.

Despite the rumour not being even remotely plausible, let alone true, the story plays to a crowd who would very much like to believe Russian yachts are following the President of the United States up and down the United States East Coast, and somehow meeting with him, despite closed airspace overhead, and secret service agents hiding in the bushes. Mega-yachts of the rich and famous are not following Donald J Trump around. The story is quite ridiculous, and easily shown to be false; all multi-million dollar yachts have AIS transponders, all are tracked, but the rumour has staying power, because people want to believe it. It is quite impossible to smuggle a Russian billionaire into the USA using a yacht that's worth hundreds of millions of dollars unnoticed.

Skip ahead to April 2019, and another (in)famous Russian's yacht sailed into a US harbour, this time, into the Port of San Juan; Andrey Melnichenko's super-yacht "A" - to a crowd of impressed onlookers.


Since Donald J Trump isn't in Puerto Rico (I hear he's not popular with the locals for some reason), how can this non-event be spun to be something nefarious and Russian-y? The rumour is the yacht stopped near a dozen different American military bases in Puerto Rico, the insinuation is they are conducting SIGINT/ELINT/COMINT/(etc); someone even made a list of the bases... but it's not entirely as it seems; it's a truism. Truisms make great springboards for propaganda, especially when people don't understand they're truisms to begin with.

Picture a rectangular dining table, standing on four legs. In your imagination, walk around the table. Now picture the headline as; "Suspicious person seen circling 4 table legs; citizens monitoring situation for signs of vandalism." It misses the obvious, an uses exaggeration for effect; but it's still the same story, phrased differently; spin, propaganda, disinformation - whatever you want to call it.

I want you to think about this. I invite you to look at a map of Puerto Rico. Answer me this; in what direction can you sail around the island, approaching from the East, and loop around the island (ending up heading East again, like a horse shoe) without passing "near" a dozen military bases? Do you sail around the island clockwise, or counterclockwise, to avoid the bases? What do other yachts do? What's is the baseline from which you determine that this trip is at all unusual or out of the ordinary.

unknown source, picture making the rounds with the rumour
I hear Puerto Rico is lovely, but it isn't very big. All of the military bases are close to shore if not on the shore. No matter where you are in Puerto Rico, you're already near a US military base. Even using terms like nearby and close are subjective, and could be an attempt to make the claim impervious to criticism. These are the usual wiggle-words that we, the consumers of propaganda, need to be on-the-lookout for. Additionally, the claim doesn't elaborate regarding the speed or where the ship stopped; it is only referred to as circling the island, and stopping near bases, which is true, they did sail around the island counter clockwise. If they had sailed around the island clockwise would that have avoided scrutiny? My point in pointing out the absurdity of these allegations is they're totally baseless. As a truism those that make the claims can say they're factually correct; and they are. There was a big yacht, owned by a Russian (not a Russian yacht - there's a difference), that sailed around the island of Puerto Rico, as it had previously done around many other Caribbean islands. There's nothing weird or nefarious about it. It's the same route taken by millions of other ships before them, and completely unrelated to Venezuela; which is a new red herring that could have been thrown in by the Venezuela regime change propaganda campaign for all I know. AIS-T and AIS-S Tracking Data

Using data of the ship's movements shows their pattern of movement matches what you'd expect the route would be for any incredibly expensive yacht; they're sailing from beach to beach, Caribbean vista to Caribbean vista. Overlaying that they're stopping near American military bases is true, but only because Puerto Rico has so many military bases; it's a truism. Every ship that circles the island or stops anywhere near Puerto Rico is "near" a military base.

February 06, 2019

2019-01-26: NORAD intercepted two RuAF long range aviation Tu-160 bombers over the Arctic.

Two Tu-160 "Blackjacks" Photo Credit: Unknown
(2019-02-08 edit added at the bottom)
On January 26th 2019 Russian Air Force Tu-160 bombers took a spin around the Arctic and drew out a welcoming party of two F-22s and two CF-188s; NORAD announced the incursion into their self-assigned "Air Defence Identification Zone" or ADIZ for short. The ADIZ is international airspace, but serves as a buffer where unidentified or suspect planes are intercepted, to make sure they don't get too close to Canada or the United States in case they have hostile intentions. While too close is subjective and the ADIZ arbitrary, potential hostile aircraft should be intercepted before they are within sovereign airspace, which only extends 12 nautical miles out to sea.

These intercepts happen routinely, anywhere from none, to fifteen times in a year
(per official NORAD numbers between 2007 and 2016 (incl.))

Here is NORAD's initial tweet from Saturday January 26th, 2019:

Subsequently, on Monday, January 28th 2019, NORAD issued this longer statement:
An E-3 Airborne Early Warning and Control System, two F-22 and two CF-18 fighter jets from the North American Aerospace Defense Command positively identified two Russian Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers entering the Canadian Air Defense Identification Zone on January 26, 2019.
NORAD employs a layered defense network of radars, satellites, and fighter aircraft to identify aircraft and determine the appropriate response. The identification and monitoring of aircraft entering a US or Canadian ADIZ demonstrates how NORAD executes its aerospace warning and aerospace control missions for the United States and Canada.
“NORAD’s top priority is defending Canada and the United States. Our ability to protect our nations starts with successfully detecting, tracking, and positively identifying aircraft of interest approaching U.S. and Canadian airspace,” said General Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, the NORAD Commander. “NORAD is on alert 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”
Operation NOBLE EAGLE is the name given to the military response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and applies to all air sovereignty and air defense missions in North America. NORAD is a binational command focused on the defense of both the U.S. and Canada, the response to potential aerospace threats does not distinguish between the two nations, and draws on forces from both countries. -NORAD Public Affairs (source)


Here is a summary of the facts, derived from the original text displayed above, which you won't see on Fox, VOA, or Axios. These are the facts conveyed by NORAD themselves. Anything beyond the above details you just read came from somewhere other than two public official NORAD statements; one Saturday (Twitter), and one Monday posted to the NORAD web site. Did the journalists speak with NORAD? Did they say so? Did they cite their source? If not, they may have made it up, or maybe their editor made it up. Call them out for it.
  • The Russian planes were in the ADIZ
  • (at least) 5 NORAD planes were involved
    • 2x USAF F-22 Raptors 
    • 2x RCAF CF-188 Hornets, and 
    • 1x E-3 Sentry (aka AWACS)
  • 2 RuAF planes were "Positively identified" by NORAD; which suggests they intercepted, then flew alongside the RuAF Tu-160s, which were always in international airspace, for a period of time, until they were satisfied they were not a threat. However, I'm extrapolating my understanding from what little they said.

To Recap:
  • 2 RuAF Tu-160s were "positively identified" in the ADIZ by 4 NORAD fighters.
That is the whole story.


  • Additional USAF refuelling aircraft were likely providing gas to NORAD thirsty travellers, but that is unconfirmed. 
  • It is unlikely all four planes were escorting the Tu-160s the entire time. There would likely have been a "hand off" from one pair to the other at some point.


  • "Russian bombers buzz North American coastline" was coined by Lucas Tomlinson (@LucasFoxNews) and Fox News producers. I can't say that a NORAD person never said those words to Lucas and his editor/producer, nor does Lucas claim they did, or quote them - someone editorialized what NORAD said. However, the statement is unlike anything I've ever heard from anyone at NORAD I've ever spoken to. "Buzzed" would imply proximity to the shore or "coast". NORAD's statement specifically said they had not entered sovereign airspace, which extends 12 Nautical Miles from shore; so factually, citing NORAD, I can tell you they were not "Buzzing" the coast, and that Fox has deliberately mis-characterized the flight for the sake of sensationalist reporting; for propaganda even.
  • Unfortunately, other media outlets and bloggers jumped on this "coast" narrative and made it the news of the day, regardless of the facts. I hope journalists and editors realize they were used by partisan politics in propagandizing the routine flight in international airspace and will be more wary next time, but have little hope that will be the case.


~4 hours before NORAD tweeted about the intercept, the Russian Military TV Channel "Star" broadcast the Tu-160 story, from their point of view.

(2019-01-26 16:48 Moscow (13:48Z)
"Два стратегических ракетоносца Ту-160 выполнили плановый полет в воздушном пространстве над нейтральными водами акваторий Северного Ледовитого океана, Баренцева, Лаптевых и Карского морей.
Продолжительность полета составила более 15 часов. В ходе полета экипажи Ту-160 отработали дозаправку топливом в воздухе."
or, Google Translated...
"Two strategic missile carriers Tu-160 performed a planned flight in airspace over the neutral waters of the Arctic Ocean, the Barents, Laptev and Kara seas.
The flight duration was more than 15 hours. During the flight, the crews of the Tu-160 worked refueling in the air."

2019-01-26 19:40 Moscow (16:40Z)
"Плановый полет прошел над нейтральными водами акваторий Северного Ледовитого океана, моря Лаптевых, а также Баренцева и Карского морей."
"The scheduled flight took place over the neutral waters of the Arctic Ocean, Laptev Sea, and the Barents and Kara Seas."

2019-01-26 12:40 EST (17:40Z) NORAD releases statement via Twitter
"An E-3 AWACS, 2x F-22, 2x CF-18 fighter jets from NORAD positively identified 2x Russian Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers entering the Canadian Air Defense Identification Zone on January 26, 2019. Bombers remained in international airspace and did not enter sovereign territory"

2019-01-26 23:59 Moscow (20:59Z)
«Полет был для нас более обычным и привычным. 16 часов – это не максимум, который мы летали»
“The flight was more ordinary and familiar to us. 16 hours is not the maximum that (we've flown)” -Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Zheludkov, RuAF

2019-01-27 03:59 Moscow (00:59Z)
"Опубликованы кадры ночной дозаправки Ту-160 над водами Арктики"
"(Zvezda) Published footage (of) night refueling of the Tu-160 over the waters of the Arctic"

2019-01-27 04:44 Moscow (01:44Z)
"Пять военных самолетов США и Канады подняли по тревоге из-за Ту-160"
"Five military aircraft of the United States and Canada raised the alarm because of the Tu-160"

Whereas TV Zvezda is the Russian military TV network, and usually provides original Russian-sourced information, Sputnik usually mirrors what is being broadcast in the United States with an alternative view from a Russian angle (mileage may vary); take this post which could have referred to Russian sources, but instead reported on American sources in English, and added what sort of weapons loadout they could have (not what weapons they *did* have, because all indicators point to the plane being empty).

2019-01-27 11:07 Moscow (08:07Z)
US, Canadian Jets ‘Identified’ Russian Bombers in Airspace Near Canada - NORAD

2019-01-28 Zulu
"An E-3 Airborne Early Warning and Control System, two F-22 and two CF-18 fighter jets from the North American Aerospace Defense Command positively identified two Russian Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers entering the Canadian Air Defense Identification Zone on January 26, 2019."

I think it's quite possible they intentionally schedule the flight when they expected the least response from NORAD Public Affairs and he public; my impression is these get more coverage on weekdays rather than weekends. I could be wrong.


Unfortunately, unlike the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces who post a summary of Russian air movements in their air-defence zone, NORAD does not give us any context where the flights took place. This obfuscation is said to be for "Operational Security" reasons, but I don't quite understand that, since we're referring to Russian planes who know they were intercepted.

Japanese Joint Chiefs of Staff Press Release (via Twitter) including map of Russian operations near Japan; you've never seen anything like this issued by NORAD because they've never done so.

I can't see why NORAD would seem to feel releasing the above Japanese-style map would compromise national security, but it would greatly improve the understanding of NORAD operations for the public at large, and neuter any attempts at disinformation efforts that would portray the event as something more than it was.


This is a screenshot of OpenStreetMaps which shows you the 12 nautical mile limit as a thin purple line. Please note that between the coast of Russia, and the line; that's Russian airspace. Between the Alaskan coast and the purple line; that's American airspace. That's all of it; 12 Nautical Miles. It's not very far at all, especially by plane.

Here we have an FAA-data driven Google Earth image showing the ADIZ. If a Russian Air Force plane flies through the green zone shown below, NORAD may send an interceptor to say Hi. They might not. The idea is to keep the Russians guessing regarding when and where they are detected by coastal radar or other national technical means. Did they, or didn't they see them flying by? You'll notice that the ADIZ is mostly over international waters, which is where you'd need to be to intercept a Russian bomber, before it unloads ALCMs at CONUS; that's the idea anyway.

Most of the time people do not see the earth from the top, and do not appreciate that Russia is just on the other side of the pole. I believe people know they are there, on the other side, but just never see what that means, like this, over the top - withe the ADIZ in green:

Exactly where the Tu-160 took off from and landed was not published, but they did say they travelled over the Arctic, Laptev, Barents, and Kara Sea - and always in international airspace; which is easy to do, since it's all international airspace past 12 nautical miles from shore.

I can hope that someone at NORAD sees my butchery of Google Earth maps / the ADIZ and demands they publish better maps so they never have to be subjected to my graphics "prowess" again.


Unfortunately Lieutenant-General Sergey Kobylash, the commander of long-range aviation of the RuAF isn't a Twitter guy, so I don't think I'll be able to ask him any specifics on the mission, but here are the videos they published of the flight (the same flight) as NORAD announced. You may not be aware, but NORAD has no obligation to Canadians or Americans to tell us every time they perform one of these interceptions; they only release the information if the Russians publish something about it, or if someone at the Pentagon leaks it to the press, forcing their hand.

As an aside; it sure would be nice to get 1080p or 4k NORAD footage, wouldn't it?

The news media routinely make the same mistakes, with clickbait headlines about intrusions into North American airspace, every single time one of these flights takes place, but NORAD every single time diligently tells the public no national airspace was crossed, and the bombers were never in sovereign airspace. Why editors and producers of the news ignore this can only be because of clicks, because it certainly isn't from being accurate. Kudos to you journalists who didn't fall for the "buzz the coast" narrative, and a finger wag to those of who who spread the story in that "Fake News" light.

2019-02-08 Update

Thank you to the mystery person (and people!) who are monitoring the Russian HF radio networks the bombers talk to each other (unencrypted, old school, voice comms) while performing operations, live tweeting it for the world to read as it happens. I completely missed this thread on Twitter, and several side-bar threads of people I follow, and who follow me on Twitter; so I profusely apologize to them for not noticing and not including the information they had put out there while the action was going on.

We knew the Russians said they were doing refuelling up over the Arctic on their 15 hour training flight, but now we know the composition of that effort.
  • 2x Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bombers (58401, 58402)
  • 1x Tu-160 strategic bombers acting as a communication relay (58403)
  • 4x Ilyushin Il-78 refuelling planes (90722, 90723, 90724, 90725)
That's a pretty impressive sortie, I'd say.