September 05, 2016

Open Skies Treaty overflight; Russia over Canada 2016

Russian Federation Open Skies Plane
Tupolev Tu-154M LK1
Registration: RA-85655
Mode-S Code: 194E97
Serial Number (MSN): 89A798

Photo by Mark Beal (@veryboeing)
during RF-85655's stop-over in
Halifax, Nova Scotia on 2016-09-01

The Russian Federation held their yearly Canadian Open Skies Treaty mission this past week, arriving at CFB Trenton from Washington DC, on the heels of their previous Open Skies Treaty mission in the United States.  The Russians landed at CFB Trenton on August 27th ~1830Z, and departed for Russia on September 3rd ~1900Z.

Since the treaty came into force in 2002, states who are signatory to the Treaty on Open Skies (also known as the Open Skies Treaty) can conduct a treaty-defined maximum number of yearly overflights of other signatory nations, with a maximum flight distance dependant from where they are taking off from in that country, and only certain airports in signatory nations are approved for these observation planes to land.  Not all countries have approved planes; with approved sensors, or approved cameras.  Those that don't piggy-back on the flights of other signatory states.  The purpose of these flights is to take pictures of the other signatory members' military and industrial facilities to build confidence that the "other side" isn't amassing troops or tanks on the border, out of conventional view, or hiding from satellite imagery, but located perhaps where a closer-to-the-ground plane would be able to photograph them.  The overflights are conducted at a height and speed that allows for 30cm resolution imagery, which is slightly less detailed than publicly available commercial satellite imagery today.  There are 34 states who are party to the agreement today, including Canada, the United States, and the Russian Federation.  My previous posts about the Open Skies Treaty are here.

Several people have asked why this visit by the Russian Air Force is important, or news-worthy; this is a treaty that has been in place since 2002, and overflights happen routinely.  It's a good question with a complicated answer.  Most importantly to me; most Canadians don't know a level of cooperation exists with the Russian Federation that would allow them to overfly Canada and take pictures of anything they want, anywhere, coast to coast to coast.  Most Canadians don't know that Canada does the same over Russia, flying over their territory more than once a year, and photographing anything, anywhere.  Right now, perhaps more than ever, the rhetoric out of some factions of world governments would like to vilify the Russian or American governments as evil empires intent on world domination.  Leveraging the imagery attained from Open Skies overflights can diffuse some of those wild rumours.  Treaties like the Open Skies Treaty show that world powers can actually work together and cooperate. Treaties work when they are negotiated in good faith, and applied in good faith.  The Open Skies Treaty is, in my opinion, a poster child for successful treaties and diplomatic negotiation, despite minor issues in its application over Russian Federation territory.  Interestingly, while the treaty and overflights are not highly classified endeavours, neither the American or Canadian governments publish press releases about them when they occur, but will answer questions when asked.  Russian media (TASS, Sputnik, etc) publish the flight is going to take place right before it happens; this is true for flights over Russia, or flights being conducted by Russia over other countries.

While the Russians could visit Canada more often (per the treaty), the past twelve years of flights show the Russians come to Canada about once a year to overfly Canadian military and industrial facilities.  Using, the route the Open Skies flight was taking was documented during the flight, and posted to Google Maps, prior to requesting the official mission plan from the Department of National Defence via Access to Information.  The "catch" regarding using the freely available data was, the route had to be in range of civilian transponder receivers to allow MLAT triangulation to work.  Military planes do not always broadcast their position by ADS-B transponder, so triangulation of their location is necessary.

Unfortunately only half of the flight was caught in this manner, likely due to the northerly points they were travelling to, and how far away they were from civilian receivers and plane spotter enthusiasts.  The rest of the data points will hopefully become available over the next several months.

From the flight path and previous visits educated guesses about what they were taking pictures of can be made.  We know the Russian overflights take pictures of both current military facilities, and decommissioned facilities; I presume to make sure they were shut down, and stay shut down.  The below map has been marked with likely targets of their Open Skies Treaty sanctioned IMINT mission.

Embiggen the map by clicking the square at the top right of the embedded map below

Map of RuAF flight, locations likely photographed, and all Treasury Board locations (except the 3 Northernmost)

After leaving Canada, RF-85655 refuelled in Iceland on its way back to the Russian Federation, first landing at Kubinka (Кубинка), where I speculate some of the flight crew disembarked, then on to  Chkalovsky (Чкаловский) where I (again) speculate the plane will undergo maintenance.  Kubinka (Кубинка) is where previous film developing has taken place, and I assume if the film was being processed there, a lodger reconnaissance unit is stationed there as well.  Since the cameras onboard the flight are now digital, no film processing will be needed, but I theorize the unit is located in the same place where they previously processed film, so the crew who were manning the sensors aboard the flight potentially disembarked there.  Kubinka (Кубинка) is also where other states' Open Skies missions start from, when nations arrive to overfly the Russian Federation under the Open Skies Treaty.

I will hopefully have a significant update to this story later in the month.


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