Pursued, fired upon, then captured by Russian sailors, the Ukrainian crew must’ve feared their plight might go unnoticed. But it didn’t. Days after the Kerch Strait incident late last year, a multinational reconnaissance plane soared over the turbulent waters. With American, Canadian, French, German, Romanian, and British observers on-board, the message was clear: Russia, the world is watching. The extraordinary flight was possible thanks solely to the Open Skies Treaty – an accord allowing aerial surveillance among member states. But rumblings out of Washington suggest the scheme could soon be scrapped.
First floated during the Cold War, Open Skies looks to de-escalate tensions through mutual transparency. Given 72 hours notice, each of the 34 signatories must allow unrestricted airborne reconnaissance of their land, with the promise that all images captured will be shared freely. For its supporters, the scheme is as much about confidence-building as surveillance – we have nothing to hide, so you have nothing to fear.
But Open Skies is under threat. President Trump intends to haul America out of the agreement, reports suggest, with speculation that the six-month withdrawal notice has already been signed.
Alleged Russian violations seem to drive his disdain for the accord. Excessive constraints on their surveillance of the Kaliningrad enclave – home to some of Moscow’s most advanced nuclear missiles – and a dispute over on-board observers led Washington to cancel all flights in 2018. Russia, for its part, complains of unreasonable US restrictions – since 2017 their access to Hawaiian airspace has been limited.
Regardless, a cross-section of conservative US lawmakers believe Moscow to be the net beneficiary of Open Skies. Supported from the sidelines by John Bolton, Trump’s hawkish former national security adviser, some Republicans have demanded that the scheme’s funding be cut. The US’s intelligence needs would be better served by going it alone, they argue, pointing to the nation’s formidable spy satellite fleet, which can produce higher resolution imagery than the ageing aircraft.
There’s merit to the argument. Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, a known proponent of the scheme, admitted in 2017 that, given America’s pre-eminence in orbital surveillance, Open Skies was – technically speaking – in Russia’s favour.
But this misses the accord’s core objective, advocates say. More than the intelligence it helps gather, the treaty binds America to its transatlantic allies – offering them access to information they would otherwise lack. Most Open Skies signatories – especially those in Eastern Europe – lack the financial wherewithal for a satellite fleet, and thus rely heavily on the scheme to monitor their borders. Should, for instance, Ukraine be without multilateral eyes in the sky, there’s little knowing what Russia might attempt.
The agreement also offers some practical advantages over unilateral orbital reconnaissance. Wary of disclosing state secrets, the Americans don’t regularly share their satellites’ findings – and when they do, the security clearance process is often protracted. However rudimentary, images captured by surveillance planes can be shared widely and without undue delay. For supporters, this alone justifies Open Skies’s expense – around $146 million a year, 0.02% of the US’s overall defence budget.
But the Oval Office appears to be on a one-way track when it comes to Cold War-era accords. America’s departure would follow its exit from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, says Bonnie Kristian of Defense Priorities, a military think tank. “Exiting Open Skies would demolish another piece of de-escalatory infrastructure designed to avoid a crisis between nuclear powers,” she added.
The world has moved on since the late 1980s though, with new dangers emerging at pace. For all the Kremlin’s bluster, Russia’s threat to the West is in decline. In its place, China is ascending. As with the arms treaties of old, Beijing is not bound by Open Skies – a point that’ll surely weigh on American minds.
But the world is seldom made safer by scrapping peace-minded schemes, however ageing. Instead, like America’s rickety reconnaissance aircraft, many believe that they should be repurposed for the modern era. The emergence of hybrid warfare – with its use of ‘deep fake’ technology and disinformation – has added value to the sort of simple, mutually recognised photographic evidence Open Skies affords. It’s not perfect, but in the world of international treaties, little is.