US to withdraw from Open Skies Treaty

The Trump administration has officially determined that the US will withdraw its involvement in the Open Skies Treaty in six months, citing alleged Russian violations of the agreement as the reason behind the move.

President Donald Trump confirmed the decision on May 21, with the US Department of Defense (DoD) submitting a formal withdrawal notification the next day.

In a statement, the DoD said: “After careful consideration, including input from allies and key partners, it has become abundantly clear that it is no longer in the United States’ best interest to remain a party to this treaty when Russia does not uphold its commitments.”

The department cited Russia’s alleged violations of the agreement as the reason behind the US’ withdrawal, saying that the nation “has increasing used the treaty to support propaganda narratives in an attempt to justify Russian aggression against its [neighbours] and may use it for military targeting against the [US] and our allies.”

OC-135B [USAF/Charles J Haymond] #1
USAF/Charles J Haymond

It went on to detail recent treaty obligation violations by Russia – including one example from September 2019, where the nation denied an Open Skies flight over a major Russian military exercise. US officials have also claimed that Russia has not allowed flights over areas where they believe nuclear weapons may be based. The DoD concluded that these actions prevent “the exact transparency the treaty is meant to provide.”

Although plans to withdraw have been announced, it does not necessarily mean it will happen. Following the announcement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added that the US may “reconsider [its] withdrawal should Russia return to full compliance with the treaty.”

The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the agreement has drawn criticism from the US House Armed Services Committee’s chairman and Democratic Representative for Washington (D-Wash), Adam Smith, along with Democratic Representative for Tennessee (D-TN) and chairman of the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Jim Cooper. The pair blasted the decision and the administration’s failure to give the US Congress 120-days’ notice of the plan to withdraw, as required under the US Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20) National Defense Authorization Act.

OC-135B [USAF] #1
OC-135B - serial 61-2670 (c/n 18346, line number C3026) - in flight. USAF

In a statement released in response to the announcement, the pair said that the US’ withdrawal “is a slap in the face to our allies in Europe, leaves our deployed forces in the region at risk, and is in blatant violation of the law… This decision weakens our national security interests, isolates the [US] since the treaty will continue without us, and abandons a useful tool to hold Russia accountable… What’s more, the decision has been made without any consultation with Congress.”

The decision has sparked reactions from European states and Russia. In a joint statement, the governments of ten NATO-member nations – including France and Germany – expressed “regret” and affirmed that they “will continue to implement the Open Skies Treaty, which has a clear added value for our conventional arms control architecture and cooperative security.”

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs took to Twitter in its response, calling the US’ withdrawal “very regrettable,” adding that the “treaty is crucial for ensuring mutual trust in Europe [and] on a larger scale.” RIA Novosti, a domestic state-operated news agency, quoted Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alexander Grushko, as saying that “the withdrawal by the US from this treaty would not only [be] a blow to the foundation of European security… but to the key security interests of the allies of the US… Nothing prevents continuing the discussions over the technical issues which the US is misrepresenting as violations by Russia.”


What is the Open Skies Treaty?

The Open Skies Treaty was designed to promote transparency, cooperation and mutual understanding between involved countries, enabling them to gather information about the military forces and activities of other nations which are part of the agreement.

OC-135B [USAF/Charles J Haymond] #2
USAF/Charles J Haymond

The programme sees its origins in the mid-1950s but was rejected by the Soviet Union. In 1989, former-US President George H W Bush revived the treaty and it as better received by the Warsaw Pact nations. On March 24, 1992, the agreement was signed in Helsinki, Finland, and the Open Skies Treaty officially began on January 1, 2002.

The programme currently includes 35 nations, which have the ability to conduct unarmed surveillance flights over the territories of all participating nations.


Boeing OC-135B Open Skies

Since 1993, the US Air Force (USAF) has operated three Boeing OC-135B Open Skies observation aircraft in performing the country’s unarmed surveillance flights over the treaty’s participating nations – including Russia. The platform – a modified variant of the WC-135 Constant Phoenix special missions/nuclear detection aircraft – is outfitted with cameras and camera operators to take pictures of military installations, airports and other areas of interest within the territories of treaty nations.

As of May 2020, two of the three OC-135Bs – serials 61-2670 (c/n 18346, line number C3026) and 61-2672 (c/n 18348, line number C3028) – are currently operational with the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron (RS), based from Offutt Air Force Base (AFB), Nebraska, and is supported by the 95th RS ‘Kickin’ Ass’ at RAF Mildenhall, Suffolk, UK, when deployed on operations. The third aircraft, which was used to gain initial operational capability of the fleet, is in storage at the Aircraft Maintenance and Regeneration Center at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona.

OC-135B [USAF/Charles J Haymond]
USAF/Charles J Haymond

A replacement for the ageing OC-135Bs has been discussed in recent years, but the US DoD withheld funding for a new Open Skies aircraft until the US’ future involvement in the arms control treaty was decided. In FY19, the Pentagon allocated US$41.5m to begin a programme which would find the platform’s successor. Former commander of 55th Wing at Offutt AFB, turned Republican Representative for Nebraska, Don Bacon, outlined the need to replace the OC-135Bs, saying that “the current aircraft are old, have bad maintenance rates and are prone to breakdown in Russia, putting our crews in bad situations where they are harassed by Russian authorities.”

Given the US’ current plan to withdraw from the agreement, any replacement plan for the ageing platform has now likely been scrapped unless the Trump administration changes its mind in the coming months. Although nothing has been said yet regarding the future of the OC-135B fleet, if the US maintains its current stance, the service will have no need for the aircraft going forward and the two aircraft will likely be placed in storage or retired.