Russia intends to seek permission to start flying surveillance planes equipped with high-powered digital cameras, under the Open Skies Treaty, amid warnings from U.S. officials that such overflights might pave the way to gather imagery data on the United States main land.
The Treaty on Open Skies entered into force on January 1, 2002, and currently has 34 States Parties. It establishes a program of unarmed aerial surveillance flights over the entire territory of its participants. The treaty is designed to enhance mutual understanding and confidence by giving all participants, regardless of size, a direct role in gathering information about military forces and activities of concern to them. Open Skies is one of the most wide-ranging international efforts to date promoting openness and transparency of military forces and activities. The concept of “mutual aerial observation” was initially proposed to Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin at the Geneva Conference of 1955 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower; however, the Soviets promptly rejected the concept and it lay dormant for several years. The treaty was eventually signed as an initiative of US president (and former Director of Central Intelligence) George H. W. Bush in 1989. Negotiated by the then-members of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the agreement was signed in Helsinki, Finland, on March 24, 1992.
Russia will formally ask the Open Skies Consultative Commission, based in Vienna, to be allowed to fly an aircraft equipped with high-tech sensors over the United States, according to a senior congressional staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the staff member wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
The request will put the Obama administration in the position of having to decide whether to let Russia use the high-powered equipment on its surveillance planes at a time when Moscow, according to the latest State Department compliance report, is failing to meet all its obligations under the treaty. And it comes at one of the most tension-filled times in U.S.-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War, with the two countries at odds over Russian activity in Ukraine and Syria.
Open Skies aircraft may have video, optical panoramic and framing cameras for daylight photography, infra-red line scanners for a day/night capability, and synthetic aperture radar for a day/night all weather capability. Photographic image quality will permit recognition of major military equipment (e.g., permit a State Party to distinguish between a tank and a truck), thus allowing significant transparency of military forces and activities. Sensor categories may be added and capabilities improved by agreement among States Parties. All sensors used in Open Skies must be commercially available to all signatories. Imagery resolution is limited to 30 centimetres.
We assess that Russia already has the means and the capabilities to collect imagery data in this detail on the main land U.S. given its space-based systems.
Yet, this attempt is a win-win situation for Russia. This request can be assessed as a backlash by Russia in return to U.S. allegations that Russia is not respecting established international transparency measures, such as 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, assuming that the U.S. administration will turn the request down. In case it is permitted, Russia will likely to utilize this Open Skies overflight to boast its support over the internal audience.