Russia is asking the US permission to send spy planes in the skies equipped with an advanced electro-optical imaging sensor. The planes might fly because both countries are signatories on the Open Skies Treaty, according to New York Times.
The Russia and US treaty is an international agreement that allows for unarmed observation flights over the entirety of the 34 member nations. The treaty was originally designed to increase the spy military transparency of member nations.
However, the US is arguing that Russia is exploiting the spirit of the treaty by using such advanced technology on planes. Russia’s request of the Vienna-based Open Skies Consultative Commission comes at a time of heightened tensions between the two former Cold War rivals.
“The treaty has become a critical component of Russia’s intelligence collection capability directed at the United States,” Adm. Cecil D. Haney, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said in a statement. “In addition to overflying military installations, Russian Open Skies flights can overfly and collect on Department of Defense and national security or national critical infrastructure.” The Russians could easily exploit the data gathered from these flights, Haney argued.
What’s more, Russia has recently declined to make all of its territory available for the same purpose to US spy planes. Moscow, Chechnya and the areas around Abkhazia and South Ossetia are all apparently off-limits despite the rules of the treaty.
On the other hand, we’ll know exactly what the Russians are taking pictures of because the treaty stipulates that all images captured must be shared among the 34 member nations. Either way, the flights wouldn’t be conducted until this summer, at the earliest, owing to the treaty’s 120-day lead time.
The move presents the United States with a dilemma: How does Washington respond at a time when Moscow and Washington are at odds over Syria and Ukraine and senior US defense officials have identified Russia as the No. 1 existential threat to America? It would be complicated for the United States to block Russia’s request to fly spy planes.
“We have to remember that while we have pretty good intelligence on a lot of the world, a lot of other countries don’t necessarily have that great of intelligence on us,” Davis said. “So, in the interest of transparency and [avoiding] miscalculation on their part, sometimes it’s worthwhile to allow them to have a look at what you’re doing or what you’re not doing.”
Davis said the United States carries out Open Skies flights regularly, and Russia “has done it many times before,” as well. In 2014, for example, US pilots described flying Open Skies missions over Russia from Yokota Air Base in Japan.
Marine Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, the military’s top intelligence officer, said during a House Armed Services Committee last year that he “very concerned” about how Russia was using the Open Skies treaty to observe the US with spy planes, but declined to elaborate in an open, unclassified hearing.