Great news: Russia ready to make spy overflights of US

Blame the Open Skies Treaty — and a new era of Russian aggression. Russia has asked for clearance to begin making high-altitude overflights under the auspices of the 24-year-old treaty. However, this may be a sauce-for-the-goose situation:


Russia will ask permission on Monday to start flying surveillance planes equipped with high-powered digital cameras amid warnings from U.S. intelligence and military officials that such overflights help Moscow collect intelligence on the United States.

Russia and the United States are signatories to the Open Skies Treaty, which allows unarmed observation flights over the entire territory of all 34 member nations to foster transparency about military activity and help monitor arms control and other agreements. Senior intelligence and military officials, however, worry that Russia is taking advantage of technological advances to violate the spirit of the treaty.

It’s unclear how that “violate[s] the spirit of the treaty.” The treaty is explicitly intended for intelligence gathering, centering on arms-control treaties for verification purposes. Dwight Eisenhower first proposed it to the Soviet premier Nikolai Bulganin in 1955, but Nikita Khruschev as First Secretary of the Soviet Union rejected it out of hand. The idea kicked around until 1989, when George H. W. Bush revived it as the Soviet Union began to collapse, leaving its nuclear arsenal potentially vulnerable and split between its formerly conquered “republics.” The point was clearly to have intel capabilities beyond satellites, and it seems a bit doubtful that such efforts were limited to arms-control verification.

In fact, the US has conducted similar overflights of Russia, with permission from Moscow. Stars and Stripes reported on the effort in November 2014:


During the past several days, a U.S. observation plane has been flying over Russian skies, taking photos of military installations and equipment — all with permission of the Russians. …

Nelson said Sunday that the U.S. has conducted 17 Open Skies missions so far this year, including three over Ukraine, which is also a signatory to the treaty.

Two of the Ukraine flights were conducted in March and April in response to unrest in that country, where the ouster of the pro-Russian president after months of protests was followed by Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and its backing of separatists in the Russian-speaking east.

Want to bet that these overflights weren’t entirely occupied with arms-control agreements? The treaty itself opens the door to such efforts. Bush signed the initial version in 1992; his son signed the current version in 2002. During that period, Russia had collapsed into itself, struggling to emerge from the Soviet breakup and the economic crisis that rendered them militarily dormant. Now, however, Russia has asserted itself once again as a nuclear superpower, and they want to achieve parity with the US — and perhaps embarrass the Obama administration, too.

However, that’s not to say that the US doesn’t have a legitimate protest here. The treaty includes provisions that such surveillance be limited to “agreed sensors,” and the objection to Russia’s request deals with a new camera Moscow wants to deploy in the effort:


Russia and the U.S. are part of the Open Skies Treaty, which allows unarmed surveillance planes to fly over the entire territory of all 34 member nations to encourage transparency about military activity. However, senior intelligence and military officials in the U.S. are reportedly concerned that Russia was taking advantage of its advanced technology to violate the treaty.

“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, wrote in a letter earlier this year to Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., chairman of a House subcommittee on strategic forces, according to AP.

“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,” Haney reportedly said. “The vulnerability exposed by exploitation of this data and costs of mitigation are increasingly difficult to characterize.”

The treaty limits sensors to these types:

1. Except as otherwise provided for in paragraph 3 of this Article, observation aircraft shall be equipped with sensors only from amongst the following categories: (A) optical panoramic and framing cameras; (B) video cameras with real-time display; (C) infra-red line-scanning devices; and (D) sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar.

2. A State Party may use, for the purposes of conducting observation flights, any of the sensors specified in paragraph 1 above, provided that such sensors are commercially available to all States Parties, subject to the following performance limits: (A) in the case of optical panoramic and framing cameras, a ground resolution of no better than 30 centimetres at the minimum height above ground level determined in accordance with the provisions of Annex D, Appendix 1, obtained from no more than one panoramic camera, one vertically-mounted framing camera and two obliquely-mounted framing cameras, one on each side of the aircraft, providing coverage, which need not be continuous, of the ground up to 50 kilometres of each side of the flight path of the aircraft; (B) in the case of video cameras, a ground resolution of no better than 30 centimetres determined in accordance with the provisions of Annex D, Appendix 1; (C) in the case of infra-red line-scanning devices, a ground resolution of no better than 50 centimetres at the minimum height above ground level determined in accordance with the provisions of Annex D, Appendix 1, obtained from a single device; and (D) in the case of sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar, a ground resolution of no better than three metres calculated by the impulse response method, which, using the object separation method, corresponds to the ability to distinguish on a radar image two corner reflectors, the distance between the centres of which is no less than five metres, over a swath width of no more than 25 kilometres, obtained from a single radar unit capable of looking from either side of the aircraft, but not both simultaneously.


Any deviation from these restrictions has to gain approval from Open Skies Consultative Commission, a member board established by the treaty to mediate disputes. The US claims that Russia’s sensors violate the restrictions of Section 2; the Russians will certainly dispute that. It’s likely that this dispute will wind up under their aegis, but the end result will be anyone’s guess.

Clearly, though, the Russians feel comfortable challenging the US on this military/intelligence front, just as they have felt more comfortable over the past two years challenging US and NATO air patrols over international waters and even at the frontiers of member airspace. Whether we want one or not, we are approaching a new Cold War, thanks in large part by a failure of two successive American administrations to recognize that Russia’s interests run counter to our own in nearly every arena.


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