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Russia wants to fly more spy planes over the U.S., and the Pentagon can’t stop it

In this March 27, 2008, file photo, the Pentagon is seen in this aerial view in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

Russia filed a request Monday to fly a spy plane carrying advanced digital cameras over the United States. 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 U.S. 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. The Treaty on Open Skies, which was first approved in 1992 and went into effect in 2002, allows signatories to fly unarmed aircraft carrying video and still cameras, infrared scanning devices and certain forms of radar over the territory of other treaty members. Inspections are carried out to make sure the cameras used meet the terms of treaty and are not too powerful.

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Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said Monday that the treaty, which was ratified by the Senate, helps prevent any misinterpretation of military action that could lead to armed conflict.

“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, U.S. pilots described flying Open Skies missions over Russia from Yokota Air Base in Japan.

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But concerns have been raised about allowing Russia to carry out more Open Skies flights. In a letter from Adm. Cecil Haney to Rep. Mike Rogers (R.-Ala.) obtained by The Associated Press, the admiral said the treaty has become a critical component of Russia’s collection of intelligence against the United States.

“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,” wrote Haney, chief of the U.S. Strategic Command. “The vulnerability exposed by exploitation of this data and costs of mitigation are increasingly difficult to characterize.”

Marine Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, the military’s top intelligence officer, said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing last year that he was “very concerned” about how Russia was using the Open Skies treaty to observe the United States, but declined to elaborate in an open, unclassified hearing.

“The Open Skies construct was designed for a different era,” Stewart said, adding that he would “love” to talk about it in a session closed to the public.

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Treaty members have examined how to modernize the agreement to account for digital cameras, rather than “wet film” devices that were widely used when the treaty was adopted.

The new Russian request comes as Turkey and Russia argue over planned Russian Open Skies flights over southern Turkey that were planned for this month. Russian officials said the requests were denied by the government in Ankara in open violation of the treaty. The rejection “testifies to the desire of the Turkish side to hide some activity probably taking place in areas that the Russian plane was to have flown over,” according to Russia’s TASS news agency.

Turkey dismissed the allegations, saying in a statement that observation flights are performed when both parties reach an agreement on a mission plan. Russia and Turkey have exchanged a series of tense messages since Nov. 24, when Turkey shot down a Russian bomber near Turkey’s border.

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