President Trump should end this charade by withdrawing from the treaty and diverting the hundreds of millions of dollars it wastes to valuable military projects.
Open Skies is straightforward in concept. It allows signatories to fly specialized aircraft over other countries to photograph existing facilities, construction and troop movements. These overflights are intended to build trust and transparency among our countries.
The idea had support from U.S. leaders for decades, beginning in the 1950s with President Dwight Eisenhower. Arms-control treaties can reduce dangerous tensions and build trust — but only when signatories live up to their promises, either because they act in good faith or because they perceive that compliance advances their interests.
Yet Russia is not a good-faith actor. Moreover, the Open Skies Treaty no longer serves to reduce tensions or build trust, if it ever did. Instead it gives Russia a spying capability it wouldn’t otherwise possess, which jeopardizes U.S. security.
For the Open Skies Treaty to work, signatories are supposed to allow overflights of all their airspace on several days’ notice and with virtually no restrictions. These rules ensure that signatories can’t hide military buildups or other sensitive projects. In practice, Russia allows only limited overflights of areas where it is engaged in covert military operations. Russian President Vladimir Putin is free to send his spy planes over U.S. military installations or over Trump’s retreat in Bedminster, N.J., while restricting U.S. flights over his own territory.
That includes Kaliningrad, Russia’s heavily fortified Baltic Sea enclave deep inside NATO territory. Russia last year upgraded nuclear-capable missile bases and other military installations in Kaliningrad. Russia also denies overflights of its border with Georgia, where Russian troops covertly assist separatist forces. What a strange coincidence that Russia denies Open Skies flights over the very areas where those flights would be useful.
Despite Russia’s violations, it might be worth staying in the treaty if it supplied the United States with intelligence unavailable through other means. But that is not the case. We have the most advanced reconnaissance capabilities of any country, including satellites that can capture images on short notice anywhere on the planet — including Kaliningrad and the Russia-Georgia border. Open Skies overflights are thus a redundant capability for us, but a critical supplement to Russia’s smaller, less capable spy satellite network.
Defenders of the Open Skies Treaty argue that the treaty improves intelligence-sharing among our NATO allies, even if it doesn’t directly improve U.S. intelligence capabilities. Setting aside the dubious rationale of staying in treaties that don’t benefit the United States, the treaty doesn’t provide any advantage that our allies can’t easily replace.
The resolution of Open Skies imagery is capped at 30 centimeters per pixel, virtually the same as the resolution available from commercial satellite-imaging companies. Our allies could therefore purchase imagery of the same quality as Open Skies imagery right now. They also benefit, and will continue to benefit, from the many intelligence-sharing channels that already exist with the United States and have nothing to do with the Open Skies Treaty.
Another drawback: The two specially modified U.S. aircraft used for Open Skies flights are old and expensive to maintain. The planes, a derivative of the KC-135 that first flew in the 1950s, are older than the treaty they support and have broken down midflight. Modernizing these aircraft would cost nearly a quarter-billion dollars.
The money would be better spent on tools that increase the combat effectiveness and survivability of U.S. troops. Withdrawing from Open Skies also would allow us to restrict Russian spy flights over the most sensitive U.S. military installations without damaging our ability to monitor theirs.
Too many members of the foreign-policy establishment view treaties with sentimental affection rather than hard-nosed and clear-eyed objectivity. Far from being a pillar of the post-Cold War order, the Open Skies Treaty is a slow drain on U.S. resources and a spying coup for a key adversary. It’s time to close American skies to Russian spies.