The two surveillance planes the U.S. Air Force flies under the auspices of a 1992 arms-verification treaty are old, poorly maintained, and unsafe for their roughly dozen-person crews, according to experts including a former Air Force contractor who worked on the aircraft.
Despite the alleged danger, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are trying to deny the Air Force $220 million in funding for replacing the OC-135 planes. In rejecting the budget request, Republicans hope to undermine the Open Skies Treaty—a move that, one House Armed Services Committee staffer insisted, amounts to “getting tough on Russia.”
In effect, House Republicans could be trading aircrews’ safety for a chance at weakening a key arms-control initiative.
The Open Skies Treaty between the United States, Russia, and 32 other countries allows member states to fly over each other’s territories in order to photograph military installations and verify adherence to other treaties.
The treaty “provides a significant contribution to the security and stability of North America and Europe,” Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C., told The Daily Beast.
This mutual benefit is apparently anathema to pro-war members of Congress. “There is a faction of the American government who wants to kill the Open Skies Treaty,” Steffan Watkins, an independent imagery analyst and treaty proponent, told The Daily Beast.
Since 1993, the Air Force has operated two planes for Open Skies missions. Along with five flight crew, the four-engine OC-135s, whose home base is Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, carry four film cameras and personnel to direct the mission and operate the cameras.
But the OC-135s, which were built in the early 1960s, are some of the oldest aircraft in the military inventory. For at least a decade, the Air Force has failed to keep up with the aging planes’ mounting maintenance demands. “I’m not sure how they haven’t been grounded for flight safety issues yet,” Watkins said.
That negligence plays in to Republicans’ hands. While American observers could always hitch rides on allies’ Open Skies planes, grounding America’s own treaty aircraft could give Congress and the administration an incentive to cease cooperation with Russia. “Limiting the value of the Open Skies treaty to U.S. national security... is no doubt the objective of the treaty’s critics,” Reif said.
The OC-135s are variants of the classic Boeing 707 airliner, which is also the basis of hundreds of Air Force tanker and spy planes. But the OC-135s are unique. For one, the tankers and spy planes have new engines and structural upgrades. The OC-135s have not received the same enhancements.
“The uniqueness of the OC-135 airframe warrants a dedicated maintenance team for these two specific airframes,” George Sarris, an Air Force veteran and former contract OC-135 mechanic, told The Daily Beast.
But the Air Force never devoted the manpower to the OC-135s that the old planes warranted, according to Sarris, who began working at Offutt in 2002. In the early 2000s, critical parts went without inspection and technical manuals gradually became out of date, resulting in faulty repairs, Sarris claimed.
Frustrated by his superior’s apparent ambivalence to the problems, in 2008 Sarris went to the Kansas City Star newspaper. The Air Force retaliated by stripping Sarris of his security clearance and assigning him to do yard work at Offutt. Sarris sued. In 2011, the Air Force settled, and allowed Sarris to retire with his mechanic’s benefits.
In the meantime, the Air Force belatedly fixed some of the problems Sarris had identified on the OC-135s, according to a Seattle Times investigation. But in the decade since Sarris first blew the whistle, he said the Air Force again has begun to neglect the Open Skies aircraft.
Sarris has made a second career of keeping tabs on OC-135 maintenance via the media and the federal Freedom of Information Act. “After viewing several thousand documents over the past three years, it is my opinion that the OC-135s are in worse condition today in comparison to 2008,” he told The Daily Beast.
The Air Force began looking into “problems during Open Skies missions” starting in July 2015, according to a budget document (PDF). The study ended in June 2016 and “showed the current OC-135B had capability performance gaps in range and mission completion.”
Among other problems, Sarris highlighted chafing in the old planes’ brake and hydraulic lines and expired fuel hoses.
Erica Vega, a spokesperson for the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, which oversees the OC-135s, told The Daily that the fuel hoses Sarris mentioned haven’t actually expired yet—and that the service is gradually replacing old hoses with newer, steel-reinforced models that never expire.
Likewise, Vega said there was no record of any problems with the OC-135s’ brake and hydraulic lines. “Each of our aircraft are inspected thoroughly, as the safety of our people and our community is in the forefront of all we do,” Vega said.
Asked if the OC-135s are safe for their crews, Sarris was blunt: “No.”
The flying branch has asked for $222 million to start replacing the OC-135s in 2019, plus an additional $45 million to complete the effort in 2020. The money would buy two “small airliner class aircraft” to carry the existing Open Skies cameras, according to the budget document.
But House Republicans led by Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas stripped that funding from the House’s version of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate has a chance to restore the funding when it writes its own version of the authorization bill.
A House Armed Services Committee staffer questioned the Air Force’s motivation, noting that the branch didn’t ask for OC-135 replacement funding until after the Trump administration and Congress boosted defense spending starting in 2017. “They decided this was a priority all of a sudden,” the staffer said on condition of anonymity.
In fact, replacing the old, worn-out, and arguably dangerous OC-135s has been a priority for safety advocates, treaty-boosters, and the Air Force for years. A decades-old arms-control accord depends on it. So might dozens of lives.