Aiming to “get tough with Russia,” in the words of one aide, a U.S. House committee has rejected a U.S. Air Force request to modernize two surveillance aircraft that help the United States to verify arms-control agreements with Russia.
But the move could backfire, badly. Critics say that, in refusing to modernize the OC-135 aircraft, the committee risks alienating America’s allies—and giving Russia an advantage in treaty-protected surveillance flights.
The pair of four-engine OC-135 aircraft, each with a crew of around a dozen, flies from Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. They operate under the auspices of the Open Skies Treaty, a 1992 accord between the United States, Russia, and 32 other countries.
Originally proposed by the administration of President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, the treaty allows signatory states to fly unarmed camera- and radar-equipped planes along pre-negotiated routes over each other’s territory, all for the purposes of monitoring military activities and verifying compliance with other treaties.
Governments schedule flights on the basis of a complex exchange. Generally speaking, the United States and Russia are each entitled to a handful of flights annually over each other’s territory.
But the accord’s effects bely the infrequence of the surveillance flights, according to Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C. “The Open Skies Treaty provides a significant contribution to the security and stability of North America and Europe,” Reif told The Daily Beast.
“For example, U.S. flights over Ukraine and western Russia in 2014 yielded valuable data,” Reif continued. “The treaty mandates information-sharing about military forces that increases transparency among members, thereby contributing to stability and improving each participating state’s national security.”
But key House Republicans are trying to blow up the accord, in the same way President Donald Trump recently exploded the international agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. “The Open Skies treaty doesn’t benefit the United States,” one House Armed Services Committee aide told The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity.
For starters, the aide said, Russia has “violated” Open Skies, rendering the treaty meaningless. It’s true that, in recent years, Russia has unilaterally restricted the flight paths of foreign Open Skies surveillance planes operating in the vicinity of strategic Russian military facilities in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea coast and also near the Russian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the Republic of Georgia.
In retaliation, the U.S. State Department limited Russia’s access to some U.S. bases. “As of Dec. 31, 2017, the impact of Russia’s actions on U.S. treaty implementation was still being assessed,” according to the State Department.
Moscow’s efforts to bend the Open Skies treaty aren’t the only reasons for Washington to pull back from the accord, the House aide claimed. The United States has access to satellite imagery that is of higher quality than the photos and videos the OC-135s take, he said. By contrast, Russia’s satellites generally are less sophisticated than America’s are.
As partial compensation, the Russian government has recently upgraded its own Open Skies planes with sensors that are superior to those on the OC-135s. For that reason, Russia’s overflights represent a “significant intelligence-collection opportunity” for Moscow, the aide said.
But Republicans have fought efforts to address that sensor-disparity. In 2017 the U.S. Air Force asked for money to upgrade the OC-135s. The House denied that funding. This year House Republicans, led by Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, are doubling down on their efforts to kill Open Skies. Now they’re targeting the planes themselves.
The Air Force has requested $220 million to replace the OC-135s, which were built in the 1950s and are some of the oldest aircraft in the military inventory. Thornberry and his allies stripped that funding from the House’s version of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.
They did so over the objections of Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican congressman from Nebraska. “We’ve heard very clearly from the Department of Defense that they still value the unique access to Russia provided by this treaty,” Bacon told The Daily Beast.
“However, the department is concerned that the current capabilities of the OC-135 are not well-suited to the treaty mission,” Bacon added. “They confirm many parts of Russia cannot be accessed due to runway length and the long distances between usable airfields. In addition, the age of the OC-135 airframe means that breakdowns are more frequent and take longer to fix.”
“We can do better,” Bacon said.
The Senate has a chance to weigh in on the NDAA before it becomes law. Thornberry and other House lawmakers are hoping the Senate preserves the cut. If America’s Open Skies planes are too old to safely fly and lack the sensors to surveil Russian territory adequately, they might as well not fly at all.
Open Skies would thus become meaningless for the United States, giving the Senate an incentive to abrogate the accord and cease meaningful cooperation with Russia. “This is no doubt the objective of the treaty’s critics,” Reif explained.
These critics in part blame former President Barack Obama for, they argue, forcing them to find creative ways of undermining Open Skies and punishing Russia for its aggression. “The Obama administration was never willing to do what the Trump administration is doing, which is get tough with Russia,” the aide shouted at this reporter.
It’s worth noting that Trump’s presidential campaign and close associates of the president are under FBI investigation for allegedly cooperating with the Russian government to sway the 2016 election in Trump’s favor.
Bacon, for one, views his colleagues’ attack on Open Skies as self-defeating. “While Russia has chosen not to comply with some provisions [of the treaty], they generally adhere to the rest,” he said. “We need them to return to full compliance. Defunding our own aircraft doesn’t hurt them, it only hurts us.”