What the United States loses by quitting the Open Skies treaty, in one chart
Reports emerged this week that the White House may be moving “soon” on withdrawing from the Open Skies treaty, a nearly two-decade-old agreement that allows 34 countries to fly and share reconnaissance missions over each other to promote military cooperation and transparency.
Last month, defense secretary Mark Esper said he was freezing a long-overdue replacement of the aging OC-135B aircraft used for flights under the treaty. “Until we make a final decision on the path forward, I am not prepared to recapitalize aircraft,” Esper told the Senate Armed Services Committee. Although more than 1,500 observation flights have been flown since the treaty took effect in 2002, vocal Republican opponents like Sens. Tom Cotton, Richard Burr, and Ted Cruz claim its benefit is “marginal” because US satellites make aerial imagery unnecessary, and the United States gives up more to its adversaries under the treaty than it gains. Their criticism extends from complaints about the costs of the OC-135B upgrade to protests over Russian compliance with the treaty—specifically, restrictions on missions flown over Kaliningrad and along Russia’s border with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Cotton and Cruz introduced a resolution calling for withdrawal in October.
Meanwhile, foreign policy veterans from multiple administrations have called on the White House to reconsider. This week, Democratic leaders from the House and Senate committees on armed services and foreign relations said that the action would be “not only shortsighted, but also unconscionable,” and urged the Trump administration “to reverse course on this reckless policy decision rather than ramming it through while our country and the entire world grapples with an unprecedented crisis.” Proponents note that the images gathered during flights are important to US allies in Europe who have limited access to satellite surveillance and that the treaty allows the United States to receive imagery even from flights it does not conduct itself. On Russian compliance, they argue that any issues can best be addressed via the treaty itself, not by abandoning it—an argument that failed to halt the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the INF treaty last year.
Originally proposed in 1955 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a means of reducing Cold War tensions and assisting arms control inspections, the Open Skies treaty found its footing only as the Soviet Union was falling apart, when (quoting the treaty’s preamble) events in Europe “transformed the security situation from Vancouver to Vladivostok.” The idea was to encourage that new spirit of cooperation by placing representatives of potential adversaries on the same airplanes, jointly collecting intelligence that all treaty signatories have access to.
“What is important is that these people, the military officers, they sit together in one plane, together with their counterparts, all the time,” Alexander Graef, a researcher in the arms control and emerging technologies project at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Hamburg, told the Bulletin. “They engage with them on a daily basis, and you cannot replicate that with satellites. So that is something, a human factor, that’s in the treaty.”
While information about the joint flights under the treaty is not classified, researchers and journalists have generally had to glean details from a mix of sources. One frequently cited source is the US State Department itself, which previously maintained a comprehensive list of flights on its website. But that information has not appeared since Trump took office.
So earlier this month, Graef and his colleague (and Bulletin Rieser award winner) Moritz Kütt decided to publish figures based on exhaustive flight data they received from a NATO source on all Open Skies missions from 2002 through 2019. They set up a website, OpenSkies.flights, that quantifies the overall flight records and features an interactive graphic to help visualize the extent to which states have continuously cooperated on overflights since the treaty took effect—and, they hope, undermine arguments for US withdrawal.
The United States receives (as shown on the right side of the diagram) far fewer flights over its territory than it flies over others’ (as shown on the left side). Graef and Kütt calculate that more approximately 94 percent of reconnaissance flights under the Open Skies treaty were flown over European states, including Russia.
Moreover, the visualization makes plain that there are really two main blocs gathering observations of each other under the treaty: European states and Russia (including Belarus, which is grouped with Russia under the terms of the treaty). “Thus, even if the United States left the treaty, Europe could still derive benefits from overflying Russia-Belarus,” Graef and Kütt wrote. “In turn, although Russia-Belarus would lose the ability to fly over the United States, it would retain the right to conduct overflights over European states and Canada, which together currently account for more than 87 percent of its active flights.”
“One of the things we show is that the Americans fly way more often over Russia than the Russians fly over them,” Kütt said. And because any imagery can be shared among all states, the United States doesn’t even need to actively participate in missions over European states to receive copies of the intelligence that Russia obtains