In a surprise and unexpected move yesterday, the US announced their intention to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, an agreement which has been in place for nearly 30 years and was setup to reduce the chances of an accidental war.
The Open Skies treaty permits mutual reconnaissance flights of the 34 countries involved with military aviation and radio enthusiasts regularly monitoring these highly visible sorties, but yesterday President Trump announced the US was pulling out of the pact claiming Russia had been violating the terms.
Formal notification is believed to be issued today (Friday) which will trigger a six-month period which leads to the US no longer being party to the agreement. The announcement comes as another blow to international stability as another historic treaty designed to prevent conflict collapses and risks increasing tensions between the USA and Russia.
It is likely as tensions increase between the two nations that military activity from both sides will also increase in the dangerous game of show of force on top of intelligence gathering activities.
In the early stages of 2020, there was some significant Russian activity with numerous Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) sorties launched from RAF Lossiemouth in Northern Scotland in response to Russian aircraft entering approaching the UK area of interest. These intercepts were well publicised by the Royal Air Force and other countries highlighting this vital role in national defence.
This recent announcement from the US over Open Skies could potentially see an increase in the old fashioned ‘sabre rattling’ which many hoped was put to bed following the end of the Cold War.
But what aircraft are involved in the Open Skies treaty? Each aircraft and onboard sensors are required to pass specific certification and pre-flight inspection procedures to ensure they are compliant with the treaty standards.
The primary Open Skies aircraft used by the USAF is the OC-135B, with Canada using a C-130 Hercules fitted with the ‘SAMSON’ pod which is a converted C-130 fuel tank modified to carry the permitted sensors and onboard mission systems. The SAMSON pod was created by a consortium of nations including the Netherlands, Canada, France, Italy and Spain who all employ the same system.
Russia use the Antonov An-30 and Tupolev Tu-154-ON monitoring aircraft but these are both believed to be being phased out and replaced by the Tupolev Tu-214-ON – serial numbers RA-64519 and RA-64525 – albeit the new aircraft’s sensor suite was being challenged by the US.
The Open Skies aircraft are ultimately designed and deployed to overfly territories to capture video and imagery including panoramic and framing cameras, infra-red for day/night capability and synthetic aperture radar for day/night/all-weather capability. The video and imagery will then be used by intelligence analysts to identify and determine military activity, locations and equipment with the overall aim of achieving significant transparency of military forces.
With the US withdrawing from the treaty however, this will remove the agreed overflights of the US over key areas if interest in and around Russia, and likewise Russian Open Skies aircraft would likely be denied overflights of the continental USA. This then leads to the question of the alternative as both countries will without a doubt continue to conduct intelligence operations and maintain a strategic overview of military development and activities.
One thing is for certain, there’s going to be some interesting times ahead as these developments continue to unfold.