Two Views of the Open Skies Treaty
Russian surveillance of military facilities under the Open Skies Treaty is problematic for the security of U.S. nuclear forces, a U.S. Air Force general told Congress last year. No, it is not, a U.S. Navy admiral said.
Those two disparate views were offered in response to a question for the record from Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) following a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee last year.
“Several Defense officials have expressed concerns about Russia’s intent to use advanced digital sensors to collect imagery under the Open Skies Treaty,” Rep. Coffman said. “Is this a significant concern for our nuclear forces?”
“Intelligence collection against our nuclear forces is always a concern,” replied Gen. Robin Rand, commander of the U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command.
“The imaging system to be placed on the Tu-214 and Tu-154 is already in use on Russian aircraft flying Open Skies missions over Europe. The new system possesses greater range and an advanced digital processing capability, providing a significant increase in the number of images that can be collected. This digital capability, through post mission image refinement of raw image data, could potentially enable the Russians to violate the treaty by keeping the raw image data and later using advanced digital image enhancement techniques to refine resolution beyond that allowed in the treaty,” Gen. Rand wrote (at p. 105).
But the same question from Rep. Coffman about the potential threat from improved Russian sensors elicited a substantially different response from VADM Terry Benedict, director of Navy Strategic Systems Programs.
“I do not believe this is a significant concern to our nuclear forces. The resolution of Open Skies imagery is similar to that available in commercial satellite imagery,” VADM Benedict wrote (at p. 106).
Moreover, he added, “All State Parties have the right under the Treaty to certify new sensors and aircraft. The United States and several of our Allies are in various stages of acquiring new digital sensors. The information Russia gleans from Open Skies is of only incremental value in addition to Russia’s other means of intelligence gathering.”
The two responses serve to illustrate the inconvenient reality that many questions of national security policy do not have simple, unequivocal answers. Views that would seem to be authoritative may be contradicted by other assessments that are equally authoritative. Reconciling the contradiction, or overcoming it, requires further investigation. And even that may not be sufficient.
Rep. Coffman’s exchange with Gen. Rand and VADM Benedict appeared in a hearing volume published last month on Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Request for Department of Defense Nuclear Forces, March 2, 2016, which also contains material of interest on nuclear weapons modernization programs, projected costs, and other policy matters.
Related issues were also discussed in another House Armed Services Committee hearing volume that was published last month. See U.S. Strategic Forces Posture, February 24, 2016.