Russia’s Open Skies Flights Prompt DIA “Concern”

10.14.15 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Ideally, arms control agreements that are well-conceived and faithfully implemented will foster international stability and build confidence between nations. But things don’t always work out that way, and arms control itself can become a cause for suspicion and conflict.

“Can you say anything about how Russia, in this venue, is using their Open Skies flights over the United States?,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) asked Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) director Lt.Gen. Vincent R. Stewart at a February 3 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee (at page 13).

“The Open Skies construct was designed for a different era,” Lt.Gen. Stewart replied. “I am very concerned about how it is applied today. And I would love to talk about that in closed hearing,” he added mysteriously.

The Open Skies Treaty, to which the United States and Russia are parties, entered into force in 2002. It allows member states to conduct overflights of other members’ territories in order to monitor their military forces and activities.

It is unclear exactly what prompted DIA director Stewart’s concern about Russian overflights of the United States, and his perspective does not appear to be shared by some other senior Defense Department officials.

The most recent State Department annual report on arms control compliance identified several obstacles to U.S. overflights of Russia that it said were objectionable. The only issue relating to Russian overflights of the U.S. was that “Russia continued not to provide first generation duplicate negative film copies of imagery collected during Open Skies flights over the United States.”

But there seems to be more to the concerns about Russian overflights than that.

“Is it true that the Commander of U.S. European Command non-concurred last year when OSD-P asked for his input on approving Russian Federation requests under the Open Skies treaty?,” Rep. Rogers asked at another hearing on February 26 (at page 72).

That “was part of the deliberative process and was used to inform DOD and U.S. Government decision-making,” replied Brian McKeon of the Department of Defense. “As we worked with other U.S. departments and agencies, we determined that the specific concerns would be ameliorated by some important, separate components of the policy.” Both the specific concerns and the steps to ameliorate them were described in a classified letter that is not publicly available.

“USSTRATCOM’s capabilities are not significantly impacted by Open Skies overflights today, any more than we have been since the Treaty was implemented in 2002,” said Admiral Cecil D. Haney, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command.

“While the U.S. works with Russia on a number of broader concerns, Open Skies continues to serve as a fundamental transparency and confidence building measure in support of the Euro-Atlantic alliance,” Admiral Haney said.

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Relatedly, on the subject of arms control compliance, the Congressional Research Service updated its report on Russian Compliance with the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty: Background and Issues for Congress, October 13, 2015.

Other new and updated CRS reports that have been issued in the past week include the following.

Appropriations Subcommittee Structure: History of Changes from 1920 to 2015, updated October 13, 2015

Congressional Action on FY2016 Appropriations Measures, updated October 9, 2015

EPA Policies Concerning Integrated Planning and Affordability of Water Infrastructure, October 8, 2015

Issues in a Tax Reform Limited to Corporations and Businesses, October 8, 2015

Advance Appropriations, Forward Funding, and Advance Funding: Concepts, Practice, and Budget Process Considerations, updated October 8, 2015

Department of Labor’s 2015 Proposed Fiduciary Rule: Background and Issues, October 8, 2015

U.S.-South Korea Relations, updated October 8, 2015

Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response, updated October 9, 2015