Recently there's been news about how the US is intending to pull out of the Open Skies treaty, which allows participating nations to perform unarmed reconnaissance flights over each other's airspace.

I'm wondering what's stopping the US from getting its intelligence from its NATO allies who are still authorized to perform the flights. If this sharing is allowed (and it'd presumably be hard to stop clandestine sharing) then it seems the party that loses more is Russia. So long as Russia does not exit the treaty too, then the US can both have its cake and eat it too by pulling out. Superficially it looks bad enough from the Russian point of view that Russia should exit the treaty pronto as well, but I've not seen any indication of that.

Is there something that stops the countries from sharing intel from Open Skies with allied countries? If so, what is it and how can signatories be sure it will be adhered to? If not, why is Russia apparently not alarmed?

  • The US says Russia is not honoring the treaty, even though they formally stay in it. – Fizz May 24 '20 at 7:34
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    Also, getting photos from allies is hardly the only source/reason. The US also says it's better off with its satellites. – Fizz May 24 '20 at 8:00
  • I cannot find any source saying this is the reason for Russia staying, but presumably Russia still benefits in some ways, e.g. being able to overfly/photo the UK, which they have done. – Fizz May 24 '20 at 8:06

Absolutely nothing prevents allies from sharing information obtained during Open Skies flights with other nations. Furthermore, other NATO member nations are now better equipped than the US to operate Open Skies flights. Germany for example has spent on the order of 60 million euros to equip and certify a modern Airbus A319 jet for use under the treaty, while the U.S. OC-135B Open Skies fleet is so old that lack of replacement parts can cause operational problems.

The Open Skies treaty resolution and sensor limits have not keep up with 21st century imaging technology available to the US intelligence community for decades. Satellites provide the US with capabilities giving raw intelligence that is of much higher resolution, has more spectral options, and is more geographically flexible than Open Skies treaty provides.

As to Russia's motivations, one can only speculate. Some conjecture that Russia's satellites may lack the resolution and sophistication of the US systems, and thus they might be more dependent on aircraft-based surveillance than the US. The information about disposition of conventional forces in Europe probably remains an attractive benefit of the treaty to them, regardless of U.S. withdrawal. For example, only 8 of Russia's 38 flights in 2019 were overflights of the US, that's less than 25%.

  • Nice find on that link. It supports my "theory" (I made in a comment under the q). – Fizz May 26 '20 at 5:40
  • One other interesting note from that site: no flights in 2018. I'm not sure what to make of that. If true it seems significant. – Burt_Harris May 26 '20 at 15:15

Technically speaking, there is nothing that stops the US from getting data on Russia from US allies. But note that this creates difficulties. As a signatory, the US can begin a flyover into any other signatory state, with nothing but 72 hours notification, and can send its plane wherever it likes within that state. If it withdraws, the US will become dependent on others: it will only get information that allies decide to collect, whenever allies decide to collect it. In that sense, it's a bit like selling your car and then asking your friends to drive you to work; it forces you to work around others' interests and timetables. Further, even the best allies are independent sovereign states with their own interests and agendas. They may not want to tell us what they learn in flyovers, for their own reasons, and if they decide not to the US would have no independent means of investigation. And it's worth keeping in mind, here, that the Trump administration has not endeared itself to any of the US' traditional allies, meaning that it in particular cannot rely on the trust and good will of ally states.

The more likely reason that Trump wants to withdraw from this treaty is that it would prevent other nations from doing surveillance flyovers of the US. Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that he dislikes oversight of any sort, and so it would be natural for him to object to a treaty that allows international oversight of US military installations. I don't know why this treaty suddenly came to his attention: perhaps another nation requested a flyover recently, and Trump was irritated that he wasn't allowed to say 'No'? But in any case, secretiveness is a large part of Trump's administrative style — as is the case with every authoritarian leader — and this 'Open Skies' policy would surely grate on his nerves.


It seems the answer to the title question is "nothing", and as a result, Russia did indeed attempt to negotiate with the treaty's remaining members to ensure they will not forward intelligence to the US.

As a condition for staying in the pact after the U.S. pullout, Moscow unsuccessfully sought guarantees from NATO allies that they wouldn't transfer the data collected during their observation flights over Russia to the U.S.


Because these efforts were unsuccessful, Russia followed the US in pulling out of the treaty.

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