US withdrawal From “Open Skies Treaty”: Concerns and Implications

by Dr Khushnam PN - 27 May, 2020, 12:00 3385 Views 0 Comment

The US is on the verge of withdrawing from another international agreement, the Open Skies Treaty. It is an almost two-decade-old treaty of 34 members that includes countries of Europe, USA and Russia which provides the member countries with the right to fly and share reconnaissance missions over one another countries with the aim to promote transparency and military cooperation intended to reduce hazardous misunderstanding and chances of a conflict. President Donald Trump has reportedly signed a memorandum for withdrawal from the treaty in October 2019.

The origin of the Treaty goes back to 1955 when President Dwight Eisenhower had proposed to the Soviet Union but failed to materialise with the Soviet rejection. In 1989, it was brought back by President George H W Bush for sharing of information regarding military installation and concerning activities as a measure of greater transparency and confidence-building. The process took a longer course of time and the treaty eventually came into force in 2002.

The US has shown its protest for some time about Russian non-compliance with the ‘Open Skies Treaty’ with its restrictions on missions over Kaliningrad, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But the US has responded with almost equal restrictions on overflight over its territory like Hawaii. The issue has entered the US Senate so as to evaluate the rationale of US withdrawal and potential benefits. The Senators, Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz have introduced a resolution in October 2019 which calls for the US withdrawal from the Treaty. A brief perusal of the reasons for withdrawal can provide a better sense of understanding of the concerns and potential implications involved.

Among the primary concerns of the US briefed to its NATO allies are the non-compliance and limitations put by Russia on the overflight mission. But this does not hold the reason as the US also put reciprocal limitations. The more plausible factor can be the technologically advanced satellites of the US which can scan and map any place and country as per its choice and time of its choosing. This assured satellite capabilities make its participation in the observation flights an unnecessary burden of allowing others the right to fly over its territory. It is also notable that Russia possesses almost equally satellite capabilities. The observation from the aircraft has few advantages over the satellite as the aircraft routes can be flexible compared to the fixed path of the satellites and do not suffer the obstruction of the clouds unlike the satellites.

The flight missions under the treaty hold numerous advantages which cannot be compensated by the satellites. The aim of the treaty has been the promotion of transparency and military cooperation for easing tensions and reduce the incidence of conflicts. The data collected through the ‘Open Skies Missions’ are the ready evidence in cases of violations or any threatening activity. Such shreds of evidence have played a significant role in taking appropriate action and amicable resolution of issues, a facilitator of confidence-building and cooperation.

The Treaty is of paramount significance for countries specifically that lack in advanced and sophisticated satellite capabilities and networks. The European allies of the US fall into this category including such powerful countries like Britain, France and Germany. Naturally, therefore, they want the treaty to continue and urge the US to remain part of it. The Treaty carries profound importance for the peace and security of Europe. In the absence of such a mechanism between Russia and NATO countries of Europe, the hazards of mistrust can build dangerous misunderstandings to hot conflicts. A Treaty is a special tool in the conflict zones and crisis time.

The Treaty can be retained even after the US withdrawal but it will lose its relevance to its intended goal of cooperation between NATO and Russia and reduce the possibility of a conflict that cannot be ensured. Moreover, in the wake of US withdrawal Russia would not like to be part of it and the treaty will fall apart on its own with Russian withdrawal. Such an eventuality will produce a sense of being ignored and scepticism among European allies of the US. The treaty is a broad system of security of Europe and therefore very close to their national security. It has been a part of measuring their threats on a regular basis and ensuring security predictability and stability in the continent. There are numerous instances of the transatlantic divide on a number of issues in recent times. From policy towards Iran, its JCPOA and larger West Asia to the emerging geopolitical conflict in the Indo-Pacific the differences are yawning between the US and Europe. Thus the impending US withdrawal can provide accelerating momentum to their potential decoupling.

As a measure of military cooperation, the treaty is an integral part of the international arms control regime. The US withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA), Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) treaty and refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) have already dented the international arms control architecture. The probable collapse of the ‘Open Skies Treaty’ (OST) will doom the prospect of an international system of disarmament and arms control. In the absence of the OST, such an important disarmament mechanism as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) can suffer incalculable hindrance as it is highly dependent on the ‘Open Skies Treaty’ data for verification needed for its continuation and renewal. The New START is due to expire on 5th February 2021 and therefore needs to be renewed before. The long term consequences are quite grimmer as withdrawal from the OST can become a reference point for exit from the New START as well.

The Treaty has huge support in the US Congress. As a measure caution, a new clause in the ‘2020 National Defence Authorization Act’ has been added that necessitates the US Secretary of State and Secretary of Defence to give four months advance notification to the Congress regarding the intent to withdraw from the Treaty.

The relevance of the ‘Open Skies Treaty’ lies in the fact that it institutionalises the trust among the rival antagonistic countries and promotes cooperation by clearing scepticism and dangerous suspicions. Thus the underlying idea is the spirit of cooperation amidst misunderstanding and miscalculation which may take the world to a dangerous course. The human factor of the ‘Open Skies Treaty’ cannot be replaced by the sophistication of satellites for the requisite spirit of cooperation among rival nations.

Dr Khushnam PN
Author is Independent IR & Regional Security Researcher and Analyst.

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