U.S. Reportedly Preparing to Withdraw from Open Skies Treaty, Impacting OC-135 Replacement

aircraft landing on a runway

OC-135B Open Skies aircraft takes off from Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. Source: U.S. Air Force.

The White House is reportedly preparing to announce a withdrawal from the Open Skies treaty, a pact that allows unarmed observation flights over the 34 signatories (North Atlantic Treaty Organization members, Eastern European members of the former Warsaw Pact, and Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia).

Critics of the treaty argue that it allows Russia too much access to U.S. intelligence and suggest the U.S. can avoid the unnecessary costs of operating and maintaining Open Skies surveillance aircraft by relying on satellite surveillance instead.  Open Skies proponents counter those arguments by pointing out that the treaty provides the U.S. with easier access to Russian troop movements and other military activities.  A U.S. withdrawal would likely result in Russia leaving the pact as well, which could reduce transparency moving forward.

The U.S. conducts its Open Skies flights using a pair of Boeing OC-135B observation aircraft, which were delivered in 1996.  The aircraft are outfitted with sensors allowed under the treaty, including an infrared line scanner, synthetic aperture radar, and video scanning sensors.  Onboard cameras include one vertical and two oblique KS-87E framing cameras used for low-altitude photography (approximately 3,000 feet above the ground) and one KA-91C panoramic camera, which scans from side to side to provide a wide sweep for each picture (used for high altitude photography at approximately 35,000 feet).

The Air Force is in the process of replacing these aircraft, so a withdrawal from the treaty would upend the acquisition effort.  The Air Force included $222.2 million in its FY19 procurement budget for two aircraft to replace the existing OC-135Bs, but Congress only provided funding for one aircraft.  The service plans to fund the second aircraft in the research and development budget incrementally between FY20 and FY22.  The service requested $54.5 million in FY20 and plans to spend $76.2 million in FY21 and $37.6 million in FY22.  A contract was expected in FY20.

About Shaun McDougall

As editor of International Military Markets, North America, Shaun has cultivated a deep understanding of the vast defense markets in the United States and Canada. Shaun's perspective on defense procurement and budget issues has been cited in a variety of defense periodicals, including Defense News and National Defense Magazine. Further, Shaun played an integral role in the development of Forecast International's U.S. Defense Budget Forecast product, which offers an unprecedented level of insight into the Pentagon's acquisition budget. In addition to providing original analytical content for the U.S. Defense Budget Forecast, Shaun oversees an internal defense budget forecasting process involving Forecast International's team of skilled systems analysts following release of the DoD's annual budget request. Shaun is also in charge of managing Forecast International's Weapons Inventory database.

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