U.S. Follows Through on Open Skies Treaty Withdrawal

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 has announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty.  The decision initiates a six-month buffer period before a formal exit takes place.  The Open Skies Treaty 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).  Rumors circulated last fall about the withdrawal, but no action had been taken until now.

The U.S. argues that Russia is not adhering to the terms of the treaty, for example by denying flights over Kaliningrad and Russian-occupied territories along the Russia-Georgia border.  U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the U.S. may reconsider the exit “should Russia return to full compliance with the treaty.”

The Trump administration has long questioned various international agreements that it says unfairly impact the U.S.  The administration has already withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, and the fate of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is in question.  New Start, which limits the deployment of nuclear warheads, expires in February 2021.

Democrats have introduced legislation to prevent the withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty, but the president has received support from Republican lawmakers.

The U.S. conducts its Open Skies flights using a pair of Boeing OC-135B observation aircraft, which were delivered in 1996.  The Air Force began a recapitalization program in FY19 to replace the aircraft, but that effort will be derailed if the U.S. withdrawal is finalized.

About Shaun McDougall

Shaun McDougall is an analyst at Forecast International covering the U.S. and Canadian defense markets.

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