The Open Skies Treaty is easy to mock. It was first proposed by President Eisenhower and wasn’t negotiated until Presidents George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. The Treaty allows cooperative overflights by planes carrying unclassified sensors at a time of sophisticated photo-reconnaissance satellites. So why bother?
There are four good reasons. First, because not all of Washington’s friends and allies operate highly sophisticated satellites, and Open Skies allows for ride- and data-sharing. Second, because information from open sources is now an essential complement to classified data. Third, because the Open Skies Treaty fosters cooperation with friends and allies. And fourth, it’s part of the safety net that keeps U.S.-Russia relations from falling off a cliff.
A good example of the utility of Open Skies came in December 2018 when the United States overflew eastern Ukraine with Canadian, French, German, Romanian, British and Ukrainian observers on board. The flight took place after a Russian attack on Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea. The Defense Department publicized this overflight – a rare occurrence – issuing a statement that, “The timing of this flight is intended to reaffirm U.S. commitment to Ukraine and other partner nations.”
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