The Trump administration has reportedly informed its allies that it is pulling out of the 18-year old ‘Open Skies Treaty’ (OST). This pact allows 35 nations, including Russia – but not China – to conduct unarmed, observation flights over each other’s territory. The overflights were intended to promote trust and transparency, and prevent conflict, but the Trump team notes that Russia is violating the pact. It also argues that imagery can be obtained faster and cheaper from U.S. or commercial satellites.
But what else is behind Trump’s withdrawing from this and other arms control treaties? One answer is that repeated Russian violations give Moscow an unfair advantage over Washington. The other – possibly more important answer is – China, which is not party to OST, or any of the other accords.
At least 1,500 flights have reportedly been conducted under OST since 2002, but Russia has restricted flights over certain critical areas, making OST partly useless. As reported by The Hill, “Russia in the past has restricted flights over Kaliningrad and areas near its border with the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.”
Because of those restrictions, The Hill adds, an April State Department report said “the United States continued to assess that Russia was in violation of the Treaty on Open Skies” in 2019. This follows a determination first made in 2017.
Republican Sen. Tom Cotton lauded Trump’s decision in a statement reported by The Hill, saying, “The Open Skies Treaty started life as a good-faith agreement between major powers and died an asset of Russian intelligence. For Mr. Putin, the treaty was just another scheme to snatch a military and surveillance advantage over the U.S. and NATO.”
There are some Republican lawmakers supportive of OST. “Open Skies remains our only ability to get direct access to Russian airfields and airspace, and every experienced operational commander knows all too well that satellites simply can’t do it all,” Republican Congressman Don Bacon told The Hill in April. Bacon makes a valid point, but then again, he represents Nebraska, where the aircraft used to conduct the OST flights are based.
This latest Trump action with OST follows last year’s withdrawal from the Cold War-era Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). In 2014, the Obama administration accused Russia of testing a cruise missile in direct violation of INF.
CNN reported that a “US defense official said that the US has long had evidence that Russia has developed, tested and fielded “multiple battalions” of non-INF compliant cruise and ballistic missiles. The US believes the deployments are “militarily significant” because the missiles are mobile, allowing Moscow to move them rapidly and making it difficult for the US to track them.”
NATO agreed with Trump’s decision to withdraw from INF but has not put forward any plan to further counter the Russian missile threat.
Analysts believe President Trump also intends to allow the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), the last remaining arms control pact with Russia, to lapse in February 2021 when it comes up renewal. It was signed in 2010 under the Obama administration.
All these arms control agreements were geared toward Russia, but Moscow is not the only danger. China is not party to these agreements and has been using that omission to conduct a massive, one-sided missile arms race for years. As documented by the Pentagon’s 2018 China report, Beijing has dramatically increased its cruise-missile and ballistic missile arsenal, threatening the U.S. military’s ability to operate in the South China Sea during any major conflict.
Trump’s moves have facilitated the U.S. ability to effectively counter both Russia, and perhaps more importantly, China’s growing missile threat.
As Reuters reported, “Now, having shed the constraints of a Cold War-era arms control treaty, the Trump administration is planning to deploy long-range, ground-launched cruise missiles in the Asia-Pacific region.” The Pentagon also intends to arm the Marines with land-based versions of the ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missile. (RELATED: U.S. Marine Corps Transforming to Defeat China) And it is accelerating deliveries of its first new long-range anti-ship missiles in decades – the LRASM: Long-range anti-surface cruise missile.
President Trump needed to exit these outdated arms treaties – and either include China in new ones – or begin countering China’s massive missile buildup, as he is doing. Trump is withdrawing from these treaties primarily to counter China.
Paul Crespo is a defense and national security expert. He served as a Marine Corps officer and as a military attaché with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) at US embassies worldwide. He holds degrees from Georgetown, London, and Cambridge Universities. Paul is also CEO of SPECTRE Global Risk, a security advisory firm, and a Contributor to American Defense News.