Treaty on Open Skies

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Open Skies Treaty
Treaty on Open Skies
Open Skies members.svg
  States that signed and ratified the treaty
  States that have signed, but not ratified
Signed24 March 1992[1] (also start of provisional application)
Effective1 January 2002
Condition20 ratifications
DepositaryGovernments of Canada and Hungary
LanguagesEnglish, French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish

The Treaty on Open Skies entered into force on January 1, 2002, and currently has 35 party states. It establishes a program of unarmed aerial surveillance flights over the entire territory of its participants. The treaty is designed to enhance mutual understanding and confidence by giving all participants, regardless of size, a direct role in gathering information about military forces and activities of concern to them. Open Skies is one of the most wide-ranging international efforts to date promoting openness and transparency of military forces and activities. The concept of "mutual aerial observation" was initially proposed to Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin at the Geneva Conference of 1955 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower; however, the Soviets promptly rejected the concept and it lay dormant for several years. The treaty was eventually signed as an initiative of U.S. president (and former Central Intelligence Agency Director) George H. W. Bush in 1989. Negotiated by the then-members of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the agreement was signed in Helsinki, Finland, on March 24, 1992.[2]

This treaty is not related to civil-aviation open skies agreements.[3]


The 34 state parties to the Open Skies Treaty are: Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark (including Greenland), Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, the Russian Federation, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom . Kyrgyzstan signed the treaty but has not yet ratified it. Canada and Hungary are the Depositories of the treaty in recognition of their special contributions to the Open Skies process. Depository countries maintain treaty documents and provide administrative support.[citation needed]

The Open Skies treaty is one of unlimited duration, and is open to accession by other states. Republics of the former Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) that have not already become state parties to the treaty may join it at any time. Applications from other interested countries are subject to a consensus decision by the Open Skies Consultative Commission (OSCC).[2] Eight countries have joined into the treaty since it entered into force in 2002: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, and Sweden. Notably missing are Austria, Cyprus, Ireland, Switzerland, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia, Moldova, Armenia and Uzbekistan. The Republic of Cyprus submitted its application to accede the Treaty in 2002; since then, however, Turkey has blocked its accession.[citation needed]

Open Skies Consultative Commission

The Open Skies Consultative Commission is the implementing body for the Treaty on Open Skies.[4] It comprises representatives from each state party to the treaty and meets monthly at the Vienna headquarters of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe.

Basic elements of the treaty


The Open Skies regulations covers the territory over which the parties exercise sovereignty, including mainland, islands, and internal and territorial waters. The treaty specifies that the entire territory of a member state is open to observation. Observation flights may only be restricted for reasons of flight safety and not for reasons of national security.[2]


Observation aircraft may be provided by either the observing party or by the observed party (the "taxi option"), at the latter's choice. All Open Skies aircraft and sensors must pass specific certification and pre-flight inspection procedures to ensure that they are compliant with treaty standards.[2]

The official certified U.S. Open Skies aircraft is the OC-135B Open Skies.[citation needed]

Canada uses a C-130 Hercules aircraft equipped with a "SAMSON" sensor pod to conduct flights over other treaty nations. The pod is a converted CC-130 fuel tank modified to carry the permitted sensors, along with associated on-board mission systems. A consortium of nations consisting of Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Canada, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain own and operate this system. The costs of maintaining the SAMSON Pod are shared, based on each nation's flight quota and actual use.[citation needed]

An-30 monitoring aircraft

Bulgaria, Romania, Russia and Ukraine use the Antonov An-30 for their flights. The Czech Republic also used to use the An-30 for this purpose but apparently retired all of theirs from service in 2003.[citation needed]

Russia also uses a Tu-154M-ON monitoring aircraft. Germany formerly used this type as well until the aircraft was lost in a 1997 accident. Russia is phasing out both An-30 and Tu-154M-ON and replacing them with two Tu-214ON with the registrations RA-64519 and RA-64525. This aircraft's new sensor suite, though, is being challenged by the US.[citation needed]

Sweden uses a Saab 340 aircraft ("OS-100") that was certified in 2004.[citation needed]

Until 2008, the UK designated aircraft was an Andover C.1(PR) aircraft, registration XS596. Since then the UK has used a variety of aircraft including a Saab 340, an An-30 and an OC-135.[5]

In 2017, the German Air Force purchased an Airbus A319 as its future Open Skies aircraft.[6]


Open Skies aircraft may have video, optical panoramic and framing cameras for daylight photography, infra-red line scanners for a day/night capability, and synthetic aperture radar for a day/night all weather capability. Photographic image quality will permit recognition of major military equipment (e.g., permit a member state to distinguish between a tank and a truck), thus allowing significant transparency of military forces and activities. Sensor categories may be added and capabilities improved by agreement among member states. All sensors used in Open Skies must be commercially available to all signatories.[2] Imagery resolution is limited to 30 centimetres.[7][citation needed]


Each state party is obligated to receive observation flights per its passive quota allocation. Each state party may conduct as many observation flights – its active quota – as its passive quota.[2] During the first three years after entry into force, each state was obligated to accept no more than seventy-five percent of its passive quota. Since the overall annual passive quota for the United States is 42, this means that it was obligated to accept no more than 31 observation flights a year during this three-year period. Only two flights were requested over the United States during 2005, by the Russian Federation and Republic of Belarus Group of states parties (which functions as a single entity for quota allocation purposes). The United States is entitled to 8 of the 31 annual flights available over Russia/Belarus. Additionally, the United States is entitled to one flight over Ukraine, which is shared with Canada.

Data sharing and availability

Imagery collected from Open Skies missions is available to any state party upon request for the cost of reproduction. As a result, the data available to each state party is much greater than that which it can collect itself under the treaty quota system.[2]


At a Geneva Conference meeting with Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin in 1955, President Eisenhower proposed that the United States and Soviet Union conduct surveillance overflights of each other's territory to reassure each country that the other was not preparing to attack.[8] The fears and suspicions of the Cold War led Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev to reject Eisenhower's proposal.[8][9]

During a five-day summit conference held in Geneva, Switzerland, at the end of July 1955, the Soviet Union and United States held serious talks about disarmament and the United States put forward proposals for mutual reconnaissance flights over each other's air space, known as the Open Skies proposal. The United States had a large number of RB-47 and RB-36 reconnaissance aircraft at its disposal for such activities. However, the Soviets turned down this proposal. This Geneva Conference was nonetheless accepted as a turning point in the Cold War. The tensions in Europe were felt to be a stalemate. Both the Soviet Union and United States were willing to talk about their differences, rather than increase them into a state of war.

Thirty-four years later, the Open Skies concept was reintroduced by President George H. W. Bush as a means to build confidence and security between all North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and Warsaw Pact countries. In February 1990, an international Open Skies conference involving all NATO and Warsaw Pact countries opened in Ottawa, Canada. Subsequent rounds of negotiations were held in Budapest, Hungary; Vienna, Austria; and Helsinki, Finland.[9]

On March 24, 1992,[1] the Open Skies Treaty was signed in Helsinki by Secretary of State James Baker and foreign ministers from 23 other countries. The treaty entered into force on January 2, 2002, after Russia and Belarus completed ratification procedures.[9]

In November 1992, President Bush assigned responsibility for overall training, management, leadership, coordination and support for U.S. Open Skies observation missions to the On-Site Inspection Agency (OSIA), now a part of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). Until entry into force in January 2002, DTRA support for the treaty involved participating in training and joint trial flights (JTFs). The U.S. has conducted over 70 JTFs since 1993. By March 2003, DTRA had successfully certified 16 camera configurations on the OC-135B aircraft. They also had contributed to the certification of the Bulgarian An-30, Hungarian An-26, SAMSON POD Group (see above) C-130H, Romanian An-30, Russian An-30, and Ukrainian An-30. The United States successfully flew its first Open Skies mission over Russia in December 2002.[9]

With entry into force of the treaty, formal observation flights began in August 2002. During the first treaty year, state parties conducted 67 observation flights. In 2004, state parties conducted 74 missions, and planned 110 missions for 2005. On March 8 and 9, 2007, Russia conducted overflights of Canada under the Treaty.[10] The OSCC continues to address modalities for conducting observation missions and other implementation issues.[2]

Since 2002 a total of 40 missions have taken place over the U.K. There were 24 quota missions conducted by: Russia – 20; Ukraine – three; and Sweden – one. There were 16 training flights conducted by: Benelux (joint with Estonia); Estonia (joint with Benelux); Georgia – three (one joint with Sweden); Sweden – three (one joint with Georgia); US – three; Latvia; Lithuania; Romania; Slovenia; and Yugoslavia.[11] Also since 2002 the U.K. has undertaken a total of 51 open skies missions – 38 were quota missions to the following countries: Ukraine (five); Georgia (seven) and Russia (26); 13 missions were training missions to the following nations: Bulgaria; Yugoslavia; Estonia; Slovenia (three); Sweden (three); US; Latvia, Lithuania and the Benelux. The flights cost approximately £50,000 per operational mission, and approximately £25,000 for training missions with an approximate annual cost of £175,000.[12]

Russian Defence Ministry spokesman stated on 4 February 2016 that Turkey had refused a Russian Open Skies mission, planned to take place in 1–5 February 2016, to fly over areas adjacent to Syria, as well as over NATO airbases. According to Russia, Turkey gave no explanation regarding the limitations, and claimed them to indicate illegal military activity in Syrian territory.[13] The OSCC has not commented on the alleged violation of the Treaty by Turkey.[14]

By 2016, Russian aircraft had been using equipment upgraded over initial equipment.[15][16][17]

Challenges to the treaty

Both Russia and the United States have alleged that the other is violating the provisions of the treaty.[18] U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited for example Russia's access refusal in the Russian-controlled areas of Georgia.[19] In 20 September 2019, the U.S. and Canada were denied access to a military exercise in central Russia.[20]

Potential U.S. withdrawal

In October 2019, according to documents from the House of Representatives, the United States' President is considering a U.S. withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty.[21][22] NATO allies and partners, in particular Ukraine, are against the move, fearing it would license Russia to reduce further or ban overflights, thus reducing their knowledge of Russian military movements.[23]

In April 2020, it was reported that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper have agreed to proceed with U.S. withdrawal from the Treaty on Open Skies.[24] On May 21, 2020, President Trump announced that the United States would be withdrawing from the treaty due to alleged Russian violations.[25]

See also


  1. ^ a b "Open Skies Treaty". U.S. Department of State. Retrieved May 21, 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a United States Government publication in the public domain: Open Skies Treaty Fact Sheet published by the United States Department of State Bureau of Arms Control on March 23, 2012, last accessed on April 11, 2012.
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ "Treaty on Open Skies". Open Skies Consultative Commission. Retrieved 10 August 2013.
  5. ^ "Surveillance".
  6. ^ Wiegold, T. (5 January 2017). "Flugbereitschaft erhält zusätzlichen Airbus" [Open Skies Adds Airbus Aircraft]. Augen geradeaus (in German).
  7. ^ "Washington Debates Role of Satellites in Open Skies Treaty". Air Force Magazine. 2019-12-09. Retrieved 2019-12-10.
  8. ^ a b "Foreign Affairs". American Experience. WGBH Educational Foundation. Retrieved 28 July 2013. The two sides would not meet face-to-face until the Geneva summit of 1955. At the summit, Eisenhower asserted, "I came to Geneva because I believe mankind longs for freedom from war and the rumors of war. I came here because my lasting faith in the decent instincts and good sense of the people who populate this world of ours." In this spirit of good will, Eisenhower presented the Soviets with his Open Skies proposal. In it he proposed that each side provide full descriptions of all their military facilities and allow for aerial inspections to insure the information was correct. The Soviets rejected the proposal. Eisenhower was disappointed, but not surprised. In truth, the Open Skies proposal would have benefited the U.S. much more so than the Soviets – the Russians already knew the location of most American strategic defense facilities, it was the Americans who stood to gain new information.
  9. ^ a b c d One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a United States Government publication in the public domain: On-Site Inspection Operations: Treaty on Open Skies page at the United States Defense Threat Reduction Agency, last accessed on July 19, 2009.
  10. ^ "Russian military to inspect Canada from above". Archived from the original on March 10, 2007. Retrieved March 8, 2007.
  11. ^ "Military Intelligence".
  12. ^ "Surveillance".
  13. ^ Briefing of the Russian Defence Ministry spokesman concerning activities of Rus aircraft in the Syrian Arab Republic : Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation
  14. ^ "News and press releases".
  15. ^ Liewer, Steve (27 March 2016). "Russia's 'ahead of us' on technology used in Open Skies observation flights, StratCom warns". Omaha World-Herald. Omaha, Nebraska, United States. Retrieved 18 April 2017.
  16. ^ Sharkov, Damien (8 June 2015). "New Russian Surveillance Jets Able to 'See Underground'". Newsweek Europe. Retrieved 18 April 2017.
  17. ^ "Russia wants to fly surveillance planes over US with advanced cameras, congressional staffer says". Fox News. New York. Associated Press. 22 February 2016. Retrieved 18 April 2017.
  18. ^ "U.S., Russia Trade Charges Over Open Skies Treaty Compliance". AINOnline. 27 September 2017. Retrieved 14 August 2018.
  19. ^ Michael R. Gordon; James Marson (May 21, 2020). "U.S. Moving to Leave 'Open Skies' Treaty Designed to Reduce Conflict With Russia". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 22 May 2020. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said years of what he called violations by Russia had undermined the treaty. Russia “weaponized the Treaty by making it into a tool of intimidation and threat,” he said. He cited Moscow’s refusal of access to breakaway regions that it controls in the former Soviet republic of Georgia
  20. ^ Michael R. Gordon; Vivian Salama (27 October 2019). "Trump Moves Closer to Ending Another Post-Cold War Treaty". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 22 May 2020. Russia prevented the U.S. and Canada from carrying out a flight near a military exercise in central Russia on Sept. 20
  21. ^ "Unfriendly Skies: Trump Wants to Scrap Valuable Intelligence Treaty". The Bulwark. 2019-10-15. Retrieved 2019-10-17.
  22. ^ "ele-letter-to-o-brien-open-skies-treaty-final.pdf" (PDF).
  23. ^ Iain King (2019-10-27). "Storm Clouds Gather over Open Skies Treaty". CSIS. Retrieved 2019-11-25.
  24. ^ "Trump administration determined to exit treaty reducing risk of war". The Guardian. 2020-04-05. Retrieved 2019-04-10.
  25. ^ Riechman, Deb (May 21, 2020). "US says it's pulling out of Open Skies surveillance treaty". Associated Press. Archived from the original on May 21, 2020. Retrieved May 21, 2020.