The hidden dangers in Putin’s open skies request

Russia’s February 2016 request to fly reconnaissance aircraft loaded with high-tech digital sensors over the entire United States would seem reasonable under the Open Skies Treaty, signed in Helsinki in 1992 by the U.S. and 23 other countries and finally ratified by Russia and Belarus in 2002, when the treaty entered into force.  It now has 34 states as parties.  The treaty permits unarmed flights over signatory nations, aimed at fostering transparency about military activity.  The treaty was meant to prevent miscalculation about military threats and to help monitor arms control agreements.  The treaty has seen Russian and American reconnaissance planes flying over each other’s territory for years.

This sudden request for more Russian overflights raises questions, since Mr. Putin’s clandestine intelligence services and high-tech spy satellites, along with Russia’s earlier Open Skies Treaty flights over the U.S., have already provided the information he needs about American offensive and defensive military capabilities and intentions.  One can be more certain, knowing that Putin is a wily, ambitious, and successful strategic thinker, that there is more to this request.  So we need to look carefully.

In that vein, what could be gained now with additional flights?  We need to look first at what’s new and different since 1992.  The answer could be hidden if the requested Russian flights are for lower altitudes and depending on what high-tech sensors they plan to use.  The recent Russian launchings of cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea to targets thousands of miles away in Syria could provide some of the answers.

What’s different is our military’s incredible tactical advantages using GPS for precise navigation and targeting.  Just as quickly, Russia, along with China, recognized this substantial U.S. advantage and began developing its own version of GPS, along with electronic jammers to degrade our GPS systems.  Russia’s version of GPS is called GLONASS, and it brings Russia’s navigation and targeting up to par.  What the Russians might now need are the precise GLONASS coordinates for a large number of critical U.S. targets, which could be precisely targeted by low-level, long-range Russian cruise missiles, against which defense is difficult, if not impossible.  Such targets could include national critical infrastructure targets such as power grids, dams, and other non-military targets that could readily cripple our nation.

A treaty is a treaty, yet should we allow it to serve as that “crack in the door” Putin intends to exploit?  Must we comply?  Thus far, our response to deny or limit the Russian request centers on claims that Moscow is failing to meet all treaty obligations and is engaging in a manner inconsistent with the spirit of the treaty by selectively implementing the treaty in a way that suits its interest.  For one, it restricts U.S. surveillance over Moscow, Chechnya, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and the Kaliningrad enclave.  There have also been ill-defined warnings from U.S. officials that such overflights help Moscow collect intelligence on the United States at a tension-filled time in U.S.-Russia relations.

Our defense and intelligence people need to take a very close and serious look at the Russian request, proposed flight altitudes, and tracks over non-military areas – and if GLONASS sensors are included.  This is not an occasion where the response should be left solely to diplomats and politicians, unaware of the technical and intelligence implications.  To allow these overflights might ignore the first rule of espionage: if you have what they want, they will use any means to get it.