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No Clear Skies Ahead: Assessing the Future of the Open Skies Treaty Russian Open Skies aircraft at Kubinka Airbase. (Alan Wilson / Flickr)

No Clear Skies Ahead: Assessing the Future of the Open Skies Treaty

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Six months after the May 22 announcement of the intended U.S. withdrawal, President Trump formally withdrew from the multilateral Open Skies Treaty (OST). This marks the apparent end of U.S. involvement in a landmark treaty formed as a post-Cold War era arms control confidence-building measure. President-elect Biden may seek to rejoin, as NATO member states would greatly prefer, but the U.S. has already begun liquidating treaty-compliant aircraft, making the operational side of re-upping much more difficult. To ensure the safety and security of the U.S. and our allies, the Biden administration should look to rejoin the OST, but not without thoroughly reassessing and reevaluating its content and relevance. This can be achieved through an emphasis on mutual nuclear transparency concerns and global security threats in a changing international system, supported by renewed scientific collaboration.


The Situation Now

Signed in 1992 and entered into force in 2002, the Open Skies Treaty (OST) aims to establish transparency and enhanced security through open surveillance and reconnaissance flights over the territory of its now 34 member states. In 2016 and 2017, the U.S. and Russia participated in three direct “small group” discussions regarding mutual accusations of noncompliance, but talks abruptly ended on the basis of noncooperation. The fate of the OST has been hanging by a thread through many years of mutual accusations of noncompliance and is now facing the threat of dissolution without one of its core member states.

The OST was the next on Trump’s list of U.S.-Russia agreement withdrawals citing Russian noncompliance after the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in 2019. New START has been under threat for months but now appears to be safe under pronouncements from President-elect Biden’s incoming team.


The Nuclear Question

One of OST’s major contributions lies in encouraging transparency of nuclear and dual-use facilities due to limitations for onsite inspections in other agreements. As major nuclear weapons states and exporters with “nearly 90 percent of the world’s nuclear materials,” the U.S. and Russia need to consider the implications of dissolving lines of communication amidst the potential for nuclear terrorism. Experts have proposed integrating advanced imaging equipment and particulate sampling sensors to monitor fissile materials. However, current discussions of technical modernization within the treaty’s implementing body have remained stagnant. As two states at the forefront of technological innovation, U.S.-Russia discussion of expansion beyond the treaty’s current suite of permitted sensors would advance the OST’s capability as a security-building measure for nuclear matters.


How to Remain Relevant

The OST is innately intended to complement other international arms control agreements through compliance verification. Likewise, the treaty promotes equity through shared data and flights as an alternative for states without expensive satellite equipment. The OST also fosters global partnerships via science diplomacy, evidenced by passionate early discussions of technical equipment unbound by political interference. Bilateral talks emphasizing a shared global responsibility and a return to the original spirit of scientific collaboration could further the OST’s range of possibilities for security such as environmental monitoring via advanced sensors, an oft-discussed but never-before implemented aspect of the treaty.

On top of rejoining the treaty, President-elect Biden could renew greater discussions surrounding nuclear forces and arms control writ large by reassessing the purposes and new relevance of this treaty in today’s changed era of great power competition with new players and new challenges. The United States and Russia have sustained a generally fruitful diplomatic arms control relationship, as nuclear cooperation agreements have been mutually beneficial for both parties. Future-oriented bilateral discussions centered around nuclear management and international security in service of all member states will be paramount to renewing the efficacy and relevance of the OST. As the primary threat to the treaty lies in the growing mistrust between the U.S. and Russia, it is crucial that both states together examine their stakes in the OST as nuclear, military, and global powers writ large for the continued safety, security, and prosperity of the world.