WASHINGTON — NATO allies worried U.S. President Donald Trump will abandon the Open Skies Treaty have been told the administration views the arms control agreement as a danger to U.S. national security, and that unless those nations can assuage such concerns, the U.S. will likely pull out, Defense News has learned.
At a meeting in Brussels last week, Trump administration officials laid out for the first time a full suite of concerns with the treaty and made clear they were seriously considering an exit. The agreement, ratified in 2002, allows mutual reconnaissance flights over its 34 members, including the U.S. and Russia.
According to one senior administration official, the U.S. delegation presented classified intelligence to the foreign officials to explain its concerns, chiefly that Russian forces are “misusing the treaty in their targeting of critical U.S. infrastructure,” and to request help from allies to address those concerns if the treaty is to be saved.
“This is a U.S. position — that we think this treaty is a danger to our national security. We get nothing out of it. Our allies get nothing out of it, and it is our intention to withdraw, similar to what we did with [the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty]. From our perspective, the analysis is done,” the senior Trump administration official said. “The Europeans got that. It was a splash of cold water on their faces.”
The NATO allies did not reach an agreement at that meeting, the official noted.
Sources with several of these allied countries told Defense News that the Trump administration has indicated over the last month that there likely won’t be a final decision on the treaty before late January. In the interim, they said the U.S. sent a number of NATO nations a diplomatic communication earlier this month about the pact, essentially asking treaty members to make the case for its survival.
The U.S. outreach comes amid unusually strong and coordinated pressure from European allies inside and outside of NATO upon both the administration and Congress to remain in the treaty — and before a planned NATO leaders summit in London next month.
Allies generally argue the treaty is a valuable channel for transparency and dialogue between Russia and the United States, the world’s top two nuclear superpowers.
The meeting was meant to send a strong signal about the White House’s position, as the U.S. delegation included mid-level representatives from the Defense Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff, State Department and National Security Council. Broadly speaking, the American delegation argued Russian aggression since 2014 and the proliferation of high-quality commercial satellite imagery since 2002 had rendered the treaty obsolete.
The Trump administration’s efforts to solicit feedback from allies also seemed to be a response to criticism from Congress and allies that the president has a history of acting unilaterally when scrapping multilateral accords. Lawmakers and allies were caught off guard, for example, when the Wall Street Journal reported in October that Trump signed a document signaling his intent to withdraw from Open Skies. Weeks later, the administration had yet to make public its intentions.
A U.S. exit from the treaty would further erode the post-Cold War arms control architecture, after the U.S. and Russia walked away from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in August. The last remaining major nuclear arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia, New START, expires in 2021.
European support for Open Skies so far has included a joint verbal demarche, or diplomatic protest, to the National Security Council from a number of Nordic countries, and another joint demarche from Germany, the U.K. and France; Germany’s ambassador to the U.S. reportedly also made a visit to the White House to argue on the treaty’s behalf.
Sweden, a particularly active participant in the fight to save Open Skies, sent a letter from its defense minister, Peter Hultqvist, to U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, expressing “deep concern.”
“A well-functioning Open Skies Treaty contributes to the ability to hold states, including the Russian Federation, accountable for breaches against the norms and principles that underpin the European security architecture. The Treaty is vital as one of very few remaining confidence and security building measures,” Hultqvist wrote in the Oct. 24 letter, obtained by Defense News.
“One aspect of maintaining the Treaty is to work with other participants to curtail any violations. In our view, it important that violations of others not be taken as grounds for withdrawing from the Treaty altogether,” Hultqvist wrote.
American and European complaints
Critics of the treaty have complained that Russia restricts flights near the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and the Georgian border-conflict regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The U.S. responded with flight restrictions over parts of Hawaii and Alaska.
However, in Brussels, Trump administration officials challenged NATO ally Germany’s plan to test a new infrared sensor in a flight over the United States in 2020, arguing it would open the door for Russia to do the same. Russia’s Tupolev Tu-154 already progressed from wet film to a digital electro-optical sensor in 2017, which at the time raised concerns within the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community.
Another U.S. concern is a claim that there’s no way under the Open Skies Treaty for signatories to know if Russia is surreptitiously gathering intelligence on U.S. forces while en route to its scheduled overflights. For example, the U.S. was concerned Russia’s aircraft would focus its sensors on American forces in Poland while flying to Germany. (Cameras on Open Skies aircraft are supposed to be covered during transit flights between the host nation and the area being surveilled.)
Following the meeting in Brussels, it was unclear how NATO allies might work to address the administration’s concerns. Several sources from treaty nations told Defense News this week they believe the administration’s efforts to solicit feedback from Europe offer a chance to convince the White House to remain a signatory to the treaty.
Others were more skeptical. One senior European official said the “big question” is whether the administration’s outreach represents a good faith effort, or whether it’s laying the groundwork to blame allies for not meeting the administration’s demands.
“We heard at one point they had already made up their mind, and at one point there was word they had signed a withdrawal. So it’s hard to say if it’s for show or not,” the European official said.
One of the main arguments in favor of Open Skies is that it helps maintain Europe-wide security and serves as a rare communications channel between Russia and other signatories. But because arguments based on maintaining global norms and respecting arms control pacts are seen as ineffective with the Trump administration, the Europeans are likely to push on a different lever.
“It’s an arms control treaty, and we don’t have too many of those left. [A U.S. exit] would give a propaganda victory to Russia," the European official said. “There’s really only one argument that we think might work with the administration, and that’s the benefits we get from the treaty from an intel perspective.”
Yet, the intelligence benefits are under debate. Opponents argue that commercial imaging satellites are readily available as a superior alternative to flyovers, and that allied militaries can always share more advanced intelligence as they fit.
Advocates see value in airborne assets that can fly quickly and below cloud level; they question how efficiently America or the U.K. can share intelligence with all Open Skies signatories, which includes a number of non-NATO nations.
Jim Townsend, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for a New American Security think tank, was skeptical that, even if the intel is valuable, this argument would work on the Trump administration.
“If they tell the administration they need it because they need the intel, the administration will say: ‘So you’re freeloading on us again with Open Skies. Buy your own damn satellites or aircraft,’” Townsend said. “That’s a losing argument with these guys.”
With future U.S. participation in the treaty an open question, Congress is weighing in, though members of Trump’s own political party have been split over the issue.
For flights by the United States, the Air Force uses two deteriorating Boeing OC-135B aircraft, which are assigned to Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. Congress has debated whether to recapitalize those planes, but Trump’s 2019 budget request included $125 million for two new aircraft, with the Air Force eyeing two new commercial airliners that could be outfitted with the existing Digital Visual Imaging System used by Open Skies aircraft.
Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Helsinki Commission member, said Tuesday at a House hearing on Open Skies that Congress ought to devote more robust funding to support the treaty. "It’s a little bit frightening that the U.S. is flying some hoopties in 2019,” the Missouri congressman said.
Senate Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Deb Fischer as well as Rep. Don Bacon, both Nebraska Republicans, support Open Skies. Last year, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a letter to Fischer that the overflights were particularly useful after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, adding that it is in America’s “best interest” to stick with the pact because of information gathered about Russian activity in Ukraine.
“I have personally communicated to the White House my opposition [to ending the treaty], I’m on record about it,” Bacon, a retired one-star general who commanded Offutt’s 55th Wing from 2011-2012, told Defense News. “The problem is the administration has not said why it wants to pull out of it. If it merits, if it’s a budget discussion, I want to hear where they’re coming from.”
On Monday, Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., introduced bipartisan legislation that would “require the administration certify to Congress that exiting the treaty is in the best interests of U.S. national security, and develop a comprehensive strategy to mitigate against reduced military capability.” The co-sponsors included Bacon, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., and Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., who chairs the Helsinki Commission.
Meanwhile, Senate AirLand Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, last month introduced legislation to withdraw from Open Skies and to declassify to the maximum extent possible U.S. intelligence about how Russia exploits the treaty to undermine American national security. Cotton, a longtime opponent of the treaty, has said the money would be better spent on more urgent Air Force projects.
The House-passed version of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act included language to support the treaty and prohibit a withdrawal, unless the administration certifies Russia has breached it, or that an exit is in America’s best interest and other parties were consulted.
The White House has objected to the provision for impinging on the president’s treaty authorities, but the Senate version did not include a similar provision. The House and Senate were still in negotiations this week to reach a final version of the bill.
Correction: the initial report described Rep. Don Bacon as introducing legislation in the House. That legislation was introduced by Rep. Jimmy Pannetta. This story has been updated to reflect that.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.