A Pentagon spokesperson told The Drive on Tuesday that one of the two remaining operational OC-135Bs used by the US for the Open Skies Treaty has received camera upgrades, meaning it cannot be used for observation flights at the moment.
Back in 1992, the United States and the newly independent Russian Federation, the Soviet Union’s official successor state, signed a treaty with several other nations laying out precise rules for mutual surveillance flights over each other’s countries as a way to defuse tensions. The specifications for the planes that can fly these prearranged routes are precise, and mutual inspections certify the planes before they can participate.
The US built three planes specifically for compliance with the treaty: the OC-135B Open Skies, built by Boeing and loosely based on its 707 airliner. With one in retirement and another getting a camera upgrade requiring Moscow to recertify it for participation, the lone remaining OC-135 is left to do the job of flying over Russian airspace to help Pentagon staffers sleep more soundly knowing an invasion isn’t imminent.
The upgraded OC-135 has received a digital camera to replace the old wet-film photography equipment that was typical in the early 1990s, when the plane was introduced, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Carla Gleason told The Drive, adding that the Air Force’s 55th Wing "maintains one Treaty certified wet-film aircraft to conduct Open Skies missions” at its home base in Nebraska.
The program to upgrade both jets is behind schedule and over budget. Begun in 2016 and intended to be completed by 2019 on a $36.6 million budget, the program is now estimated to cost $43.9 million, and the work isn’t expected to be completed until February 2021, according to federal government contracting site GovTribe.
However, the point may soon be moot, as the Trump administration has slowly edged closer to withdrawing from yet another multilateral treaty in recent months. In March, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told lawmakers in the House Armed Services Committee the Pentagon would not authorize replacing the aging OC-135s “until we make a final decision on the path forward” on the Open Skies Treaty, Defense News reported at the time.
Washington has accused Russia of abusing the terms of the treaty, claiming Moscow has unfairly limited US flights through Russian airspace.
Esper said in March that the US had "a lot of concerns about the treaty as it stands now,” such as limits placed on flights near the Russian borders with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions from Georgia recognized by Moscow but not Washington as independent countries. He also objected to limitations placed on US flights over Kaliningrad Oblast, an exclave separated from the rest of Russia by the secession of Lithuania from the Soviet Union in 1990.
However, several other former Soviet republics and European nations are also party to the treaty and have voiced their objections to its potential ending.
If the US left the treaty, it wouldn’t be the first the Trump administration has torn up. Last August, the US formally left the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a 1987 deal between the US and Russia that banned land-based missiles with ranges deemed dangerous to peace, as they could pose a serious threat if loaded with nuclear weapons. US President Donald Trump claimed Russia had been violating the treaty by lying about the ranges of some of its missiles.
In May 2018, the Trump administration also withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an eight-party deal agreed to in 2015 to end Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the relaxation of economic sanctions on Tehran. Again, Trump claimed Iran had been violating the treaty by producing too much uranium, and he took the US out of the deal, reimposing sanctions and posturing for military confrontation with the Islamic Republic.