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EU defense leaders urge US not to leave Open Skies Treaty

OC-135 Open Skies aircraft
US Air Force file photo of an OC-135 Open Skies aircraft

US president Donald Trump should refrain from leaving the Open Skies Treaty which has allowed its members to gather information on each other’s military forces and activities through aerial surveillance for nearly two decades, a group of retired military leaders has said in an open letter.

Despite the concerns of the United States and the other disputes among state parties about compliance, we judge it to be in the interests of both the United States and of other states to remain within the treaty, the European Leadership Network (ELN) said.

“We strongly urge all parties to uphold the treaty and to use all relevant channels for dialogue to resolve their disputes,” it was said.

“Throughout its operation, the treaty has increased military transparency and predictability, helped build trust and confidence, and enhanced mutual understanding.”

ELN further noted that Washington profits from this “military-to-military engagement tool” as it contributes to greater transparency and stability in the Euro-Atlantic region. While the intelligence and confidence building advantages are limited for the United States itself, they are very real for America’s NATO allies.

The organization also cautioned that a US withdrawal would prevent the United States from overflying Russia but would leave Russia still able to overfly American military activities and installations in Europe. US departure would also further weaken the international arms control architecture and be a further blow to any global sense of stability.

“We welcome the fact that a 19 February 2020 US-Estonian-Lithuanian flight over Kaliningrad took place. State Parties should remove all restrictions that they have unilaterally imposed on Open Skies flights. We thus call on all parties to refrain from restricting the total distance of observation flights or prohibiting overflight over certain territories,” the group of former military leaders said.

What is more, ELN said that European state parties should make every effort to remain in the treaty, even if the United States withdraws. The treaty continues to add value to its signatories, even if the United States decides to leave.

European parties often have their own Open Skies planes, some of which are in midst of modernization today. Moreover, the flights gather unique data. Most European governments do not possess space-based reconnaissance capabilities comparable to the United States. At the same time, commercial satellites cannot collect intelligence comparable to that of an Open Skies overflight. Open Skies planes fly flexible paths, in contrast to satellites flying in fixed orbits. Where satellites cannot see through clouds, Open Skies planes fly beneath them. And data generated is authenticated under agreed standards.