Open Skies Treaty Enters Into Force

Wade Boese

On January 1, the Open Skies Treaty entered into force, paving the way for its 26 state-parties to officially begin unarmed reconnaissance flights over each others’ territories later this year.

For any given year, the number of flights that a country may conduct over others and has to permit over its own territory is limited by a quota system loosely based on the size of a country’s territory. For example, Russia, which shares its quota with Belarus, and the United States are obliged to permit up to 42 reconnaissance flights over their territories annually, although Portugal only needs to permit two. All states-parties have a reduced number of flights that they must allow during the first round of treaty flights, which extends until the end of 2003.

A U.S. government official said treaty flights are not expected to begin until this August because the planes to be used in conducting the flights must be checked out and certified as treaty compliant. This certification period is tentatively scheduled to occur from mid-April to July.

As part of the plane certification, inspectors will check whether the plane’s sensors, which are supposed to be capable of enabling an observing party to distinguish between tanks and trucks on the ground, match the specifications of those permitted by the treaty. Under the treaty, a plane ultimately may be equipped with optical cameras, video cameras, infrared line-scanning devices, and sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar (SAR). Initially, states-parties are likely to employ cameras only and will gradually incorporate the other permitted sensors. No country even has a SAR to use at this time, according to the U.S. government official.

NATO and former members of the Warsaw Pact, which dissolved during the treaty’s two-year negotiations, signed the accord in March 1992. The treaty was originally intended to help ease distrust between the two blocs and be a tool for verifying other agreements. A January 9 State Department press release stated that the treaty “is still expected to be a useful element of the European security framework,” adding that it will provide “increasing transparency, mutual understanding, and cooperation, among its parties.”

Now that the treaty has entered into force, members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe not party to the accord may apply to accede. If no state-party objects to a country’s application, the country may join the treaty. Finland, Sweden, and Cyprus have expressed interest in acceding. After July 1, any other country may also ask to join the accord.