Republicans on a key House of Representatives committee are trying to cut funding for a pair of Air Force surveillance planes that are critical to the United States’ participation in a 1992 arms-verification treaty.
Experts said that depriving the Air Force of funding for the four-engine OC-135s is part of a Republican effort to force the US to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, in which President George H.W. Bush's administration negotiated with Russia and dozens of other countries at the end of the Cold War.
Open Skies gives signatory nations the right to fly over each other's territory along pre-approved flight paths, allowing them to check on key military installations and verify adherence to other treaties.
The treaty “provides a significant contribution to the security and stability of North America and Europe,” said Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Washington, DC-based Arms Control Association.
But a contingent of pro-war House Republicans, led by Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas, have worked to undermine America's participation in Open Skies. “There is no good reason to allow the Russians to have nearly unfettered access to American air space for intelligence collection,” Thornberry stated on his website.
The Republicans' rejection of OC-135 funding is part of their plan to "get tough on Russia," one House Armed Services Committee aide, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, told me.
As part of their anti-treaty campaign, Thornberry and his allies on the Armed Services Committee have repeatedly tried to remove funding for the OC-135s, which have handled America's Open Skies missions since 1993.
The OC-135s, variants of the classic Boeing 707 airliner, carry four conventional wet-film cameras—three for low-altitude shots and one for high altitude—plus personnel to operate the image sensors.
But the 1960s-vintage planes are old and badly in need of upgrading—and, eventually, replacement. And the old-style cameras, for their part, are labor-intensive. The film from the cameras must be removed after each flight and then processed it in a laboratory, a process that takes hours.
In 2008, George Sarris, an Air Force veteran and contract OC-135 mechanic, went to the media with evidence that the OC-135s were increasingly unsafe to fly owing to outdated maintenance manuals and deteriorating components. Ten years later, according to Sarris, the planes are even less safe: “It is my opinion that the OC-135s are in worse condition today in comparison to 2008,” Sarris told me.
The Air Force asked Congress for $220 million to begin buying two new planes to replace the OC-135s. But Thornberry and his allies removed that money from the House version of the 2018 defense appropriation bill, over the objections of some other Republicans and even the White House. The US Senate could restore the money in coming weeks when the two legislative bodies meet to write a compromise budget.
The recent funding-denial is only the latest Congressional assault on the Open Skies Treaty. In 2017, the same House Republicans blocked the Air Force from upgrading the OC-135s' old-style wet-film camera to newer, digital models.
“Thirty centimeters is 30 centimeters.“
The Air Force had moved to upgrade the cameras after Russia made similar modifications to its own Open Skies planes, which fly over the United States and other countries. The Russian planes' new cameras, which adhere to treaty guidelines, represent a “significant intelligence-collection opportunity” for Moscow, the House aide claimed.
Depriving the OC-135s of enhancements created an artificial disparity between Russian and American Open Skies planes. Republicans have pointed to that disparity—which, to be clear, is the result of their own actions—as one reason the US should withdraw from the treaty.
“I cannot see why the United States would allow Russia to fly a surveillance plane with an advanced sensor over the United States to collect intelligence,” Thornberry told The New York Times in 2016.
But in fact, the OC-135s' existing wet-film cameras have the same maximum resolution of 30 centimeters as do the Russian planes' newer digital cameras, Steffan Watkins, an independent imagery analyst and Open Skies expert, told me. “The United States and other countries use some of the highest-end wet-film framing cameras on the market, specifically made for surveying and aerial observation.”
Switching to digital just makes it easier for Russia to process and share its Open Skies imagery. "None of that constitutes a violation of the treaty, or even the spirit of the treaty," Watkins said.
Watkins recalled what Lt. Col. Steve Veillette, the Canadian air force officer in charge of Canada’s own Open Skies effort, told him regarding the international tiff over camera format: “Thirty centimeters is 30 centimeters.“
According to Watkins, characterizing Russia's new cameras as a significant advantage, and then denying the US Air Force the opportunity to erase that supposed advantage, is part of a years-long effort by certain Republicans to portray Open Skies as bad for America and to end meaningful cooperation between the US and Russia on aerial treaty-verification.
It should go without saying, Watkins said, “that there is a faction of the American government who wants to kill the Open Skies Treaty.”
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.