Despite "serious compliance concerns" from the State Department that Russia does not adhere to international treaties on arms control, the United States has agreed to allow a Russian surveillance aircraft to fly across the U.S. mainland, a congressional source told AMI.
The overflight will be conducted by a Tupolev-154 three-engine aircraft, nicknamed "Careless," that has been specially equipped with advanced cameras. The flight will be held under the auspices of the Open Skies Treaty, a 2002 international agreement that allows 34 signatory nations to fly over one another's territory and monitor military installations.
The decision comes in the wake of a strongly worded letter to President Barack Obama from three key national security lawmakers who urged the White House to refuse Russia's request to install upgraded sensors on its Open Skies overflight aircraft.
"In recent years, instead of using the Treaty for its intended purpose, Russia has been using its Open Skies flights to expand its espionage capabilities," stated the June 14 letter, which was signed by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA), Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) and Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX).
"Given the threat to U.S. national security and Russia’s continued failure to uphold both the spirit and letter of its commitments under the agreement, we urge you to deny this request and explore whether commercially available satellite imagery can better fulfill the goals of this Treaty," the lawmakers wrote.
Even the reputedly tolerant State Department has "serious compliance concerns" regarding Russia's approach to arms control treaties in general, according to a fact sheet posted on the department's website.
The Open Skies Treaty falls within the range of concerns.
Playing down the lawmakers' concerns about Russian intentions
, though, a State Department official told AMI that the treaty's primary role is "confidence building" among nations.
The official cited the State Department website fact sheet, which reads in part: "The treaty’s primary value is its role in building transparency and confidence, not intelligence gathering."
However, the June 14 letter regarding intelligence gathering is not an anomaly. For years, American lawmakers have objected to Russia's use of the Open Skies Treaty to further its intelligence - and, ultimately, expeditionary - goals.
In 2014, during a Congressional floor debate, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), charged that the Obama administration allowed Russia to upgrade its Open Skies aircraft in ways that will directly threaten U.S. national security.
In 2015, Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, who heads the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, expressed frustration with how Russia was being allowed to use the Open Skies accord.
“The Open Skies construct was designed for a different era," Stewart told a Congressional
committee. "I am very concerned about how it is applied today and I’d love to talk about in a closed hearing.”
This year, Stewart was even more direct, telling Congress: “Russia’s application today has gone far beyond the original intent of the treaty,” adding “I would love to deny the Russians having that upgraded capability.”
When asked by AMI for a response, the State Department again countered with its fact sheet.
The sheet notes: "Since the Treaty entered-into-force in 2002, the United States has flown nearly three-times as many flights annually over Russia as Russia flies over the United States."
Additionally, the fact sheet states, the United States has made 196 overflight bids versus Russia's 71.
"Further, the United States can request copies of the imagery from other State Parties’ flights over Russia," the State Dept. fact sheet states.
"These claims from State are technically correct," the Congressional staff member told AMI. "What they conveniently fail to mention is that the United States actually complies with the terms of the treaty, whereas Russia plays dodge ball."
Among the dodges, the staffer said, are the denial of treaty-enabled U.S. flights over Kaliningrad and areas near the border with Georgia, as well as altitude restrictions over Moscow.
The State Department appears to be content with handling the overall issue via diplomacy.
The official fact sheet reads: "…we continue to have serious compliance concerns with several actions taken by Russia, and these issues continue to be raised with Russia…."
The State Department did not respond to AMI's request for a date for the Russian Tu-154 overflight. The Russian military did not respond to a request for comment.