TIME intelligence

Cold War Tit-for-Tat 2.0

Russia's new Tu-214 reconnaissance aircraft. Oleg Belyakov

Squabbling—over who can see what—threatens a Colder War

Last week, Moscow canceled a scheduled U.S. surveillance flight over Russia, apparently to keep prying U.S. eyes from scouting out Moscow’s forces huddling along its border with Ukraine.

This week, Washington is debating whether or not to bar a new Russian spy plane, the Tu-214, from flying over U.S. territory as part of the same 22-year-old arms verification regime.

The two actions aren’t linked. In fact, some U.S. officials say Moscow’s cancellation was due to poor weather and will be rescheduled. But it’s interesting that in both nations, there seems to be a push to deny the other from flying an unarmed aircraft, designed to monitor military movements, across its home turf.

The idea sure beats secret American U-2 flights. The Soviets shot down Francis Gary Power’s U-2 over its territory in 1960, triggering an international showdown that could have led to war. The U.S. initially denied the plane’s mission, but was forced to recant when Moscow publicly revealed the plane, and Powers, to the world.

The 1992 Open Skies treaty lets sensor-laden aircraft fly over other nations with 72 hours’ notice (so that sensitive items can be shielded from view) to confirm compliance with arms-control pacts and monitor troop movements. Russia and Sweden are the only two nations that have flown such aircraft over the U.S. according to the Pentagon.

Four members of the Senate intelligence committee recently warned that Russia has built reconnaissance aircraft that will “support digital photograph equipment, sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar, and infrared equipment,” and cautioned against letting them over the U.S.

“We strongly urge you to carefully evaluate the ramifications of certification on future Open Skies observation flights and consider the equities of key U.S. Government stakeholders,” said the letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, signed by Senators Dan Coats, R-Ind., Mark Warner, D-Va., Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. “The invasion of Crimea and Moscow’s ongoing efforts to destabilize Ukraine using subversive methods is sufficient enough to counsel further review, irrespective of any technical concerns that may exist.”

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., chairman of the House intelligence panel, is also concerned. “Putin’s attempt to upgrade Russia’s sensing capabilities now is particularly problematic,” he said in an Apr. 11 letter to Obama. “I have serious concerns about the technical advantages Russia would gain.”

Sounds ominous. But the treaty’s language already permits infrared devices and sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar.

As for “digital photographic equipment”—when was the last time you loaded a roll of film into a camera? The U.S. government wants to do the same thing as you: “Technology advancements have made film cameras increasingly obsolete and, consequently, the United States is actively preparing for the transition to digital electro-optical sensors,” the State Department says in its assessment of the Open Skies treaty.

True, the U.S. is lagging behind the Russians in this area. “Based on current projections, the earliest the Air Force will fly an observation mission with digital cameras is the fall of 2017,” a member of the service’s International Treaty Compliance Office said last year.

Beyond that, any new capabilities have to be approved by all 34 signers of the treaty—and they must be commercially available to all of them.

The notion that one side has some technological edge that the other must thwart is what sparked the Cold War. These latest warnings, unless there is some missing element not being shared with the public, carry disturbing echoes of that time.

Knowledge beats ignorance. That’s why “trust, but verify” was Ronald Reagan’s superpower mantra. That’s even more true when trust is in short supply.

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