Russians To Fly A Photo Mission Under Open Skies Treaty
The Russians are coming, and they're going to be flying right
overhead! The little-heard-of Open Skies Treaty is bringing a
Tupolev Tu-154M reconnaissance airplane to the USA. The Russian
machine will land at Travis Air Force Base in California and then
go wherever the Russian and Belarussian crew wants to take it, for
up to 96 hours. American observers will accompany the Russians on
their travels, as provided in the treaty.
The flight will take place this coming week, beginning when the
Russian jet makes a touchdown at Travis AFB, and continuing for a
planned 2,641 miles (4,250 km). There is already a follow-up flight
planned for next month.
The Russian intelligence officers aboard this flight will even
have privileges denied to American pilots -- they can go freely
into any hazardous airspace, including warning, restricted,
prohibited, military operations and alert areas. But there's no
need to be alarmed -- US pilots on similar Open Skies missions have
similar privileges over Russia. As indicated above, the observed
nation has the right to send its own observers or liaison personnel
along with the observing nation's aircraft.
Apart from Travis AFB, the Russian recon plane is restricted by
the treaty to a short list of other airfields for refueling or
other activity during its five-day visit: McConnell AFB (KS),
Ellsworth AFB (SD), Wright-Patterson AFB (OH), Robins AFB (GA), and
Dulles International Airport (VA).
The Open Skies aircraft will often fly as low as 3,000 feet,
which allows its sensors to capture objects with a resolution of 30
cm. While the Russian mission commander has great latitude in
accomplishing his mission, many of the most minute details of the
operation are governed by the terms of the treaty.
Under the terms of the treaty, the US, Russians, and other
signatory nations have the mutual right to fly over each other's
territory. The concept was first suggested by President Dwight D.
Eisenhower in 1955, but went nowhere in those mistrustful days.
Eisenhower was going to get his pictures one way or the other, and
he then approved the covert U-2 overflights which ended in the
shootdown of Francis Gary Powers and Soviet Premier Khrushchev's
dramatic exposure of the U-2 program in the UN.
The idea of an open skies treaty never died, and in 1992, thanks
to a more open Russian government than ever before, an agreement
was finally hashed out in Helsinki. It was 2002 before the treaty
actually took effect. The US has conducted at least 19 overflights
of the Russian Federation and Belarus; the Russian side only three
of the USA. The flight this week will be followed by another next
month. In theory, at least, each side could fly twenty Open Skies
missions a year. In practice, there are far fewer of the costly
The Russian airplane that will be conducting this mission is a
unique machine. The standard Tu-154 and stretched Tu-154M are
"three-holer" airliners resembling the venerable Boeing 727 in
concept. These planes were the workhorses of Aeroflot, and the
airlines of the former Soviet states and of many Eastern European
nations. Around 900 of the jetliners were built, but only one,
registration RA-85655, has been modified for Open Skies
Originally built as one of two planes to be a sort of Air Force
One of the USSR, the one-off Tu-154M-ON ("ON" stands for "Otkrytoye
Nebo" -- "Open Skies"), is stuffed with the equipment permitted by
the treaty, initially including optical and radar sensors. The
optical cameras are limited to 30cm ground resolution, which means
that they can distinguish between objects that are about a foot
long. The camera suite includes one vertically mounted framing
camera, two obliquely mounted framing cameras, one panoramic
camera, and one video camera.
A sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar (SAR) with about 3m
ground resolution is also fitted. In the future -- starting in 2006
-- the planes conforming to the treaty will also be able to deploy
an infrared (IR) line-scanner with 50cm ground resolution.
The US will receive duplicates of all the Soviet photographs;
this, too, is a treaty provision.
The USA also has a single special-purpose aircraft built for
Open Skies. The OC-135B aircraft is a modified WC-135B,
itself a modification of the venerable (1955 vintage) KC-135
tanker, kissin' cousin to the Boeing 707. The OC-135B can carry up
to 38 personnel including crew, sensor operators, and international
observers. A large Open Skies logo decorates the tail.