Open Skies: What Would Happen If The US Pulled Out Of Treaty?

Members of the International Relations and Defence Committee heard evidence from a group of experts.

A House of Lords committee has been told Donald Trump's decision to pull the United States out of a major defence agreement could allow Russia's activities to go unchecked.

The Open Skies Treaty allows countries to carry out unarmed surveillance flights over each other's territory.

The flights began in 2002 in an effort to build trust between the treaty's 34 signatories.

However, the US has accused Russia of abusing it and is threatening to withdraw from Open Skies next month.

On Friday, members of the International Relations and Defence Committee heard evidence from a group of experts.

"My fear is that this is allowing Russia off the hook in terms of compliance," Dr Patricia Lewis, from the International Security Programme at Chatham House, said.

"It's throwing the US allies into disarray, because this is not the way that they would have gone about it, most likely."

She added that this situation is also "allowing Russia the opportunity to stay in the treaty and look good".

A total of 1,500 Open Skies flights have taken place so far, with a third of them over Russia and Belarus.

To the supporters of the treaty, it is a vital pillar of peace, but Washington has accused Moscow of violating the accord by blocking American surveillance flights over parts of its territory.

An Open Skies aircraft at a US Air Force base in Nebraska (Picture: US Department of Defense).

Critics of the treaty say it is technologically outdated, claiming the US gets better surveillance information from satellites than fixed-wing aircraft.

Asked what treaty members should say to Washington about the current situation, Alexandra Bell, from the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said: "They'd like to stress that there is [...] the opportunity to reach out to President Trump and ask him to postpone or reverse this decision.

"The critical date for action is November 22nd, just under two months from now."

She added: "If our Allies want the United States to stay in Open Skies and they want Russia to fix compliance problems, then private and public council at the highest levels has to happen now."

Members of the International Relations and Defence Committee also raised questions about the future of the New START Treaty, which is designed to limit US and Russian nuclear weapons and expires in February 2021. 

"We are in a very bad situation," security and conflict expert Bonnie Jenkins said.

"It hasn't improved really, despite all the time that we've had to try to resolve it, and the insistence by the [Trump] Administration currently to bring in China, as I said, does not seem to be leading to success.

"We can either see a change in administration that will work with Russia to see what we can do to extend START in the timeframe that we have, or we may be in a situation where we're still trying to deal with a situation that Russia is not particularly happy with and the US has set down conditions," Ms Jenkins added.

NATO says the Open Skies Treaty will remain in place even if the US leaves the agreement, but without its major military backer, there are concerns Russia may also leave.

Cover image: An Open Skies aircraft (Picture: US Department of Defense).