The Daily Mail has run a story about how a Russian ‘spy plane’ was seen over Dartmouth recently under the auspices of the ‘Open Skies’ treaty (story is HERE). This is a great example of how poor understanding of international issues can often lead to significant confusion for the public. Notwithstanding fears by Twitter wags that the long secret ‘Spanish Windlass’ technique employed by the RN to solve PLTs may be vulnerable, this sort of incident helps build concern that the UK is at risk.
Conventional Arms Control and Confidence and Security Building Mechanisms (CONAC / CSBMS) were an integral part of maintaining a reasonable state of security during the Cold War. Some treaties such as the Mutual Balanced Force Reductions – MBFR or ‘Most Bizarre Form of Ritual’ or the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty focused on imposing limits on tanks, guns and equipment on the Central Front during the 70s and 80s. The aim was to reduce tension by reducing the amount of equipment that could be used to fight a war (and reduce defence spending by avoiding an existential arms race).
The Open Skies treaty was different and aimed at reducing the potential for ‘strategic surprise’ – essentially preventing either NATO or the Warsaw Pact / latterly Russia from building up forces on the borders outside of recce aircraft range (the subject of Cold War photo reconnaissance is a fascinating story). The simple idea was that the treaty permitted states at short notice to overfly areas of other states to reassure themselves that there was no military formations standing to or preparations for an invasion underway. In other words, it was about building confidence and preventing rash decision making that could escalate the situation.
The treaty was signed too late for the Cold War, but came into full force in about 2002. It permitted countries to provide approximately 48hrs notice of a visit to a nation, who would then be hosted by the country in question. A flight plan would be submitted (subject to a myriad of stipulations, clauses and rules to prevent it giving completely unrestricted access to airspace), and the host nation would approve it. The inspection flights would occur with representatives of the host nation onboard, and due to the way the imaging cameras worked, being aware of every point where images were taken. Finally copies of the imagery taken would be provided to the host country, ensuring it knew exactly what photos have been taken. The treaty can be read in full HERE and is complex and subtle.
To this day the treaty continues and Russian aircrew visit the UK twice per year, flying an approved route with the RAF onboard to monitor and support their visit. The same occurs in reverse, with British crew flying in partnership with other nations (the RAF having scrapped their Andover aircraft as a savings measure some years ago) into Russia and other nations, where the Russians host the visit.
|US Open Skies Aircraft|
These visits form a critical part of engagement with the Russians and a valuable tool in Western security. It may seem counter intuitive to invite a nation into your borders with whom you are not in total alignment with – but actually the visits can play a big part in reducing tensions. One only has to look at the range of documents that emerged after the Cold War to show how the Russians genuinely expected a NATO invasion Eastwards. To this day, Russian policy is arguably built on the basis that its perfectly normal to be paranoid – after all, history is full of stories of invasions of Russia (and plenty more of Russian invasions of others!).
If you can reassure your allies and neighbours that there is no risk, it reduces and plays down the prospect of miscalculations or problems. In every sense Open Skies is about reducing tensions by providing reassurance, not spying.
The Russians rely far more on Open Skies than the West does – it provides them with valuable information and imagery that cannot necessarily be provided by overhead imagery – a problem that the West does not necessarily have. Open Skies can function as a carrot and a bargaining chip to help shape behaviour and assist Western policy.
Russia needs access to Western airspace, but equally the West can deny this through modifying or walking away from the Treaty. In terms of diplomatic effect, a threat to shut down Open Skies would likely alter Russian behaviour (albeit at cost of long term grudges and a desire for revenge). It is a powerful tool that when properly employed can help influence the Russians in a manner that other negotiations cannot. It is telling that whilst Russia plays, at best, lip service to other treaties like the CFE, or at worst walks away (such as the Vienna Document), it has continued to engage with the Open Skies treaty, which implies that it is something they place real value on.
Open Skies is also of sufficient importance to NATO allies that provision of a new Open Skies aircraft formed part of the coalition agreement for the German Government, whilst in the US lawmakers on Capitol Hill routinely focus on the presence of the Russians on American soil and are convinced of its benefits.
The risk to the UK is minimal from such inspection flights, frankly the imagery is of limited quality (linked to the fact that wet film is currently mandated, and there are limits on the quality of the image taken). Allowing a Russian aircraft to fly in UK airspace to film buildings whose existence can be seen on google earth is not realistically going to cause major concerns.
The world of CONAC and CSBMs is an interesting throwback to the Cold War which can occasionally have real benefits for the West. Long seen as an area of ‘tank spotting or rivet counting’ the mechanisms in some of the treaties permitting legal access to areas allowed the West to quickly access Ukraine and verify presence of Russian equipment quite openly and legally. They allow the West a chance to directly see and understand Russian activity (the same is true in reverse) and they help keep a credible tool of influence for Western policy makers to use in the event further sanctions are required.
The UK commitment to arms control was highlighted in the 2015 SDSR by the establishment of pan Whitehall Joint Units to focus on CONAC policy, and through the Joint Arms Control Implementation Group (JACIG), which is highly valued in NATO as leaders on the CONAC scene. This is one of those areas where a relatively small presence of niche policy and military specialists helps buy the UK significant access and influence beyond that which would normally be possible. The Joint Units and JACIG provides the UK an ability to engage with the Russian military face to face, to exert influence at NATO or OSCE policy making events and to help try to influence behaviour of other states. While its role is not widely understood or known even inside the MOD, the UK retains an exceptionally capable and highly regarded pool of CONAC policy leads and inspectors.
The key point is not to panic when you read breathless news articles about Russian spy planes and assume that UK security is threatened. It is not – the UK knows where the aircraft are going, what they are taking photos of and has copies of all the photos. The same is true in reverse with the Russians, for this is about confidence building, not spying on an enemy.
Don’t worry – the Russians may be coming, but they come in frosty peace…