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What is the Open Skies treaty?

Topics Covered: Bilateral, regional and global groupings and agreements involving India and/or affecting India’s interests

What is the Open Skies treaty?

What to study?

For Prelims: Key features and overview of the treaty.

For Mains: significance of the treaty and why US is leaving?

Context: The Trump administration is expected to pull out of the “Open Skies” treaty.

What is the “Open Skies” treaty?

The treaty allows 34 countries to conduct unarmed surveillance flights over one another’s territories — including the US and Russia. It was signed in 1992 and went into effect in 2002.

Kyrgyzstan has signed, but not ratified the treaty.


It was agreed just after the Cold War to allow signatories to avoid nasty surprises by monitoring rival militaries.

The treaty “was designed to enhance mutual understanding and confidence by giving all participants, regardless of size, a direct role in gathering information through aerial imaging on military forces and activities of concern to them.”

Implementation of the treaty:

  1. The treaty makes it possible to conduct joint unarmed observation flights over the territories and to take images using sensors of a predefined resolution.
  2. And it also allows all signatories to request copies of all images taken during overflights carried out by others.
  3. Overflights are governed by quotas, negotiated annually and assigned to specific aircraft. The United States, for example, is allowed to operate Boeing OC-135 planes with infrared scanners.
  4. The country under surveillance is given 72 hours’ warning of a flight and 24 hours notice of the route, to which it can suggest modifications.
  5. The treaty lays down which air bases can be used for the flights and at which points they can cross into each other’s air space. Russia and the U.S. have four such bases each.
  6. A committee to oversee the implementation of the treaty meets in Vienna every month at the headquarters of the Organisation of Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe.

Why does the US want to withdraw?

Moscow and Washington have long accused the other of breaching its terms. The US has in the past accused Moscow of imposing restrictions on flights near its exclave of Kaliningrad, an area between Poland and Lithuania where the Russian military maintains a robust presence.

Sources: the Hindu.