Treaty on Open Skies Marks 20 Years Promoting Euro-Atlantic Security

On March 24, the United States commemorated the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty on Open Skies, and the role it has played in providing peace and stability for Euro-Atlantic relations. On March 27, Acting Under Secretary Rose Gottemoeller spoke at a special reception in Vienna, Austria, hosted by the governments of Canada and Hungary, to mark this occasion. In her remarks, Gottemoeller emphasized, “While much has been accomplished under the Treaty, its potential, in our view, has not yet been fully tapped. Parties need to upgrade to digital sensors as soon as possible, and application of the results should be used to address a wider range of transnational threats and verification challenges.”

In a nutshell, the Treaty gives each State Party the opportunity to conduct unarmed aerial observation flights over the entire territory of its participants. The observation flights provide a platform for confidence and security-building that reduces the probability of misunderstanding and regional tensions. Open Skies is one of the most wide-ranging international efforts to date to promote openness and transparency of military forces and activities.

Damian Leader, Chief Arms Control Delegate of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE, however, believes that the success of the Open Skies Treaty is not fully appreciated. He said, “It has really increased confidence among the countries; it allowed interaction between thousands of inspectors from all the different countries. Sometimes we overlook the value of just an individual face-to-face contact between people from countries, which sometimes in the past have been adversaries, but are now joining this common effort at increasing confidence within the OSCE space.”

In 1992, the Treaty was signed in Helsinki, Finland during a Summit meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The United States was among 27 signatory nations for the conventional arms control treaty. The Treaty’s current 34 member states have successfully conducted more than 835 observation flights over each other’s territory.

The United States remains committed to maintaining the viability of the Treaty by enhancing transparency, employing new imaging technologies, and strengthening international cooperation. The United States is an active member of the Open Skies Consultative Commission (OSCC), where we lead the working group devoted to modalities for sensor technology.

The concept of “mutual aerial observation” was initially proposed by President Eisenhower in 1955 as a bilateral arrangement with the Soviet Union to ensure that neither side was engaged in offensive preparations or destabilizing measures. In 1989, President H.W. Bush re-introduced the concept as a multilateral agreement among those states that were then NATO Allies and the former Warsaw Pact members. Stretching today from Vancouver in the west to Vladivostok in the east, this landmark agreement is one of the most wide-ranging international arms control efforts to date and provides a key mechanism in support of U.S. Euro-Atlantic security objectives. In this regard, the Open Skies Treaty continues to be one of the most successful and valuable arms control regimes.