THE Open Skies Treaty offers the United States a rare opportunity: the chance to increase international security in the face of decreasing military deployments abroad.
The Senate opened ratification hearings on this treaty Sept. 22 and would do well to give its advice and consent without delay. In these times of hope and uncertainty in Europe, security bargains are few and far between.
The Open Skies Treaty, signed March 24 by representatives of 25 nations, commits those countries to open their national airspace upon short notice for unarmed overflights by other treaty parties. No territory - not even militarily sensitive sites - will be exempt from overflight, providing unparalleled access to foreign observers.
This treaty was negotiated near the end of the cold war, but it is no less relevant today. Nations harboring ethnic hatreds and other mistrusts are heavily armed with cold-war leftovers.
Hostilities that threaten to spill across borders have already had tragic consequences in Yugoslavia and have broken out in numerous locations within the former Soviet empire. Age-old antagonisms and nationalistic rhetoric threaten to undermine fledgling democracies and strain the ties developing between Hungary and Romania and former Soviet republics and satellite states.
The Open Skies Treaty is designed to defuse these spiraling tensions by allowing political and military leaders to see for themselves what is going on behind these borders. Appropriate responses can therefore be geared to fact, not worst-case analysis.
Meanwhile, domestic economic pressures and the demise of the Soviet Union are triggering the withdrawal of US military forces from abroad, creating concerns about power vacuums and a less secure world.
The Open Skies Treaty is an ideal tool to help Europeans assume a greater burden for their own security. Open Skies can also help calm troubled waters in East-West relations. With this treaty's implementation, US forces will continue to be ready when needed, but the likelihood of their being needed is lessened.
The schedule for flights during the treaty's first year is heavily oriented toward zones of instability in and around the former Soviet Union. Of the 92 total flights slated, nine of them will fly over Ukraine and 31 will crisscross the territory of Russia and Belarus. Eastern European states will be overflown 18 times. Three-quarters of the 34 flights over Western countries will be conducted by Russia.
To assist parties with implementation and to cut costs, the treaty allows states to team up, thereby promoting cooperative behavior at a very practical level. Russia and Belarus are teamed, for example, as are the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium.
The US will be overflown only four times in the treaty's first year, but like all participating states, the US will have access to the data from every flight conducted. The US has consented to be overflown as many as 42 times annually, but this quota is unlikely to be met.
Treaty parties will annually bid for and redistribute the overflights they wish to conduct. For example, while Ukraine is initially overflying Hungary, Poland, Romania, Turkey, and the Czech and Slovak Republics, it may choose flights the following year over Georgia, Germany, Bulgaria, Russia, and Greece. The treaty will achieve full scope within three years of its entry into force, when a total of 225 flights covering territory from Vancouver to Vladivostok could take place each year.
These numbers may well increase, as any state worldwide is free to join the treaty. Thus, for example, if India and Pakistan or North and South Korea wish to institute Open Skies, they can do so with a bilateral agreement or by joining the Open Skies Treaty.
The treaty gives the host nation three days' notice of an impending flight, but just 24 hours to review the flight plan. If host authorities suggest alterations in the flight altitude, timing, or path to accommodate civilian flight safety, they must also take compensating measures to facilitate the observation flight along the requested route.
The aircraft will carry sensors that, while not state-of-the-art, are certainly adequate for the task. Initially, optical cameras with a ground resolution of about one foot will produce pictures sufficient to discriminate tanks from tractors, but not always which type of tanks are spotted. Later, infrared detectors and synthetic aperture radars will be added to permit operations despite cloud cover, darkness, or inclement weather.
The Open Skies Treaty provides a new tool for cooperative security in the post-cold-war period. Unarmed overflights are about to join defensive military postures and the on-site inspections conducted under other arms-control agreements as ways to keep the peace in a multipolar world.
The price of instituting Open Skies will be the operation and maintenance of a few properly equipped C-135 aircraft - a cost that pales in comparison to the continued deployment of thousands of US troops abroad. Senators, this is the national-security equivalent of a blue-light special.