USAF jet makes emergency landing in Russia – and everyone stays calm

Despite landing in an airfield that is not normally used as a point of exit under the Open Skies Treaty, the countries handled the bomber’s emergency landing well, according to the Pentagon.

Vadim Ghirda/AP/File
A military plane of the US led coalition flies above the Syrian town of Kobani, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border. A malfunctioning US observational plane had a surprising, but harmonious, landing in a Russian city on Wednesday.

Despite heightened tensions between the United States and Russia, a treaty aimed at improving military transparency worked according to plan when the United States military landed a malfunctioning OC-135B observation aircraft in the Russian airfield of Khabarovsk. 

"On July 27, a U.S. Open Skies Treaty observation aircraft took off from Russian airfield Ulan Ude to begin a Treaty observation flight but the aircraft landing gear did not fully retract," Lt. Col. Michelle L. Baldanza, a Pentagon spokesperson, said in an emailed statement to Fox News.

First proposed by US President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955 and now signed by 34 nations, the Open Skies Treaty allows unarmed observation aircraft to conduct surveillance flights over participants' territories to collect information on military activities, with an aim toward "increasing mutual understanding of military forces and activities, thus easing tensions and strengthening confidence and security" in the words of President George H.W. Bush, who signed the treaty in 1992. The treaty came into effect in 2002.

Khabarovsk is not normally used to exit the country under the Open Skies Treaty. The unarmed military plane landed safely in Khabarovsk "so the aircraft could exit Russia in the most direct route possible," Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Michelle L. Baldanza told CNN. "Due to aircraft performance limitations associated with summer temperatures and the landing gear malfunction, the Khabarovsk runway represented the only safe location to land." 

As part of the treaty, Russian officials were on board.

“Khabarovsk is a frequently utilized Open Skies Airfield, designated by Russia for treaty purposes, but it is not normally a 'point of exit' for treaty missions,” Ms. Baldanza said. The flight left Russian crewmembers in Khabarovsk and promptly departed for the US airbase in Japan to be repaired.

“Open Skies is one of the most wide-ranging international arms control efforts to date to promote openness and transparency in military forces and activities,” the US Department of State writes on its webpage.

The plane was not able to complete its mission. Russians on the flight verified that no imagery was collected during the trip.

In April, a US military plane had a different encounter with Russia. Russia intercepted a U.S. Air Force RC-135 plane flying a routine route because it had turned off its transponder, and was thus unidentifiable.

The Pentagon called the interception “unsafe and unprofessional.”

"The U.S. Air Force has two solutions: either not to fly near our borders or to turn the transponder on for identification,” the Russian Defence Ministry said in a statement.

A conflict over the Open Skies Treaty also arose in February when Russia announced plans to add a digital electro-optical sensor to its Tupolev Tu-154 observational aircraft.

This could give Russia an edge over other countries in how much information it collects during routine observational rounds. Certification of the sensor, however, is a lengthy and technical process, the State Department writes.

“The Treaty outlines procedures for certification of sensors, including a range of technical steps necessary to ensure that a sensor/aircraft combination complies with the Treaty imagery resolution limits.”

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