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Withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty would ground Offutt reconnaissance jets

Withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty would ground Offutt reconnaissance jets

20181209_new_bushskies_offutt (copy)

The Trump administration gave formal notice Thursday that it plans to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty. Two Air Force OC-135B jets used on the missions are flown by crews from the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base. In this 2018 file photo, one of the planes is shown taxiing at Offutt.

The Trump administration on Thursday gave notice that it will pull out of the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, a move that would permanently ground two Offutt-based photo reconnaissance jets used to enforce the accord.

The treaty allows the U.S., Russia and 32 other nations — mostly European countries — to conduct supervised, unarmed observation flights over one another’s territory. The flights began in 2002; more than 1,500 have been flown since.

The planes carry expensive cameras, called sensors, built to specifications strictly regulated by the treaty. The U.S. aircraft, 60-year-old OC-135B jets, are maintained by the 55th Wing and flown by crews from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron at Offutt. The mission crews that operate the cameras and analyze the imagery are from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency in Virginia.

On Thursday, the administration told international partners that it wants out of the treaty because Russia is violating the pact. It said imagery collected during the flights can be obtained quickly at less cost from U.S. or commercial satellites.

Thursday’s notification indicates that the U.S. will formally exit the treaty in six months. It follows an eight-month Defense Department review.

Questioned by reporters in Washington, President Donald Trump left the door open for further talks with Russia on the treaty. He said Russia and the U.S. “have a very good relationship” right now and speculated that Russia might ask to renegotiate the pact.

“There’s a very good chance we’ll make a new agreement, or do something to put that agreement back together,” Trump said.

The pullout has been opposed by Trump’s fellow Republicans in Nebraska’s congressional delegation.

“I think it’s a mistake we’re pulling out,” said Rep. Don Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general who once commanded the 55th Wing. “The most important thing is that our allies want it. Our more junior NATO partners rely on this imagery.”

The treaty has its roots in an idea first proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s that was rejected by the Soviets. President George H.W. Bush resurrected the idea at the end of the Cold War, and his administration negotiated the treaty.

Open Skies enjoyed bipartisan support until several years ago, when a faction of Republicans alleged that Russia has been leveraging it to gain an unfair advantage over the U.S. and began efforts to scuttle the treaty.

The critics have cited Russia’s restrictions of flights along the border with the neighboring Republic of Georgia, where pro-Russian breakaway governments have declared independence. The Russians have also restricted the length of flights over Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea that is packed with military sites.

But the treaty’s defenders say it is still valuable, especially to our allies, by letting them keep an eye on one another. It also keeps NATO militaries working together, as most U.S. missions are flown in partnership with other countries.

Nebraska’s Republican congressional delegation has joined with Democrats in supporting the treaty. Bacon, Sen. Deb Fischer and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry have led efforts to secure funding for replacements for the aged OC-135Bs, which were built by Boeing at the dawn of the jet age.

The Trump administration’s budget justification document says the OC-135Bs have experienced “decreasing mission reliability due to age, difficulties with out-of-production parts, and increased operating costs.” The document said that because of failures in their engines, fuel systems, landing gear, generators and airframes, the planes have completed just 65% of their missions between 2007 and 2017.

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“By not recapitalizing the Open Skies aircraft, we are adding risk to our aircrews,” Bacon said. “The current aircraft are old, have bad maintenance rates and are prone to breakdown in Russia, putting our crews in bad situations where they are harassed by Russian authorities.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper toured one of the planes and spoke with crew members during a February visit to Offutt.

Congress has appropriated at least $41.5 million for replacing the jets in its 2020 budget. About $250 million is needed.

In March, Esper halted the bidding process on the two new aircraft, which were slated for delivery starting in 2024, citing uncertainty over whether the U.S. would continue in the treaty.

Last winter, Fischer, Bacon and Fortenberry persuaded Congress to include a provision in the Defense Authorization Act requiring the administration to give 120 days notice to Congress and provide other justifications before it could withdraw from the treaty.

Bacon said Thursday that he’s not aware that the Pentagon has complied.

“We expect them to follow it,” he said.

Bacon’s Democratic opponent, Kara Eastman, also criticized the Trump administration’s action. She said she thought that Bacon should oppose it more forcefully.

“Our allies in Europe have urged us to stay in this pact but of course, Donald Trump is ignoring these important alliances,” she said in a statement.

Last month, top Democrats on the Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees in both the House and the Senate wrote to Trump, accusing the president of “ramming” a withdrawal from the treaty. They said it would undermine U.S. alliances with European nations that rely on the treaty to hold Russia accountable for its military activities in the region.

”The administration’s effort to make a major change to our national security policy in the midst of a global health crisis is not only shortsighted, but also unconscionable,” wrote Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J. “This effort appears intended to limit appropriate congressional consultation on, and scrutiny of, the decision.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

Offutt Air Force Base through the years

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