Air Force officials at Offutt Air Force Base and in the Pentagon told The World-Herald that no move has been made to sell or scrap two Offutt-based jets tasked with flying photo reconnaissance missions under the international Open Skies Treaty.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo finalized U.S. withdrawal from the pact Sunday, six months after giving notice to the 33 other member nations, including Canada, Russia and most nations in Europe, of the planned pullout.
“United States withdrawal from the Treaty on Open Skies is now effective,” Pompeo said in a tweet.
The Trump administration proceeded with its plans although President-elect Joe Biden had said when he was running that the U.S. should remain in the treaty.
The Wall Street Journal — quoting an unnamed “senior U.S. official” — reported over the weekend that the Trump administration has moved to declare the two aging OC-135 aircraft that fly the mission as “excess defense articles” and will sell them or scrap them.
MSNBC host Rachel Maddow amplified those claims on her program Monday, citing the Journal’s reporting.
“The Trump administration has decided to destroy the airplanes that support the treaty,” she said. “They’re destroying the planes — and they’ve made sure there won’t be any new ones to replace them.”
But Ryan Hansen, a 55th Wing spokesman, said in a statement that the 55th Wing hasn’t been directed to dispose of the OC-135s.
“Nothing has changed,” he said. “The 45th Reconnaissance Squadron is still flying the planes, at a greatly reduced rate, as they have been doing for several months now.”
A statement from the Air Force said no decision has been made about the future of the two planes.
“The Air Force continues to assess options for realigning, repurposing, or retiring the two 1960s-era OC-135B aircraft, as well as other associated equipment in accordance with DoD guidance,” the statement said.
The treaty was signed in 1992 with broad bipartisan support and took effect in 2002. It allows member nations to fly supervised aerial photo flights over one another’s territory.
All imagery is shared among treaty members, and all routes are approved in advance. U.S. observers fly on Russia’s planes, and vice versa.
The U.S. OC-135s are among the oldest and most breakdown-prone jets in the Air Force fleet. Nebraska’s all-Republican congressional delegation championed successful efforts to include $158 million in the 2019 and 2020 Defense Department budget, along with provisions requiring the Trump administration to give notice and justification to Congress if it decides to leave the treaty.
Last spring, the Trump administration announced plans to leave the treaty, alleging Russian violations. Then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in July that he would redirect the funding for the replacement Open Skies jets to other projects.
Congress has included language condemning that act in its proposed Defense Department authorization bill for 2021, but it’s not clear if that will make it into the final version.
Although the Air Force says it so far has made no decision about the fate of the planes, Steffan Watkins, an Ottawa-based blogger who writes frequently about the Open Skies Treaty, said it wouldn’t matter if the U.S. planes were scrapped. That’s because the U.S. can, and frequently does, fly joint missions with Open Skies partners on their planes.
“They can still ride with any of their allies,” Watkins said.
Very few treaty flights have been flown in 2020, in part because of the pandemic and in part because of the U.S. pullout.
Watkins said the Vienna-based committee that runs the treaty met in October to set up flights for 2021. The U.S. won’t be included next year, even if the Biden administration decides to try to reenter the treaty.
“If the U.S. were in the treaty,” Watkins said, “they would still be sitting on the sidelines.”
World-Herald researcher Sheritha Jones contributed to this report.