President Trump’s nominee to lead U.S. Strategic Command declined to endorse a U.S. withdrawal from the Open Skies treaty, a multilateral arms control agreement that allows participants to fly unarmed surveillance flights over one another’s territory.
The Trump administration is weighing pulling out of the 1992 agreement, noting that Russia has for five years restricted Open Skies flights over its military hub in Kaliningrad, and has occasionally delayed permission for overflights. The U.S. has responded by restricting Russian flights over Hawaii and two air bases.
“It is important in any treaty or agreement for all parties to comply,” Vice Adm. Charles Richard told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing Thursday. But he would not bite when pressed by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who supports withdrawal, to make the case for withdrawal.
“We do derive some benefit from it, particularly with our allies,” Richard said. “We would need to make the appropriate resource and operational commitments to utilize the full provisions of the treaty if we were to remain, and I would just offer my best military advice if confirmed if a decision were to be reached.”
The United States’ sophisticated array of satellites is far more valuable to Washington’s intelligence-gathering efforts on Russia than the two aging Boeing aircraft flown out of Nebraska under Open Skies. But the treaty allows the United States to share data gathered through the program with Ukraine and allies under threat from Russia.
Some Republicans, including Cotton and House Armed Services Committee chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, see the deal as outdated and disadvantageous to the United States. “Vladimir Putin has violated the Open Skies Treaty for years while continuing to benefit from surveillance flights over the United States,” Cotton said in a statement earlier this month. “The president should withdraw from the Open Skies treaty and redeploy the hundreds of millions of dollars the Pentagon wastes on the flights and equipment to increase U.S. combat power.”
Other Republicans, such as Sen. Deb Fischer and Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, support continued U.S. participation. Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a 2018 letter to Fischer that it was in America’s “best interest” to remain in the treaty, citing its utility after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Democrats have raised alarm bells about the reported withdrawal plans, arguing that it would be a strategic gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Withdrawal risks dividing the transatlantic alliance and would further undermine America’s reliability as a stable and predictable partner when it comes to European security,” House Foreign Affairs chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said in a letter to national security advisor Robert O’Brien earlier this month.
Richard acknowledged that withdrawing from the treaty could hurt U.S. alliances.
“The primary negative to [withdrawal] I would put in the category of the assurance of our allies,” the three-star said. “We’re not the only signatory to that treaty—it provides valuable insight and partnership opportunities with our allies, but it does require us to make the capitol and resource investments to fully use the provisions inside that treaty and it does come at a counterintelligence cost to the United States.”
The treaty is also broadly supported by arms-control advocates.
“Abandoning the treaty would destroy concrete national security benefits,” wrote Alexandra Bell and Anthony Wier earlier this year. “It would deny the United States real-time, comprehensive images of Russian military facilities. It would pull the rug out from under long-standing U.S. allies. It would sap the confidence that is built through the treaty’s intense but cooperative implementation process.”
Richard appears poised to glide to an easy confirmation after Thursday’s relatively bloodless hearing.