A Russian spy plane will conduct surveillance flights over United States military installations this week — and the U.S. will just sit back and let the Russians do it. In fact, the U.S. military will actively help the Russian spy team conduct their flight mission.
What is going on?
While in the Cold War era, the United States and Russia conducted their military surveillance flights under a shroud of secrecy, using aircraft like the American U2, which could evade radar detection by flying at altitudes up to 70,000 feet — twice as high as a commercial airliner — shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and Russia signed the Open Skies Treaty.
The 22-year-old treaty — which did not take effect until 2002 with Russian finally ratifying the agreement in 2001 — allows each country to inspect the other's military facilities by running announced spy plane flights, under the supervision of the other country's representatives, along routes that are agreed in advance.
Russian spy plane flights will take off on December 8 and December 13 from Travis Air Force Base in Solano County, California, north of San Francisco. The flights will be the 37th and 38th Russian spy flights under the Open Skies Treaty so far in 2014, following two flights in November.
Of course, it is not only the Russians who spy on the United States, with full knowledge and cooperation of the U.S. military — U.S. aircraft run "Open Skies" missions over Russia on a regular basis, with full Russian cooperation.
The Open Skies treaty has rarely been considered newsworthy over the first decade of its existence. But in 2014, with the increasing tensions between Russia and the West, beginning with the Ukraine crisis and Russia's annexation of Crimea earlier in the year, as well as the dramatically increased frequency of Russian jets confronting NATO fighters in the skies, the very existence of the treaty seems startling.
"Most of the world has no idea this treaty even exists," said Navy Cmdr. Chris "Half" Nelson, who commands United States Open Skies spy flights over Russia. "Whenever I mention that Russians fly aircraft over the U.S. taking pictures, it blows people's minds."
By mid-November, the U.S. had run 17 Open Skies spy plane missions over Russia this year — and two over war-torn Ukraine, which is also part of the Open Skies treaty.
The Ukraine missions appear especially risky after a commercial airliner, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, was shot down over Ukraine in July, killing all 298 on board. But Nelson said that the U.S. flights went of smoothly.
The Russian spy plane flying over the United States this week will be a Tupelov Tu-154M-LK-1, similar to the plane shown in the photo above.