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Keeping the Skies Open: Defending the Open Skies Treaty

The checkered history between Russia and the United States was arguably the most transformational relationship for world events in the second half of the twentieth century. The ideological struggle between communism and capitalism waged under the dark cloud of potential nuclear annihilation led to the development of several arms control agreements like the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) and START (Strategic Arms Reduction) treaties.

US, Russia, and EU Flags, Wikimedia Commons
US, Russia, and EU Flags, Wikimedia Commons

These treaties were meant to better report, monitor, and sometimes limit the amount or types of nuclear weapons that the countries could possess. The Open Skies Treaty is another example of an arms control treaty oriented more towards the control and transparency of both nuclear and conventional forces in Europe, Russia, and the United States.

The use of dated camera technology became a hot button issue that could potentially derail this important arms control treaty that allows all nations to view the positions of military forces and facilities. During this time, Greg Delawie served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance at the State Department. He was in charge of making sure the United States and other signatories to the treaties upheld their commitments. To do this, Delawie had to navigate unfamiliar technology and continuously defend the treaty both from those within the U.S. government that believed the treaty should no longer exist as well as from Russian threats to pull out of the agreement. Here is his story . . . .

Greg Delawie’s interview was conducted by Mark Tauber on February 19, 2019.

Read Greg Delawie’s interview HERE.

Drafted by Ryan Jensen

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Excerpts:

“The OST [Open Skies Treaty] was one of the foundational elements of conventional arms control in Europe because it gave, especially our European partners, the ability to at relatively low cost conduct aerial monitoring of Russian military deployments.”

           
Russian Airforce, Wikimedia Commons
Russian Airforce, Wikimedia Commons

Open Skies and Arms Control: Another big conventional arms control issue was the Open Skies Treaty. Just to avoid confusion, there are two different and completely unrelated treaties using the title “open skies’… I had worked on such a treaty with Italy earlier in my career; the other “open skies treaty” is an arms control agreement that encompasses most of NATO, Russia, and a few other countries. It is an agreement on cooperative aerial monitoring. Basically under this open skies treaty, our country has the ability to overfly a partner country with an airplane that includes cameras and to take pictures of what’s going on down below. There are limits to how many flights you could have, to exactly what the cameras can do, and so on. Today I will only talk about the arms control version of the Open Skies Treaty (OST), not the civil aviation version.

The OST was one of the foundational elements of conventional arms control in Europe because it gave, especially our European partners, the ability to at relatively low cost conduct aerial monitoring of Russian military deployments. They can overfly Western Russia and take pictures of what Russian forces are up to. The plane then goes back home with the film for analysts to review. When the Treaty was negotiated 20 years ago, even up to today, it specified the use of regular film, basically like movie film, despite the fact we have had digital cameras on our phones for years now. So photo analysts, like those portrayed in the film Thirteen Days about the Cuban Missile Crisis, figure out what was going on when the pictures were taken. Most of our European partners don’t have satellites in orbit that have this capability.

So it was good for them to have this capability to overfly Russia and have their own data about what the heck was going on there. We of course use the treaty too. We have a couple of open skies planes, that are basically 707s that were heavily modified to include the camera and other sensors the treaty allows. The planes are operated by the Air Force and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). There are some capabilities that you can get from open skies that you cannot get from satellites; for example, under certain circumstances the plane can fly under clouds, whereas a satellite view is obscured by clouds.

…One of the key provisions of the treaty is that the country being overflown gets a copy of the film, so this gave Ukraine pictures of Eastern Ukraine it could use for various purposes. Open Skies flights are unclassified, as is the film…

“Because this is a film camera, the photo analysts that work on this use the same types of light tables that you saw in the Thirteen Days film.”

Smile for the Camera:…The photo analysts can get really useful information from this sometimes. Because this is a film camera, the photo analysts that work on this use the same types of light tables that you saw in the Thirteen Days film. In fact, I’ve seen them and they’re pretty old. Fortunately DTRA and DOD still employ people that understand how to look at a regular picture, not a computer picture, and learn stuff from it. So that’s the way the Open Skies treaty works, more or less. We and our Allies fly over Russia, they fly over the United States and European countries. Every once in a while this gets in the news with a headline like “Administration allows Russian spy plane to fly over the United States and take pictures.”

It is a decades old agreement. The idea originated in the Eisenhower Administration, the treaty was negotiated during the Bush 41 administration and came into force during the Bush 43 administration. It’s pretty straightforward. And the main thing to remember is that American technical experts from DTRA are on their plane when they’re over the United States. The Russians are on our plane when we’re over Russia. We wanted to maintain this, since the open skies treaty is a pillar of conventional arms control, but the 21st century was catching up to us. Russia wanted to get rid of the film camera and replace it with a digital version. The treaty basically put limits on what a camera could do, such as the resolution can only be so much. Of course any modern digital camera is probably going to exceed the resolution of whatever a 1990s-era treaty said.

“There were certainly people in the U.S. government who just didn’t want it to continue, felt that running the treaty cost us a lot of money that we could use for other things, and did not trust Russia.”

           
Defense Threat Agency, Wikimedia Commons
Defense Threat Agency, Wikimedia Commons

Negotiation and Opposition: So it turned out to be very difficult to negotiate this. There were certainly people in the U.S. government who just didn’t want it to continue, felt that running the treaty cost us a lot of money that we could use for other things, and did not trust Russia. Even though our DTRA experts get to wander all over the Russian plane before it flies over the United States, some people were not confident that we could find whatever the Russians were trying to hide in the plane. As often happens in the U.S. government, the people who opposed allowing Russia to use a digital camera started putting up all kinds of objections; some of them were reasonable and others were just specious efforts trying to snow policy people with technology. So I had to learn a lot so I could figure out which objections were reasonable and needed to be dealt with, and which were specious. There was a U.S. Government policy decision that the treaty was going to continue and be accommodated to the 21st century, which basically meant that we would have to accept the replacement of the old film cameras with digital cameras; at least one of our NATO Allies also wanted to replace its Open Skies film camera with a digital camera as well, so it was not just the Russians that cared about the issue.

Q: In essence, a better camera but not one as good as on a satellite and so on.

DELAWIE:…Anyway, to defend this treaty I had to figure out a way to tell the difference between legitimate objections and dust thrown in the eyes by these opponents in the U.S. government. There was a fair amount of dust. It was really unfortunate. I’d still believed in the one team, one mission theme that Colin Powell always emphasized when he was our secretary of state, and that the U.S. government should work together. And once a decision is made it’s incumbent on career people to implement that decision; unfortunately that doesn’t really happen all the time in the government. So some of these people were just trying to snow non-experts with technology gibberish and it was a shame that that was going on.

Q: Was the opposition coming from within the department, from other offices or from other agencies?

DELAWIE: Other agencies. I ended up spending an awful lot of time in my three years in AVC on the open skies treaty basically defending it from opponents within the U.S. government; it still exists today.

“And our European partners really wanted to keep the Open Skies Treaty afloat. Because many of them did not have other ways of getting overhead imagery of what was going on in Russia.”

Q: Did you succeed in the end in changing the cameras to a digital one?

Keeping the Skies Open: DELAWIE: It was the Russians that had a digital camera. I wanted a digital camera for our plane too of course; the estimates on how much that would cost were unfortunately in the $1 billion range for DOD. Whatever happened with the U.S. plane happened after I left. But we eventually made an agreement to accept the Russian camera. We had to work with the allies because it was mostly their countries the plane would fly over. It would fly over the United States a couple of times a year. But it mostly flew over Europe; every participating country had to offer so many flights per year. I believe we ultimately made a deal that accepted the Russian digital camera.

The risk was always that if we didn’t agree, then they would just drop out of that treaty like they did the CFE [Conventional Forces in Europe] Treaty. And our European partners really wanted to keep the Open Skies Treaty afloat. Because many of them did not have other ways of getting overhead imagery of what was going on in Russia. Ultimately I think it worked out okay; the treaty still exists. And now it is less controversial in the United States. But I had to learn so much about computers and digital photography in order to, as the DAS, stave off these attacks on the treaty; it was almost as hard as learning another language…

…Some of the opponents of the treaty in the U.S. government went to congressional staffers to get them spun up about the treaty, always with the thought that the Russians would be flying spy planes over the United States and we couldn’t possibly trust them to live within the terms of the treaty. I objected to this for a couple of reasons. First, if Russia did cheat and our DTRA experts found out about it, then that would be really bad for them. And secondly, I knew that the DTRA people who were engineers and who got to crawl over the Russian plane before it did anything in the United States were incredibly talented people. If it was possible to find something on their plane, I was confident that they would find it, if it was something that was not allowed by the treaty, some kind of collection device. Also, we had to keep in mind the Russians have spy satellites, they over fly the United States, all hours of the day. The main benefit for the United States and for Russia of the Open Skies Treaty is not really the intelligence collection, but the cooperative monitoring aspect. I was always dubious of claims that the Russians could learn stuff from this airplane based on the treaty limits that they couldn’t learn some other way.

Q: Once again, just a clarification here, you’re talking about a question, a small modification to the treaty from the point of view of the Russians. Were the people who opposed this in the U.S. government also opposed to the entire treaty? In other words, were they saying we should really just, um, give notice and leads to the treaty?

DELAWIE: It was hard for them to say that because there had already been a policy decision that we would try to keep the treaty going. Now certainly there were people that believed that in the U.S. government and some of them just thought, it’s not worth the cost, I don’t know how many millions of dollars a year to keep the plane and the crew working when they could be doing something else. But it was hard to say that because there was already a policy decision that we keep going, and therefore they had to try to find other ways of derailing the treaty. By about the time I left AVC in 2015, we did get unanimous agreement among the treaty partners, us and the Russians and the Euro’s, procedures for using a digital camera. That meant it had to be agreed in the U.S. government as well.

TABLE OF CONTENT HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in Economics from Harvard University
Joined the Foreign Service in 1983
Zagreb, Croatia—Deputy Chief of Mission 2004–2007
Berlin, Germany—Deputy Chief of Mission 2009–2012
Washington, D.C.—Deputy Assistant Secretary for Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance 2012–2015
Pristina, Kosovo—Ambassador 2015–2018