AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy – Not too long ago, the notion of the U.S. military announcing an intention to fly over a specific part of Russia and take thousands of pictures would have led to increased tensions, at the very least.

But that’s what 25 American servicemembers did recently, with counterparts from the Czech Republic – and the Russian military – on board.

The flight, scheduled to focus on environs around Moscow, was part of the Open Skies treaty, a pact signed in 1992 that includes 34 countries who were allies or adversaries during the Cold War.

“Every week of the year almost, countries are flying over countries as part of the treaty,” said Marine Maj. Keith Oki, deputy mission commander for the latest U.S. flight over Russia. He and some other crew members are assigned to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Others came along from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.

The OC-135B that stopped in Aviano recently looked more like something used to convey U.S. diplomats around, with “The United States of America” in large letters across a white surface. “Open Skies” is painted on the tail. Inside, it looks more like a military aircraft, though the technology is, surprisingly, not the latest available.

The three cameras on board use wet film and aren’t capable of capturing images in minute detail, especially from 20,000 to 35,000 feet.

“This is vintage 1960s technology that we’re using here,” Air Force Master Sgt. Chad Duffield, one of several linguists fluent in Russian, said with a smile during a tour.

Oki said pictures are good enough to help verify some treaties, though.

“You can tell a tank from a school bus,” he said. “You might be able to fly over a base and see that they have 150 tanks, but you can’t tell what model they are or what modifications may have been made on them.”

The U.S. has other assets – such as satellites –that probably can gather much more intelligence, said Owen R. Cote Jr., associate director of the MIT Security Studies Program.

“In terms of material gains, (Open Skies aircraft) probably don’t gain a lot,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s mostly symbolic. But being symbolic … I guess that’s really the whole point.”

The flights and the treaty are designed to increase trust between those participating, crewmembers said. There wasn’t a lot of trust between the U.S. and Soviet Union when President Dwight Eisenhower first proposed the idea in the 1950s, and it was rejected. But President George H.W. Bush found a more receptive atmosphere in 1992 when he suggested that not only the U.S. and Russia enter into the agreement, but other countries as well.

Oki said Russia flies over the most countries. Because countries are supposed to open all their territory, some unusual routes can occur. One Russian flight a few years ago went directly over the White House, Oki said, which U.S. aircraft are not authorized to do.

The U.S. has 16 missions scheduled in 2010 – all over Russia or former Soviet countries. Each time, the U.S. tells the host country where it wants to fly, lands in a host country airport and has the aircraft and its equipment inspected.

The signatories agreed on specifications for the cameras and other equipment and don’t use anything else. To make sure of that, members of the host country go along for the ride. The host country is provided with a copy of every frame taken during the flight.

A typical mission might produce anywhere from 2,000 to 3,500 frames. Any other signatory can also obtain copies, though they’re not available to the public, Oki said.

Crewmembers said countries are in the process of negotiating the potential use of digital cameras and newer technology. There’s also the possibility of including countries such as China or India.

author picture
Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.

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