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US spy plane, with 6 Russians, flies over Russia in first surveillance mission since 2017

An OC-135B aircraft sits on an airfield at Ulan-Ude, Russia prior to an Open Skies flight. (Defense Threat Reduction Agency/Released)
February 22, 2019

U.S. military planes are making surveillance flights over Russia this week for the first time since Nov. 2017.


The Pentagon confirmed that an OC-135B surveillance plane is flying over Russia as a part of the Open Skies Treaty, NBC News reported Thursday.


“The United States is currently conducting an Open Skies Treaty observation flight over Russia,” said Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Jamie Davis.


The Open Skies Treaty went into effect in 2002, permitting its 34 member nations to conduct surveillance flights over one another’s territories for transparency and goodwill.

The U.S. specifically retrofitted the OC-135B variant to be certified for Open Skies missions.

“Russia is aware of the flight,” said Davis. “The appropriate notification was made to all States Parties according to Treaty requirements on Feb. 12, 2019, and confirmed subsequently in accordance with Treaty notifications. In addition, per Treaty procedures, six Russian Federation observers are on board the U.S. aircraft to monitor all phases of the flight.”

Several months earlier, the U.S. and Russia butted heads on Open Skies flights amid tensions.

In September, Russian officials argued that the U.S. rejected requests to certify Russian planes to conduct surveillance over the U.S., Defense News reported at the time.

“In breach of the Open Skies Treaty provisions, the head of the US delegation refused to sign the final document, without giving any explanations or reasons, and citing direct instructions from Washington,” Chief of Russia’s Nuclear Risk Reduction Center Sergei Ryzhkov told TASS.

“We insist that the US side return to the Open Skies Treaty framework and demand that the current situation be explained with reference to the treaty’s provisions,” he added.

Andrea Thompson, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told Defense News in September that Russian flights had not been denied when they were in accordance with the treaty.

“It’s at an impasse, but we’re having discussions. There are some things that Russia needs to do to get back into compliance with that,” she said at the time, adding that consultations with technical experts would be required before approval.

Days later, experts conducted reviews and inspections of the Russian plane and voted to certify it.

The U.S. is permitted to conduct 16 annual surveillance flights over Russia out of 42 permitted by all member nations. It did not conduct any flights over Russia in 2018, however, due to the “impasse” in treaty talks.