What is Open Skies Treaty? – Members Countries, Withdrawal (the Concepts)

By BYJU'S Exam Prep

Updated on: September 13th, 2023

The Open Skies Treaty has been in the news with the United States’ announcement to exit from it. The Open Skies Treaty allows unarmed surveillance flights over Russian, American, and several other countries’ territories. The United States announced the withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty, which acted for almost 30 years. This article is relevant for UPSC and other State PSC Exams.

What is Open Skies Treaty

The Open Skies Treaty allows thirty-four countries to conduct unarmed surveillance flights over one another’s territories, including the U.S. and Russia. With the signature in 1992, and the treaty came into effect in the year 2002. The Open Skies Treaty aimed to enhance mutual understanding and confidence by giving all participants, a direct role in gathering information through aerial imaging on military forces and activities of concern to them. This was regardless of the size of the territorial extent of the member country. 

Open Skies Treaty Member Countries

The Open Skies Treaty was eventually signed in 1992 between NATO members and former Warsaw Pact countries following the demise of the Soviet Union. 

  • The 34 open skies treaty member countries are Belgium, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, the U.K., and the U.S.
  • With now U.S. exit the open skies treaty member countries would be 33. Though Kyrgyzstan has signed, but it has not ratified the Open Skies Treaty.
  • The Open Skies Treaty came into entered into force on January 1, 2002, and 34 states were party to the Treaty, while a 35th Kyrgyzstan has signed but not ratified it. 



Why the U.S. withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty?

  • The USA has long been accused Russia of breaching its terms concerning OST. 
  • In the past, the U.S. had accused Russia to have imposed restrictions on flights near its exclave of Kaliningrad, an area between Poland and Lithuania where the Russian military maintains a robust presence.

What could be the possible implications of the USA’s withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty?

Russia argued that the pact would challenge European Security and harm the interest of U.S. allies. Meanwhile, Ambassador to NATO called for an urgent meeting to assess the consequences of the move, which could impact Europeans’ security. Germany’s Foreign Minister has even urged Washington reconsideration. 

Note: This is the third NATO armed pact that the U.S. is pulling out from, under the Trump Administration. 

  • Earlier, Trump administration had abandoned the Iran Nuclear Accord negotiation by former President Barack Obama. 
  • Last year the U.S. also left the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty because Russia was not adhering to the rules. 
  • The U.S. sudden pullout has now cast a shadow over another major arms treaty remaining with Russia which is called the ‘New Start’ Treaty
  • The New Start limits the U.S. and Russia to 1550 deployed nuclear missiles each (entered into force on February 5, 2011).   

How the Open Skies Treaty came into existence?

  • The Open Skies Treaty is an agreement that allows countries to monitor open skies treaty member countries’ arms development by conducting surveillance flights over each other’s territories. 
  • The idea of surveillance was first proposed during the early years of the Cold War by former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower.
  • The Open Skies Treaty came into existence decades later (when the Soviet Union had collapsed) and was signed in 1992 by the U.S. during the H.W. Bush Presidency. 
  • The Open Skies Treaty came into effect in 2002 under the George W. Bush administration.
  • The Open Skies Treaty allowed 34 signatories to conduct reconnaissance flights over the territory of treaty countries.

What is the purpose of the Open Skies Treaty?

  • The main objective of the Open Skies Treaty is to enhance military openness and transparency by providing each open skies treaty member country.
  • It was thought that greater military openness and transparency, the regional tensions will be reduced, thereby decreasing the probability of conflict.
  • The open skies treaty member countries are entitled to have a right to overfly the territory of other State Parties using unarmed observation aircraft.
  • By giving the rights to the open skies treaty member countries, it was believed that the nations that do not have access to sophisticated reconnaissance satellites, for such states, the Open Skies Treaty may serve as useful confidence- and security-building measure.

Role of the Open Skies Treaty

  • For nearly two decades, the open skies treaty allowed its open skies treaty member countries to gather information on each other’s military forces and activities through aerial surveillance. 
  • With 34 State Parties (still including the United States), the multilateral accord has facilitated 1517 short-notice and unarmed overflights.
  • Throughout its operation, the Open Skies Treaty has increased military transparency and predictability, helped build trust and confidence, and enhanced mutual understanding.

The procedure of the surveillance under the Open Skies Treaty

  • The surveillance mechanism works on the quota system. Each open skies treaty member country under the Open Skies regime is obliged to accept and is given the right to carry out, and agreed on the annual quota of observation flights. 
  • The quota system is based on the concept of a passive quota that is, the total number of annual observation flights by the other States Parties that each open skies treaty member country is obliged to accept over its territory as an observed party. 
  • Each open skies treaty member country also has an active quota, that is, the total number of annual observation flights each open skies treaty member country has the right to conduct as an observing party over the territories of the other States Parties.
  • General rules of the quota system:
  1. An open skies treaty member country’s active quota may never exceed its passive quota; that is, a State Party does not have the right to carry out more observation flights than it is obligated to receive.
  2. Each open skies treaty member country has the right to conduct a number of observation flights over another State Party that is equal to the number of observation flights which that other State Party has the right to conduct over it. 
  3. No State Party may conduct more observation flights over the territory of another State Party than a number equal to 50 percent of its own total active quota, or of the total passive quota of that other State Party, whichever is less.

Coverage of the Open Skies Treaty 

  • The Treaty will cover the national territories—land, islands, and internal and territorial waters—of all the States Parties, including the United States. 
  • This amounts to a land area and adjacent waters extending east from Vancouver to Paris to Vladivostok.
  • According to the Treaty, observation flights may be restricted only for reasons of flight safety, and not for reasons of national security.

The Open Skies Treaty is one of the three key documents that is aimed to enhance the transparency and openness of arms control in Europe. The other two are:

a. OCSE-Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe-Vienna Document  

  • It is one of the key confidence- and security-building measures developed by the OSCE. 
  • All the participating States are required to share information on their military forces, defence budgets, equipment and defence planning, etc. 
  • It also provides for inspections and evaluation visits, concerning the territory of any participating State with armed forces.

b. Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty

  • It limits no. of battle tanks, heavy artillery, combat aircraft and attack helicopters deployed and stored between Atlantic & Russia’s the Ural Mountains.  
  • The original CFE Treaty was negotiated among the then-22 member states of NATO and the Warsaw Pact in 1990.  
  • It was updated in Nov 1999 with leaders of 30 nations setting limits on conventional forces.  
  • Thereafter, the treaty came into force after ratification by all 30 signatory nations. 

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