Congress

Hill leaders look to block upgrade in Russian surveillance gear

Russian Tupelov Tu154 

The Russian Tupelov Tu-154. Photo credit: Andrey Khachatryan / Shutterstock.com.

Russia is looking to upgrade the digital cameras used in surveillance overflights of the U.S. permitted under the Open Skies Treaty. However, some key House leaders are hoping to block U.S. approval of the new gear, which is required under the terms of the treaty.

"In recent years, instead of using the Treaty for its intended purpose, Russia has been using its Open Skies flights to expand its espionage capabilities," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) wrote in a June 14 letter to President Obama.

Admiral Cecil Haney, the commander for U.S. Strategic Command, has alleged that Russia has been using the treaty as a key "component" for collecting intelligence information used against the U.S.

The members of Congress, citing such opinions, expressed concern that the administration will allow Russia to "significantly upgrade the sensors" on such flights, allowing them to collect more data and information on U.S. activities.

"Allowing Russia to upgrade the sensors used in these flights to digital technology would only make this worse… We urge you to heed the advice of senior military personnel and other officials and reject this Russian request while examining modern alternatives to these flights," the lawmakers said.

Russia is proposing to upgrade from film-based surveillance cameras to digital. President Obama must agree to the changes before any upgrades can take place. An inter-agency review process that includes the State Department, the Pentagon, and the intelligence community is expected to produce a recommendation later this month.

The Open Skies treaty spans 34 countries, and allows participants to conduct aerial surveillance on one other. The goal is to give countries mutual understanding and transparency about ground-level military activity.

However, Russia has not always played by the rules, according to U.S. officials. Rose E. Gottemoeller, the State Department's undersecretary of arms control and international security, testified in December 2015 that the U.S. is troubled by Russia's Open Skies implementation, "in particular, with Russia’s continued denial or restriction of observation flights over portions of Russian territory."

Military officials are concerned that Russia will use more advanced camera and mapping capabilities to conduct espionage on the U.S. homeland.

"The things you can see, the amount of data you can collect, the things you can do with post-processing using digital technologies allows Russia in my opinion to get incredible foundational intelligence on critical infrastructure, bases, ports, all of our facilities," Lt. General Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said in March 2 testimony on Capitol Hill.

The lawmakers urged the president to deny Russia's request on upgrading sensors and instead, transition over to commercial satellite imagery which "may provide the confidence building measures and level of transparency that all signatories, including our allies and partners, envisioned at the outset of the Treaty while minimizing Russia’s opportunities for abuse and obstruction."

When contacted for comment, administration officials would say only that "the White House is aware of the letter and will respond through appropriate channels."

About the Author

Aisha Chowdhry is a former staff writer for FCW.


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