Today marks the start of a series of ‘Open Skies’ flights by a Russian surveillance aircraft over the UK that will last two days.
The UK is party to international conventional arms control agreements and confidence building measures, the agreement being utilised today is called ‘Open Skies’ which came into force in January 2002 and currently has 34 signatory nations.
Open Skies aircraft may have video, optical panoramic and framing cameras for daylight photography, infra-red line scanners for a day/night capability, and synthetic aperture radar for a day/night all weather capability. Photographic image quality will permit recognition of major military equipment (e.g., permit a State Party to distinguish between a tank and a lorry), allowing significant transparency of military forces and activities. Sensor categories may be added and capabilities improved by agreement among States Parties. All sensors used in Open Skies must be commercially available to all signatories. Imagery resolution is limited to 30 centimetres.
According to the UK Government:
“Open Skies establishes a program of unarmed aerial surveillance flights over the territory of its participants and is aimed at building confidence and familiarity through participation in over flights. It is under this agreement that the Russian military will fly an Antonov (unarmed photography aircraft) from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire where RAF personnel join the aircraft to monitor the flight as it flew across the UK.
The routes are first pre-approved by the MOD and RAF and then flown as per the flight plan. Such sorties are commonplace, reciprocal and have been going on for many years, the UK recently conducted our own flights over Russia. When Open Skies flights occur over the UK, we always have RAF representatives onboard – and the UK always gets to see all the photos which were taken on the flight.
So why do we do it? The opportunity to observe each other’s territories is invaluable for transparency and the development of international trust between nations. In addition, aside from observing their work in the sky, we also get to interact professionally and to learn more about the culture of the nation in question; in this instance interacting with our Russian counterparts.”
It is not currently known whether the Russian surveillance aircraft will be of the type pictured above or the smaller An-30 aircraft pictured below.
Observation aircraft may be provided by either the observing Party or (the “taxi option”) by the observed Party, at the latter’s choice. All Open Skies aircraft and sensors must pass specific certification and pre-flight inspection procedures to ensure that they are compliant with treaty standards. The official certified US Open Skies aircraft is the OC-135B Open Skies.
Canada uses a C-130 Hercules aircraft equipped with a “SAMSON” sensor pod to conduct flights over other treaty nations. The pod is a converted CC-130 fuel tank modified to carry the permitted sensors, along with associated on-board mission systems. A consortium of nations consisting of Belgium, Netherlands, Luxemburg, Canada, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain own and operate this system.
Bulgaria, Romania, Russia and Ukraine use the Antonov An-30 for their flights. The Czech Republic also used to use the An-30 for this purpose but they apparently retired all of theirs from service in 2003.
Russia also use a Tu-154M-ON Monitoring Aircraft. Germany formerly used this type as well until the aircraft was lost in a 1997 accident. Russia is phasing out both An-30 and Tu-154M-ON and replacing them with two Tu-214ON serial numbers RA-64519 and RA-64525.
Sweden uses a Saab 340 aircraft (“OS-100”) that was certified in 2004.
Until 2008, UK designated aircraft was an Andover C.1(PR) aircraft, serial number XS596. Since then the UK has used a variety of aircraft including a Saab 340, An-30, and an OC-135.