Russia is flying reconnaissance across America as US struggles to stay in the air

Boeing’s OC-135B is not getting it done.
Boeing’s OC-135B is not getting it done.
Image: Reuters/Mikhail Chernichkin
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Russia’s new Tu-214ON aircraft has been flying its first-ever reconnaissance missions over large swaths of the US as part of the Open Skies Treaty, a Cold War-era agreement that allows short-notice, unarmed observation flights to monitor military operations and verify arms-control agreements.

The flights of the Russian jet—the first over the US for this model—have been tracked this week over some of America’s most sensitive government sites, including two nuclear research labs. “The Russian aircraft will carry out the flight according to the route agreed with the observed party,” Russia’s Ministry of Defense said in a statement. “US experts on board will monitor the procedure for using the observation equipment and compliance with the provisions stipulated by the agreement.”

While Moscow hasn’t reported any problems with its Open Skies missions, it appears the US can’t keep up.

A US Air Force acquisitions document reviewed by Quartz explains that the aging Boeing OST OC-135B observation aircraft the US uses to monitor Russian territory are not capable of fulfilling their mandate.

The plane’s range is “too short to safely execute desired mission options within the 96-hour Treaty in-country observation time constraint,” the document says, adding that there are “extreme ranges between some Open Skies airfields and desired observation areas.”

This won’t be an overnight fix—the Air Force says it hopes to have new, more able aircraft flying “in the 2023 timeframe.”

Image for article titled Russia is flying reconnaissance across America as US struggles to stay in the air

Mechanical issues have plagued the US fleet of OC-135Bs, which are based on the Boeing 707 airframe. In 2017, the US completed only 64% of its scheduled Open Skies missions over Russia due to the limitations of the OC-135B, then-defense secretary James Mattis last year told senator Deb Fischer, the Nebraska Republican who chaired the Senate Subcommittee on Strategic Forces. “Other Treaty states parties, including Russia, typically complete 100 percent of their scheduled missions,” Mattis wrote.

A 2018 investigation by the Omaha World-Herald revealed widespread mechanical issues with the OC-135Bs, forcing the planes to abbreviate 500 missions since 2016—and one out of every 12 missions since 2015. “It has one of the worst maintenance rates in the United States Air Force,” Don Bacon, a Republican congressman from Nebraska, said at the time. “It frequently breaks down in Russia, putting us in very hostile, awkward situations with Russians at their bases.”

Right now, the OC-135B has an 85% reliability rating, according to the Air Force. The new planes should reach 90%, it says, and their range extended from 7,200 kilometers (about 4,500 miles) to 9,200 km (about 5,700 miles) They should also be able to take off and land on runways up to 1,000 feet shorter.

US military officials have complained that Russia has exceeded the boundaries of the Open Skies agreement. In 2016, the US limited Russia’s overflight privileges, prohibiting its aircraft from entering airspace above the Navy’s Pacific Fleet in Hawaii and missile-defense interceptor sites in Fort Greeley, Alaska.

The Air Force has not yet responded to a request for comment.