New “Open Skies” aircraft for the German Armed Forces

by Björn Müller (Facebook / Twitter; originally published in German). Björn is journalist in Berlin focusing on security policy and geopolitics.

An A319 from the Special Air Mission Wing of the Federal Ministry of Defence. The German Armed Forces want another aircraft of this type for “Open Skies”.

Last year, or more precisely the day before Christmas, the German Armed Forces placed their tender for their future “Open Skies” aircraft on (no longer online). It calls for a used Airbus A319CJ plus surveillance technology for flights as part of the Treaty on Open Skies. Up until now Germany has leased aircraft to conduct its surveillance flights in line with the treaty.

The idea behind “Open Skies” is conflict prevention through confidence building. Those who have a constant view of other parties’ military equipment with surveillance flights feel safer in calculating their own military policy. This should reduce the danger of arms races and war. The total transparency of the “Open Skies” arrangement is of particular importance: there are standards for aircraft surveillance techniques. This is certified by all participating states and is constantly monitored. If, for example, the Russian Armed Forces fly over Germany, officers of the German Armed Forces are always present. The treaty was initiated by the Americans in 1992 and was signed by NATO countries and ex-Warsaw Pact states (see box below). There are currently 43 member states including Germany, Russia, Poland and Turkey. However, of the 34 members only ten states operate their own aircraft. Many flights are made in cooperation or through leasing. Otherwise aerial photographs are simply purchased from interested states.

“Open Skies” was originally brought into discussion by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955 as an intelligence-led and confidence-building measure. However, the Soviet Union rejected the proposal and considered such flyovers as espionage. In May 1989 US President George H. W. Bush took up “Open Skies” once more. In the intervening years the US and the Soviet Union had been collecting intelligence-led information using satellites – aircraft flyovers are no different except that they are cheaper to carry out. The treaty was signed on 24 March 1992 by 26 countries from NATO and the Warsaw Pact under the aegis of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). However, it only came into force in May 2001 after Russia and Belarus completed the ratification process. The Open Skies Consultative Commission (OSCC) is the body responsible for the development and implementation of the Treaty on Open Skies.

The Bundestag has approved 60 million Euros for the acquisition of an “Open Skies” aeroplane. The German Federal Ministry of Defence (BMVg) estimated that the operating costs will be five to six million Euros per year. The aircraft should be ready for operation in 2018. According to the German Armed Forces verification centre, which is responsible for “Open Skies”, the aircraft’s first surveillance flights are expected to be carried out in 2019. In budgetary terms, apparently 40 million Euros has already been planned for in order to cover the first few years of operation. The whole “Open Skies” package would then have a total budget of 100 million Euros. The author could not clarify whether or not this will be the case.

The reason behind wanting to acquire an Airbus is that the BMVg would like to have a homogeneous fleet and the majority of their military aircraft already in operation are from Airbus. A spokesman from the BMVg told the author: “The platform to be procured should, as far as possible, correspond to the aircraft already in use by the German Armed Forces in order to minimise costs and exploit operational synergies such as aeronautical and technical logistical aspects.”

The German Federal Foreign Office, the political front of “Open Skies” in Germany, describes the range of tasks for the “Open Skies” machine: “In addition to its main surveillance task, the aircraft’s spare capacity could be used for subordinate tasks like MEDEVAC (medical evacuations), GeoInfo data collection, military transportation and to assist in emergency response for the German Armed Forces. It should, however, primarily serve its intended purpose by playing an active role in the Treaty on Open Skies.”

On board a Russian TU-154M during an “Open Skies Flight” over Canada on 28 May 2008 (Creative Commons Attribution – No Derivative Works licence).

Even before the treaty came into force 18 years ago, the German Armed Forces had an “Open Skies” machine – a Tupolev 154M from the fleet of the National People’s Army (NPA) of the German Democratic Republic. It collided with a US Airforce Lockheed C-141 Starlifter on 13 September 1997 over the Atlantic approximately 120 km west of Namibia. Twenty-one members of the German Armed Forces lost their lives, together with two of their wives and a technician from Elbe Flugzeugwerke (see “Kleine Anfrage der Abgeordneten Angelika Beer und der Fraktion BÜNDNIS 90/DIE GRÜNEN: Absturz der Tupolev TU-154M am 13. September 1997“, Deutscher Bundestag, Drucksache 13/8746, 06.10.1997). At the time it was decided not to purchase a replacement immediately. The reason: political motivation was lacking. The NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed in the same year as the crash, the climax of the rapprochement between Russia and the West. It was no longer politically fashionable to invest larger sums of money in arms control. In addition German Armed Forces even then wanted a homogeneous fleet. Another mothballed “NPA Tupolev” was ready to be equipped immediately for “Open Skies” but this was not used. In 1999, the second German Armed Forces Tupolev was sold to a Bulgarian airline. A general braking mechanism for “Open Skies” over the years is that politically the German Federal Foreign Office is in charge of “Open Skies”, however budgetary and technological implementation is run by the German Ministry of Defence. It is understandable that the latter have no particular interest in supporting “Open Skies”.

A crew member aboard a US Boeing OC-135B. The latest technology from the 1960s is used for “Open Skies Flights” such as this film spool. Nevertheless, it is definitely a workable solution.

The Black-Red coalition wrote in their agreement in 2013 that Germany wants to strengthen its arms control – and, among other things, to purchase a new “Open Skies” aircraft. They had to put their money where their mouth is in the Ukraine crisis and in the escalating conflict between NATO and Russia.

The deciding factor was the fact that in 2016 Germany presides over the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE is the only security organisation with members from both NATO countries and Russia. The Open Skies Consultative Commission (OSCC) is responsible for “Open Skies” and is connected to the OSCE. At times when highly political forums such as NATO are blocked on convergence strategies, politics remembers the “wall flowers” of security policy such as the “Open Skies” arms control instrument. In addition, the investment from the German side was probably made due to concerns over the operational ability of “Open Skies”. Most of the aircraft currently in use are between 30 and 50 years old. The camera technology used for surveillance is still mainly non-digital. In the budgeting justification by the grand coalition it states: “[…] the Federal Republic relies on leasing and joint usage of aircraft by partner nations. Due to retirements and lengthy modernisation processes, these capacities will decrease to such an extent that the rights arising from the Open Skies Treaty are no longer guaranteed to be fully exercised.”

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This entry was posted in Björn Müller, English, International, International law, Security Policy.

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