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Nov. 14, 2019
Notes from the Pentagon

U.S. set to leave Open Skies pact
The Trump administration is moving ahead with plans to withdraw from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty over concerns Moscow has violated yet another arms control agreement.

President Trump has signed off on the decision but the withdrawal has not been announced publicly yet, according to two Trump administration officials.

“We continue to implement and are in full compliance with our obligations under the treaty, unlike Russia, which continues to be in violation of the treaty, to include overflight denials on recent missions,” a senior administration official told Inside the Ring.

The treaty includes 34 nations and has been praised by arms control advocates as an important tool for stability by permitting transparency. However, critics have called the treaty unfair because the United States has permitted Russian flights over sensitive U.S. and allied facilities, while Moscow has denied similar flights over its territory.

The Open Skies withdrawal would be the second arms treaty jettisoned under Mr. Trump. The Trump administration withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty in August, also citing Russian violations. A White House spokesman said the administration has nothing to announce on any plans to pull out of the treaty at the current time.

Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, recently sponsored legislation calling on the United States to pull out of the treaty, noting the Russian violations.

Russian violations of Open Skies were outlined in August in the State Department’s annual report on arms control treaty compliance.

The latest report states that Moscow violated the treaty by imposing a 300-mile limit over the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, where advanced Iskander missiles have been deployed and pose a threat to NATO allies. U.S. requests for overflights have been rejected by the Russians since 2017.

A second violation involves Russia’s refusal to permit observation flights in a 6-mile corridor along the Russian border with the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Flights near those regions have been banned since 2010.

The report said Russia has failed to resolved the violations despite bilateral talks since 2015.

To encourage Russian compliance, the United States took several treaty-compliant and reversible steps by limiting access to flights over the leeward Hawaiian islands to about 540 miles, according to the State Department report. Also, the United States stopped waiving certain Federal Aviation Administration rules for Open Skies flights and halted courtesy overnight accommodations at some U.S. Open Skies refueling airfields used for full territorial access.

Rather than return to compliance, Moscow announced it was taking further actions to restrict U.S. flights.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel wrote to White House National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien on Oct. 7 calling any treaty withdrawal a “reckless action.” The New York Democrat stated that U.S. relations with Russia had become more acrimonious and that interaction with Moscow is needed to avoid miscalculation.

“The United States should prepare for the challenge that Russia presents — not abandon mechanisms that provide the United States with an important tool in maintaining surveillance on Russia,” he said.

The news outlet Slate reported last month that President Trump has signed a document stating that the United States intends to withdraw from Open Skies.

Australia to buy B-21 bombers?
Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr. recently informed the Australian government that the United States would look favorably on a request to buy new strike aircraft.

“We have no intention of vacating our military or our geopolitical position, but we would be delighted to sell Australia more aircraft if that’s what suits your Department of Defense,” Mr. Ross told The Australian, a newspaper.

Mr. Ross did not specifically mention the Pentagon’s newest long-range bomber, the B-21. But the comments have raised the prospect that the Australian air force could purchase the B-21 Raider, an advanced stealth bomber now in development.

Australian Defense Minister Linda Reynolds has expressed interest in acquiring long-range attack aircraft to counter growing threats posed by China’s regional hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region, the newspaper reported. Pro-defense Australian officials and experts are encouraging the Canberra government to seek to join the B-21 bomber program and note that doing so could help reduce costs.

The B-21 is being built by Northrop Grumman as a long-range strike aircraft capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear weapons. Deployment is slated for 2025 and the bomber will replace aging B-52 bombers that were first built in 1955.

Australia also plans to purchase 72 new F-35 jets but the F-35 lacks the unrefueled, long-range strike capability of the B-21.

Exporting the B-21 likely would create difficulties for protecting sensitive U.S. technology being built into the B-21.

The Air Force, however, has not ruled out building an export version of the B-21, according to the trade publication Aviation Week.

Richard Fisher, a China military affairs expert, said selling the B-21 to Australia is a good idea in checking Chinese expansionism.

“This likely [5,000-kilometer] strike-radius bomber would provide Australian leaders with the same strategic flexibility it will provide to American leaders to deter Chinese military aggression at an extreme distance,” said Mr. Fisher, with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

“By the 2030s the People’s Liberation Army Navy will have totally nuclear-powered aircraft carrier battle groups that could reach Australia within a week,” he added. “When China’s Communist Party leadership understands Australia can attack its carrier battle groups when they are still in bases in Southern China, or calling on future ports of access in South Pacific island states, they will be deterred from using that force against Australia.”

Middle East Missile proliferation
The threat of missiles fueling conflicts in the Middle East is increasing, according to a senior State Department official.

“The missile threat is significant and growing,” the official told Inside the Ring.

The official spoke on the eve of an international meeting in Romania of the Warsaw Ministerial Missile Proliferation Working Group, set to begin Thursday. The working group is grew out of a meeting in Warsaw in February 2019 called the Ministerial to Advance Peace and Security in the Middle East.

A main issue at that meeting was the threat of the spread of missile and related technology in the volatile Middle East.

“This working group will continue the discussion begun in Warsaw by more closely examining the current missile proliferation threat, and considering steps states can take, on both a collective and individual basis, to prevent the proliferation of missiles and related technology,” the State Department said in announcing the meeting.

The meeting in Romania will not solely focus on Iranian missiles, but one system has highlighted the danger — Iran’s Safir space launch vehicle that the United States believes is part of a covert program to build a long-range missile, the official said.

The first stage of the Safir was derived from Iran’s Shahab-3, a medium-range ballistic missile that is based on North Korea’s Nodong missile. The official said the Safir link to the Shahab-3, a missile for which Iran was working to develop a nuclear warhead, shows the “genealogy” of regional missile proliferation problem.

President Trump recently tweeted an intelligence photograph of the explosion at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in Semnan province.

“The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One.”

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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