Policy Memo: Open Skies

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The Open Skies treaty is an agreement between 34 states in the Euro-Atlantic region providing for mutual aerial overflights of their sovereign territories, without restrictions on access. During an overflight, representatives of observer nations —in cooperation with representatives of the observed nation—photograph military-significant objects. This imagery is then pooled into a common data bank accessible to all treaty signatories, allowing them to observe the overflown states’ force posture and military infrastructure.

Open Skies is an important accord for several reasons. First, given the Euro- Atlantic’s history with the offensive use of airpower, states’ agreement on and implementation of a mechanism for cooperative aerial reconnaissance contributes to the emergence of permanent peace in the region. Second, from a policy process perspective, the 1992 conclusion and the eventual entry into force of the treaty is no short of an accident. Third, Open Skies has attracted attention from civil society and scientists as a potential monitoring mechanism at low numbers and at zero.


Today, Open Skies faces an uncertain future due to questions about its continued relevance and cost-effectiveness, briefly described below. As some quip, the regime is a victim of its own success in building regional confidence and security. This memo discusses strategies to buttress support for the regime’s continued relevance. 


Anya Loukianova