WASHINGTON -- In the dark, early days of the Cold War, Dwight Eisenhower offered a way to ease U.S.-Soviet tensions: Let each superpower send military aircraft over its adversary's territory, he suggested, to photograph whatever it wanted.
People called the idea Open Skies.
By the time his vision took form in a formal treaty in 1992, Open Skies looked like an idea whose time had come and gone. The Soviet Union had collapsed, the Cold War was over and spy satellites were doing the job anyway.
But, instead of fading into obscurity, Open Skies has become a hit with Central and Eastern European states that find themselves in a greatly altered, potentially unstable neighborhood prone to anxiety.
The United States is only too happy to help. When a converted American Boeing 707 roars over Ukraine in October, it will make post Cold War history by being the first U.S. military plane with permission to photograph territory of the former Soviet Union. All the other 26 countries that have signed the Open Skies treaty will be allowed to see any information collected.
"What was a Cold War treaty is now being used to develop and deepen a new set of political-military relationships," says Michael Krepon, president of the Stimson Center, a Washington-based organization that promotes arms control. And Open Skies is being cited as a model for reducing suspicion in other regions, including Latin America, South Asia, even the Middle East.
All this has happened without the treaty officially entering into force. It has now been signed by 27 countries but will not take effect unless it is ratified by the three ex-Soviet nuclear powers: Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. The United States ratified it in August 1993.
The pact allows nations to send aircraft loaded with photographic gear, infra-red scanning devices and highly accurate radar over the territory of any other participating country with just a few days' notice. Photographs can detect the massing of troops; heat sensors can find evidence of a camouflaged military assembly line.
For the United States and Russia, this kind of reconnaissance is no match for spy satellites and spy planes that probe without invitation. Open Sky cameras can differentiate between a truck and a tank, but not between different models of tanks. But the aircraft can penetrate certain areas where satellites can't, either because of cloud cover or because it is too costly to change a satellite's prescribed path. And the cameras are positioned in such a way that they can peer beneath the roofs of certain buildings, officials say.
Even if U.S. officials are dismissive of Open Skies' intelligence value, the small states of Central and Eastern Europe are not.
"It's the poor man's NTM," says Air Force Lt. Col. Dave Gessert, a senior team chief at the On-Site Inspection Agency. The initials stand for National Technical Means, the official euphemism for satellites and other high-tech intelligence-gathering tools.
Under the treaty, a nation can send aircraft to fly over another only if it's willing to be overflown itself. But the information recorded on these flights must be made available to all the treaty's signatories, providing a treasure trove of useful information at low cost.
This information may be particularly valuable to the former Soviet republics. The collapse of the Warsaw Pact left them free but anchorless, nervous about Russia and fearful that the ethnic bloodbath in the former Yugoslavia could destabilize their region.
"It's a key confidence-building measure for European security. This is one that reassures not just the big states but the little powers," says Stephen Blank, MacArthur professor of research at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. "There are a lot of people there who feel insecure about what's going on and need some reassurance."
As a measure of interest, 42 inspectors from 17 countries will arrive here Sunday for a practice certification, in which they will carefully go over the aircraft that the United States plans to use on upcoming Open Skies missions.
Countries hoping to join NATO eventually, such as Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, see an added advantage in working more closely with NATO.
"It's one of the areas where we could expand our partnership with the NATO alliance," says Victor Szederkenyi, political officer at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington. "The political benefit is obvious."
After the October American flight, Ukraine is scheduled to reciprocate by sending a similarly equipped prop plane to the United States in April.
U.S. officials hope the October flight will stimulate interest in the Ukrainian parliament and lead to ratification. But even before the vote, Ukraine is preparing to take advantage of the treaty. It has ++ discussed joining in an American mission over a third country -- possibly Turkey.
Although Russia's parliament won't take up Open Skies until it completes its debate on strategic arms and chemical weapons treaties, it has allowed Americans to participate in two training missions over Russian territory, though in a Russian plane.
The Pentagon has issued instructions to U.S. military installations to prepare to halt activities they don't want other Open Skies participants to see or put sensitive equipment under wraps while a mission is under way.
Manufacturers also need to be warned. "One of the most sensitive sites in Germany is outside Stuttgart, where BMW tests its next year's cars," says William Wynne, a planner for the Defense Department's On-Site Inspection Agency.
The first training flights have included close calls: A British plane iced up during a flight over Norway and plunged thousands of feet before recovering at a very low altitude.
One U.S. training flight forced air-traffic controllers at Chicago's hectic O'Hare Airport to put civilian aircraft on hold for a half-hour. A training flight over Ukraine had to quickly change course when farmers greeted the aircraft by sending anti-hail rockets into the air.
Krepon of the Stimson Center suggests that countries need to remain alert to potential political problems. Moscow, for example, might suspect the treaty was being used by the West to sweep ex-Warsaw Pact states into an anti-Russian alliance. "There are certain kinds of military interaction that would cause alarms to go off," he says.
But he and other experts believe that the treaty offers the prospect for a continued easing of tensions.
"If Greece and Turkey ever buried the hatchet, I would expect them to use this as a method for normalizing relations," Krepon says. Longtime antagonists Hungary and Romania have developed their own Open Skies relationship, U.S. officials say Argentina, Brazil and Chile have explored the possibility of an Open Skies treaty, and Israel sent representatives to the inspection agency's headquarters near Dulles Airport.
Such a treaty would be useful for the hostile states of the former Yugoslavia, experts say. Imagine, as well, photographic flights that could defuse the hair-trigger tension between India and Pakistan.
Imagine Open Skies.
Pub Date: 9/03/96