An unarmed Russian Air Force Tupolev Tu-154 jet was seen flying as low as 3,700 feet over downtown Washington D.C. on Wednesday, as well as Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, where Air Force One is maintained. The flight received prior approval from U.S. officials and is a part of a longstanding overflight agreement between a number of participating nations.
The Tu-154 carried no armaments, but likely did possess a full complement of intelligence gathering equipment, as authorized by the Treaty on Open Skies the United States first agreed to on March 24th, 1992. The treaty allows the agreement’s 34 signatory nations the right to conduct aerial observations of military assets possessed by other signing members. Whether or not the jet flew at such a low altitude in order to more effectively gather some kind of intelligence, or simply to send a message to the American people, however, would be difficult to ascertain.
“The aircraft will be large and may fly directly over the US Capitol,” said the alert released to Washington D.C. police prior to the Tu-154’s arrival. “This flight will be monitored by the US Capitol Police Command Center and other federal government agencies.”
By virtue of the Treaty on Open Skies, the Russian jet was authorized to fly through a sector of airspace known as P-56, which is the highly secure area surrounding the White House. It also overflew Camp David (the Presidential retreat), the Trump National Golf Course in Virginia, and Mount Weather – which is one of the U.S. government’s secure, and somewhat secret, fallout shelters.
The language of the treaty as it was signed in 1992 clearly points to the hope that maintaining a high level of transparency between competitor nations will reduce the chances of misunderstandings leading to conflict. The current incarnation of the treaty has been in effect since 2002.
The principal purpose of the Open Skies Treaty is to enhance military openness and transparency by providing each State Party with the right to overfly the territory of other States Parties using unarmed observation aircraft. The premise underlying the Treaty is that if there is greater military openness and transparency, then regional tensions will be reduced, thereby decreasing the probability of conflict.” The State Department analysis of the agreement reads.
Unfortunately, even such agreements made in good faith during a time of relatively relaxed relations between the United States and Russia have done little to assuage currently heightening tensions born out of Russia’s digital campaign to manipulate the 2016 American presidential election, as well as Russia’s opposition stance in a number of international affairs. Russia’s support of Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria, as well as its growing economic relationship with North Korea, have both put the two states at odds in recent months. Russia’s military annexation of Crimea in 2014 has also earned it the ire of the U.S.-led NATO alliance throughout Europe.
The same Russian spy plane is expected to conduct another flight over U.S. territory on Wednesday, when it is scheduled to pass over Bedminister, New Jersey where President Donald Trump will be vacationing. The aircraft will pass over the area between 5 and 6 PM.
Treaty of Open Skies flights are given priority by air traffic controllers and are not entirely uncommon, though the high profile nature of the sites Russia chose to surveil has raised the profile of these missions. The flights are closely followed by law enforcement and defense agencies alike.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia