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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Open Skies Years Later

Russian Air Force Colonel Mikhail Botvinko attracted little national attention last month when he and several fellow Russian airmen flew a Soviet-era cargo jet across a large swath of the eastern United States, taking photographs of American military bases as they went.


That is a pity, because the flight of Botvinko and his colleagues, though a trial run, was rich with history and irony. It came more than four decades after it was first proposed, and followed the expenditure of billions of dollars by Washington and Moscow on other, more exotic ways to monitor each other's military forces. What would have been a great diplomatic breakthrough during the Cold War seemed this summer merely another symbol of changed times.


The flight brought full circle one of the most volatile and secret chapters of the Cold War, the effort to spy from the sky before the age of satellites.


Throughout the 1950s, the United States conducted dozens of clandestine reconnaissance flights near and over Soviet territory in an audacious and dangerous campaign to gauge the size and strength of Soviet forces. More than once, the effort brought Soviet and American planes into combat.


Botvinko may not have realized that his mission was inspired by those flights. It came almost exactly 42 years from the day that U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, looking, in part, for a less explosive way to gather intelligence, surprised the Soviets with a proposal to permit unrestricted access to the skies by American and Soviet military aircraft.


Eisenhower uncorked the idea in Geneva in July 1955 at a summit meeting with Soviet, British and French leaders. The plan, which was quickly dubbed the "Open Skies'' proposal, seemed improbable, to say the least. Cold War tensions were high, and both Washington and Moscow lived in fear of a surprise attack by the other side.


Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, quickly swatted down the Eisenhower plan, convinced that Washington's real intention was to gather targeting information for American long-range bombers.


Eisenhower's motivations were less threatening than Khrushchev thought. The unsealing of American Cold War secrets in recent years suggests that Eisenhower's primary motivation was to reduce the danger of nuclear war. He hoped to pull Washington and Moscow back from highly combustible, though secret, confrontations in the skies over and around the Soviet Union. Several American aircraft flying along the border had been shot down, and a number of planes sent directly over Soviet military installations had been attacked.


The year before the Geneva meeting, the American president had quietly authorized urgent development of a new reconnaissance plane, the U-2, designed to fly above the range of Soviet air defenses. Flights over the Soviet Union by the U-2 were ended after one of the planes was shot down in 1960 and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was captured.


In proposing "Open Skies,'' Eisenhower was no doubt also seeking to command the high ground in world opinion by offering an idealistic proposal that Khrushchev was likely to reject. Nor would it have been unreasonable to collect targeting information on Soviet bases, given the possibility of a military conflict with the Soviet Union.


Some of Eisenhower's top military commanders, including Air Force General Curtis LeMay, advocated a pre-emptive American strike to disable Soviet forces if Moscow seemed on the verge of attacking the United States.


With the rejection of the Eisenhower proposal, Washington turned with increased intensity to aerial espionage.


Cargill Hall, an Air Force historian, reported this spring in The Quarterly Journal of Military History that during a seven-week period in early 1956, the Air Force flew almost daily missions over the northern reaches of the Soviet Union from a base in Greenland. In one especially provocative effort, six American planes flew for hours in formation across eastern Siberia in daylight.


The arrival of the space age brought spy satellites that reduced the need for aerial reconnaissance. Today, the United States and Russia operate fleets of highly sophisticated satellites that can transmit images of the Earth and intercept communications.


The combination of that technology and the collapse of the Soviet Union made Eisenhower's idea less useful and, therefore, more acceptable. In 1992, 27 nations, including the United States and Russia, signed the Open Skies Treaty.


If the Russian parliament ever gets around to approving the treaty, American reconnaissance planes will routinely fly over Russian bases, and Botvinko and his colleagues will return to begin full-time work. Eisenhower and Khrushchev could scarcely have imagined it.





Philip Taubman is a member of the editorial staff of The New York Times, to which he contributed this comment.