A Russian surveillance jet that landed at Wright-Patterson on Wednesday and reportedly created a buzz when the plane flew over Washington, D.C., will be at the Miami Valley base today as it flies missions over the United States, authorities say.
The flights are perfectly legal under the Open Skies treaty and coordinated with U.S. authorities who were aboard the Russian Tu-154, which resembles an airliner, on agreed-to routes over the East Coast on Wednesday, officials said.
The flights have taken place between Russia and the United States and 32 other nations since the treaty took effect in 2002 to ensure all sides live up to arms control agreements. The treaty lets each country fly over the entire region of other nations that signed the agreement.
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Frank Jenista, a former U.S. diplomat and a Cedarville University professor, said the reason the flight got “special attention” this time was because the Russian plane flew over the nation’s capital, a restricted airspace particularly since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The Associated Press reported the low-flying plane, which the U.S. Capitol Police alerted would fly over the Capitol, created a buzz on its route over Washington that included the Pentagon and other sites. The plane, which carries both cameras and sensors, is allowed to fly as low as 4,000 feet.
The Russian surveillance flight happened when congressional scrutiny of alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. election continues to be investigated and U.S. and NATO military aircraft have had a rising number of close calls in the skies with Russian aircraft at levels not seen since the Cold War.
The Open Skies treaty is meant to reinforce the old adage trust, but verify.
“The whole idea is no surprise,” Jenista said. “A lot of wars have been caused by misunderstanding or misinterpretation of other people’s intentions. In this case, Open Skies is designed to put the cards face up on the table.”
David Darrow, a University of Dayton associate professor in Russian studies who has traveled to Russia several times, said the treaty was designed to heighten trust “in a world where we can blow each other up at the touch of a button.”
“The more transparent we can be about what we’re doing, the less chance that somebody is going to go off half-cocked and do something that’s going to have a catastrophic effect,” he said.
POLITICO reported on Wednesday the Russian surveillance plane also flew near Bedminster, N.J., where President Donald Trump is on a working vacation. The website said the trip’s route “appeared to be an attempt to troll” Trump. The jet also flew over West Virginia, Virginia and Pennsylvania, POLITICO said citing tracker data.
Daniel S. Gaffney, a Defense Threat Reduction Agency spokesman, said he could not confirm any locations the Russian jet flew over until the mission is over.
Richard Aboulafia, a senior aerospace analyst with the Virginia-based Teal Group, said surveillance planes process signals and shoot photos in different places and angles orbiting satellites aren’t able to reach.
“You can get great imagery from a satellite as long as the satellite is on the right path and you don’t mind looking straight down basically,” he said.
More than 1,200 Open Skies flights have been flown over the years, according to Gaffney. Through mid-May, the Russians had flown more than a dozen Open Skies missions over signatory nations.
Equipment is certified to ensure it meets treaty obligations and the surveillance images must be made available to nations that signed the agreement, he said.
Wright-Patterson spokesman Daryl Mayer confirmed the Russian plane at the base.
“We had the standard notification in advance that it was going to happen and it happened exactly the way it was supposed to,” he said.
Senior U.S. intelligence and military officials have expressed concern that Russia is taking advantage of technological advances to violate the spirit of the treaty.
Steve Rademaker, former assistant secretary of state for the bureau of arms control and the bureau of international security and nonproliferation, told Congress in past hearings Russia has imposed restrictions on surveillance over Moscow and Chechnya and near Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions of Georgia now under Russian control.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.