Russia will ask permission on Monday to start flying surveillance planes equipped with high-powered digital cameras amid warnings from US intelligence and military officials that such overflights help Moscow collect intelligence on the United States.
Russia and the United States are signatories to the Open Skies Treaty, which allows unarmed observation flights over the entire territory of all 34 member nations to foster transparency about military activity and help monitor arms control and other agreements.
Senior intelligence and military officials, however, worry that Russia is taking advantage of technological advances to violate the spirit of the treaty.
Russia will formally ask the Open Skies Consultative Commission, based in Vienna, to be allowed to fly an aircraft equipped with high-tech sensors over the US, according to a senior congressional staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the staff member wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
The request will put the Obama administration in the position of having to decide whether to let Russia use the high-powered equipment on its surveillance planes at a time when Moscow, according to the latest State Department compliance report, is failing to meet all its obligations under the treaty.
And it comes at one of the most tension-filled times in U.S.-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War, with the two countries at odds over Russian activity in Ukraine and Syria.
"The treaty has become a critical component of Russia’s intelligence collection capability directed at the United States," Adm Cecil D Haney, commander of the US Strategic Command, wrote in a letter earlier this year to Rep Mike Rogers, R-Ala, chairman of a House subcommittee on strategic forces.
"In addition to overflying military installations, Russian Open Skies flights can overfly and collect on Department of Defense and national security or national critical infrastructure," Haney said.
"The vulnerability exposed by exploitation of this data and costs of mitigation are increasingly difficult to characterize."
A State Department official said on Sunday that treaty nations had not yet received notice of the Russian request, but that certification of the Russian plane with a "digital electro-optical sensor" could not occur until this summer because the treaty requires a 120-day advance notification.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly.