U.S. Abandons Open Skies for New Age Space Weapons

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Yves here. Amazing how America finds new and creative ways to foster grifting by military contractors, this time with space weapons as the new gen version of Reagan’s Star Wars. But the danger of dumping the Open Skies pact, which had prevented efforts to colonize space, has gone largely under the radar.

By Prabir Purkayastha, the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the Free Software movement. Produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute

With the U.S. deciding to walk out of the Open Skies agreement, the U.S. is signaling to the world that it intends to return to days of Pax Americana that existed post-World War II, when it was the sole possessor of nuclear weapons. It has already walked out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 under George W. Bush, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty under Trump. The only nuclear arms control treaty that still remains in place is the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which provides a rough limit and parity on the U.S. and Russia’s nuclear arsenals. Its days also seem to be numbered, as it expires on February 5, 2021, leaving very little time for any serious discussion.

The Trump administration is now considering a resumption of nuclear tests, which would be in violation of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, or CTBT. Is this yet another treaty destined for the waste paper basket? This is apart from other nuclear restraint treaties that the U.S. signed with other states such as North Korea and Iran, and subsequently tore up unilaterally, prompting the view that the U.S. is no longer capable of upholding treaties.

Marshall Billingslea, who is the U.S. official arms control negotiator, has talked about how the U.S. intends to spend Russia and China “into oblivion,” as it had done with the Soviet Union earlier. Obviously, as an arms control negotiator, he is a fitting successor to John Bolton, whose chief claim to fame is wielding a hammer to smash all arms control agreements.

The U.S. is also weaponizing space, and has a new Space Command. Last year, Trump, speaking in the Pentagon, said, “a space-based missile defense layer… [is] going to be a very, very big part of our defense and, obviously, of our offense.”

The U.S. continues to pour its money into military technology and its political energy into defense strategies against what it perceives as threats to its global hegemony from China and Russia—even during a pandemic. The U.S. has modeled for the rest of the world that the politics of security lie in terms of arms, no matter that funds are desperately needed for public health.

So what is the Open Skies agreement? The treaty permits all its 35 signatories—the U.S., Russia and other NATO allies—to fly over each other’s territories. Effectively, it allows official military reconnaissance flights.

So why does the U.S. want to exit a treaty that makes it possible to launch surveillance flights over Russia? This is a question that even military experts are hard put to answer. One reason given is that the U.S. has complete imaging capabilities over Russia using its satellites, and does not need old-fashioned aircraft-based methods. Therefore, the U.S. is denying Russia overflights over its territory in the belief that Russia will not be able to match the U.S. space-based surveillance capabilities. And if it tries to match the U.S., it is back to the Billingslea-Trump game; the U.S. will win the new weapons war, or else move to an economic war. But war it is either way.

The U.S. also has a second target motivating it to walk out of the Open Skies agreement. European countries are very much a part of this agreement, just not the U.S. The U.S. did not even talk to its NATO allies before making the decision to abandon this agreement. The U.S. wants to deny any strategic independence to its NATO allies. If the Open Skies agreement now fails, as Russia has no incentive to offer other NATO countries overflights when it has none over the U.S., other NATO allies will be even more dependent on the U.S. for information. This is a strike as much against its own NATO allies as against Russia.

During the initial negotiations on the New START, Trump and Billingslea are talking about bringing in China in order to limit its nuclear arsenal as well. This was also one of the arguments given when the U.S. abandoned the INF Treaty.

Consider the respective nuclear arsenals of countries. Currently, the United States and Russia have more than 6,000 total nuclear warheads each, while China has about 300, according to the Arms Control Association’s factsheet. So any agreement that brings in China can only increase its voluntary limit and not reduce it! Just for the record, France also has 300, with the UK at 200, and India and Pakistan around 150 each. Israel has about 100, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) has about 30.

In summary, the U.S. believes that since the ’90s, it has been and continues to be the sole global hegemon. Any arms control treaty hinders the exercise of its military might. It recognizes that it can no longer control the global economy, where China is already in the process of overtaking the U.S., give or take a decade or two. A trade agreement that follows the rules, even if the rules were put in place in the ’90s by the U.S. and its allies in the World Trade Organization (WTO), no longer helps the U.S. Faced with competition not only from China, but a range of other countries, the U.S. has fallen back on its military power as its key “bargaining” strategy: Agree to what it says or else. And if any country tries to match the U.S. militarily, the U.S. will bankrupt them as it did with the Soviet Union.

Historians Richard Lebow and Janice Stein have pointed out that the collapse of the Soviet Union was not due to its military competition with the U.S. Its defense budget did not increase in Reagan’s Star Wars years. Neither is Russia willing to surrender to the United States. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has made it clear that Russia will not accept that the U.S. can become the global overlord as it did during the Yeltsin years, and dictate to it and other countries.

The U.S. change in tack with respect to China is part of what is now being called a hybrid war—military threats coupled with economic actions—to inflict enough damage that China is forced to sue for peace, accepting its subordinate status.

That is why China and Russia have come together. China’s economic strength and Russia’s military capabilities provide formidable opposition to U.S. dominance. Russia’s technological strength in missiles, submarines, and radar has always been cutting-edge. The S-400 defense shields with radar arrays and defensive missiles are still the best in the world, and that is the reason why even U.S. allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia are procuring them. China is likely already the world leader in quantum communications and is set to overtake the U.S. in artificial intelligence within the next five years. So when it comes to competition, China and Russia are not as far behind as the U.S. seems to believe. And the U.S. policies in the last 30 years have cemented Russia-China ties at a much deeper level than in the past.

What options, then, do Russia and China have? Russia and China do not plan to copy the U.S. strategy of global dominance, or engage in the game of one-upmanship the U.S. is playing. For Russia and China, the ability to inflict sufficient damage on the U.S. is deterrence enough. So they are not going to make the mistake of matching the U.S. military spending dollar for dollar. Putin’s strategy is to develop weapons that can inflict maximum damage at a minimum cost—in other words, develop a strategy for asymmetric war. This is the reason behind the six new Russian weapons that Putin unveiled last year: from hypersonic weapons to a new generation of ballistic missiles.

The difference between the two approaches is their strategic visions. For the U.S., it is spelled out in its various strategic documents: it needs to militarily dominate every region in the world. Any country that challenges the U.S., even in controlling its coastal waters, is a revisionist power. This requires not strategic parity but overwhelming superiority, or force projection in any global theater. In today’s day and age, this is well beyond any country’s military reach.

The world is entering perhaps the most dangerous period it ever has, not just because of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. The nuclear arms race is taking place with the U.S. belief that it is winnable. Abandoning all arms control agreements with one excuse or the other is not simply the aberration of a Trump or a Bush, but very much a part of U.S. exceptionalism.

The future of all nations is either surrender to the rule of the hegemon, or allow a global nuclear arms race. This is Trump’s vision, enunciated by his arms control negotiator. It has consequences for all of us. Why then, are all other countries silent? This is why there is an urgent need for the global peace movement to revive. People everywhere have to fight for peace. It is not just Russia or China or the United States at risk, but the whole of humanity.

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  1. Synoia

    In these new nuclear weapons, who will supply the nuts and bolts? I foresee an embargo on the small parts sourced from China coming to the US.

    It would be interesting to have a supply chain diagram for all the parts required for these weapons.

    1. Samuel Conner

      The thought occurs that the real reason behind the “bring manufacturing back again” rhetoric and, such as it is, policy is to assure the unfettered independence of US war-making capabilities into the future. DJT sounded sane in his discussion of failed Mid-East wars, but maybe that was just a pose. Or maybe he’s in cognitive decline, too.

    2. Math is Your Friend

      The key parts for nuclear weapons are usually exotic and invariably secret.

      No parts for such devices would be purchased elsewhere, unless they are simple items easy to replicate, like screws.

      That is one supply chain that is very likely secure and largely internal to the country.

      1. Michael von Plato

        We have been dependent on Russian-made rocket engines to launch our satellites, and will continue to be for another two and a half years.
        Why not outsource our entire nuclear ICBM program to China, preferably specifying the excellent Russian RD-180 engines? Development of the entire program would be much cheaper than doing it here, and would be a perfect demonstration of our commitment to neoliberal economics and globalism. I’m sure that China would be happy to lend us the necessary funds, and Putin could perhaps arrange a subsidy via Trump as well. To me, this looks like a win-win all around.

  2. anon31

    What ever happened to the “Peace Dividend”?

    Could it be that an economy where so many citizens are dependent on wage-slavery to live is also dependent on excess military spending to provide those jobs?

  3. David

    The Open Skies Treaty was an initiative of the Elder Bush administration at the end of the Cold War, to allow programmed overflights of reconnaissance aircraft in other peoples’ air space. At the time, it was more of a propaganda ploy than anything else: the Bush people actually thought the Soviet Union would turn the idea down. Neither of the two superpowers needed the Treaty, because they both had “national technical means” (ie satellites) which were much more capable than any aircraft. But the agreement was seen as confidence-building and a way of de-escalating the tension of the last days of the Cold War. In this way, it was probably more useful than the average arms control treaty, which tends to obey the logic that if it’s necessary it’s not possible, and if it’s possible it’s not necessary. The Treaty has nothing to do with nuclear weapons or the weaponisation of space, which has been going on for decades already. I see the author is an activist for science and the free software movement. Maybe best to stick to writing about what you understand.

    1. Mattski

      Fascinating how you feint one way with an interesting footnote about the origins of Open Skies, deny nothing whatever about the article’s content, then give it a bit of the old ad hom. Don’t think that worked. At least the author places his bona fides–and elective affinities–in full view.

      1. David

        The article’s content is a mish-mash of different assertions; some of which are true and some of which aren’t. There are perfectly legitimate reasons to worry about the misuse of US power (not that that’s new) but this article doesn’t help because it confuses lots of different things.
        For what it’s worth, I’m in favour of arms control treaties (I worked on some of them) and I think they are useful as stabilising and confidence building measures. Those at the end of the Cold War (of which Open Skies was one) definitely played a role in reducing tension and moving on. But (and it’s an old debate among experts) arms control treaties by themselves don’t bring stability, because there is no way of convincing diehard extremists that the other side isn’t cheating in some fashion. Like other such measures, their value is in demonstrating that trust does, in fact, exist.
        Although the Treaty doesn’t have much practical value then, withdrawing from it is a bad idea because it sends unhelpful and destabilising signals. That said, if you’re going to make a reasoned critique of this decision, it helps to know what you’re talking about and get your facts straight.

        1. KC

          Well said. But it could also be a negotiation tactic given that its primary function is signaling.

    2. jef

      There is a treaty that was broken;

      The 1967 Outer Space Treaty

      “The 1967 Outer Space Treaty bans the stationing of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in outer space, prohibits military activities on celestial bodies, and details legally binding rules governing the peaceful exploration and use of space. One hundred and five countries are states-parties to the treaty, while another 26 have signed it but have not yet completed ratification.”


  4. Stan

    What David (above) says about the Open Skies Treaty is true — it was technically meaningless, but his intent is to deflect attention from the salient issue: the US’ constant need to gaslight and spend itself into believing it Dominates.

    Although the US’ Stasi Regime with its (R) & (D) puppets may think it has the divine right and means to dominate every chunk of air, land and water on or around Earth, the only people it has defeated in the last seventy five years is the Great American People™. This is obvious, even through the USA’s Gaslight TV networks.

    1. samhill

      the only people it has defeated in the last seventy five years is the Great American People™

      You exaggerate, we did have incontrovertible victories over Grenada and Panama.

      1. Stan

        Got me… that was a gross exaggeration. Ridiculous… It discredits everything I said in that comment.

        Grenada was rubbed out, but only ten blocks of Panama City were rubbed out, not the whole country. The Dominicans were also crushed, among other tiny Central American societies.


  5. Kouros

    So what is the ultimate purpose of this domination that the US exceptionalism feels entitled to? What does having a gun at everyone’s temple achieves? Getting a slice of their economy maybe? Is this good old gangsta protection racket?

    1. Samuel Conner

      I think that for sociopaths, the possession and exercise of power over others activates their reward centers. Perhaps all these things are simply to make our rulers feel good — a disheartening thought.

    2. lyman alpha blob

      I always though it was for the same reason that middle aged men buy Porsches and Corvettes…

      1. Kouros

        Especially when they are sold at fire-sale prices, like how the URSS economy and resources was auctioned out to Wall Street patsies? Or how US wanted to force the sell of China’s SOEs, by banning any economic intercourse with SOEs (regardless of Country), as stipulated by now defunct TPP?

    3. jr

      I suspect plain old fear is at the bottom of the need of individuals and organizations to dominate others. I mean that quite literally, although the road between ones wrestling with ones mortality and the tenor of a nations foreign policy is certainly a long, tangled one. Exerting power feels good, it’s empowering. It’s also a distraction from the howling terror that comes with simply being alive. You can’t control everything so you settle on something nearby. Better yet someone. Sure, accruing material advantages can provide incentives as well but what is the hoarding of wealth, at any level, other than a way of insulating oneself from the inevitable?

      That and a million other things.

  6. Math is Your Friend

    ” the U.S. is signaling to the world that it intends to return to days of Pax Americana that existed post-World War II, when it was the sole possessor of nuclear weapons”

    I find the above statement both curious and fundamentally wrong, except in the most ephemeral circumstances.

    With regards to the post WW2 period, atomic weapons gradually became relevant. Consider that the first Russian A-bomb was detonated only about four years after the first American test. Moreover, Russia had a deliverable H-bomb before the US developed one.

    Given that the only practical delivery method in those years was a fairly large slow aircraft, the tactical and strategic flexibility was quite limited.

    Pax Americana was based more on things like aircraft carriers, quiet nuclear submarines, and the industrial capacity and financial means to build a large and well equipped military as well as the ability to sustain it in the field.

    One of the factors in establishing PaxA was the Washington naval treaty which reserved dominance in capital ships (of the time = battleships) jointly for the US and UK, each allowed 5 battleships for 3 battleships allowed for the next largest naval power.

    There were other factors supporting the Pax Americana as well, including at various times, more advanced semiconductor technology, more and bigger computers, more advanced manufacturing techniques providing superior weapons systems and other military resources, a more efficient manufacturing sector due to more investment and inherent problems with the the Soviet centrally planned economy.

    Big complex topic, so stopping now.

  7. HH

    The simplest explanation for the resumption of US arms race madness is the extraordinary profitability of high tech weapons programs – especially those that cannot be realistically tested. How do you test the proposed array of orbital weaponry short of fighting a nuclear war? The feeble ballistic missile defense system the US has deployed has never demonstrated a successful intercept against a realistic target deploying decoys or terminal maneuvering.

    The US arms makers own the Congress, and the public’s indiscriminate love of weapons, coupled with astonishing ignorance, makes this an easy game for them to play. Russia and China will be laughing as the US spends itself into exceptional ruin.

  8. Red

    Pax americana? I think we should be.more concerned about pax capitalismus. There are alternatives to pax americana but there are none to capitalism and we should extremely worried about that.

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