Biden administration’s view on Open Skies treaty raises prospect of replacement battle
By Harry Boneham, associate aerospace and defence analyst at GlobalData
The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Open Skies treaty may, paradoxically, trigger a competition to supply aircraft for Open Skies flights in the near future, should the incoming Biden administration attempt to reverse the withdrawal.
However, with the current aircraft being designated as ‘excess defence articles’, a future replacement will start from scratch. According to GlobalData, the US reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft market is worth $3.116bn in 2020, growing to $3.504bn in 2030. Securing a replacement contract within this sub-segment would be a lucrative achievement going forward.
Boeing is the current supplier for Open Skies flights, with a pair of modified C-135s (OC-135). However, other firms may be able to offer alternative platforms. The US Air Force, prior to rescinding the solicitation of replacement bids, suggested that it would modify two modern business jets with a digital sensor, processing and control suite.
General Dynamics’ Gulfstream and Textron’s Cessna could be well positioned to supply suitable business jet platforms. Additionally, other states party to the treaty, such as France, deploy Lockheed Martin’s C-130 to perform overflights. Foreign firms such as Saab and Airbus have also demonstrated the ability of their aircraft to perform this mission, although a contact would be more likely to go to a domestic firm.
Whilst the US re-signing the Open Skies treaty would require some domestic political wrangling, there are a number of political and strategic drivers for ratification of the treaty. Strategically, data collected from Open Skies flights offers accessible and accurate data to officials. It has been argued that satellite imagery is now advanced to the stage that it renders Open Skies flights redundant. However, data from advanced imagery satellites is often highly classified to obscure satellite capabilities.
Politically, pressure may come from allies to re-sign the treaty. With the issue of the strategic value of data put to one side, many allies do not possess the advanced satellite capabilities of the US. Instead, they rely upon the US being part of the treaty to permit their own independent overflights.
In the first 15 years of the treaty, US allies conducted 500 flights in comparison to 196 US flights and 71 Russian flights. With US allies such as France, the UK and Germany being vocal advocates for the US remaining within the treaty, and investing in Open Skies aircraft capabilities, it is likely that there will be international pressure on the incoming Biden administration to return the US to the treaty.
For more defence industry comment and analysis, visit GlobalData’s Aerospace, Defense & Security Intelligence Centre.
// Image: A SpaceX launch under the Starlink mission. Credit: SpaceX