Open Skies Treaty

Open Skies Treaty

The Open Sky Plan

At the 1955 Geneva Conference, US President Dwight Eisenhower met with Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin to discuss a daring new proposal that he believed would help ease the Cold War paranoia and assure both nations that neither was preparing to launch a surprise attack on the other. His proposal, named the Open Sky Plan, would allow unarmed aircraft from any member nation to conduct flights over any other member nation for the purpose of observing and photographing each other's military installations. This would help assuage fears that the other side was secretly building up their forces and readying their bombers for a preemptive strike, since it was believed such an operation would be easily noticed by observation aircraft.

Premier Bulganin outright rejected the proposal, but Eisenhower would continue to push for it throughout his presidency. Meanwhile, the American Central Intelligence Agency was still insistent on the need to conduct aerial surveillance flights over the Soviet Union - with or without Soviet permission - stressing that it was crucial to monitor their bomber and ICBM sites. Less than one month after the Geneva Conference, American aircraft manufacturer Lockheed would conduct the first test flight of their groundbreaking new high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, the U-2. The CIA insisted that Soviet radar technology could not track the aircraft, and in June 1956 Eisenhower reluctantly agreed to allow surveillance flights over the Soviet Union.

The secret Soviet Tyuratam missile test center, photographed from a U-2 surveillance aircraft in 1957

By 1960, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union had thawed somewhat. There was even talk of a possible "peaceful coexistence" between the US and the Soviet Union. Eisenhower had hopes of reintroducing his Open Skies Plan proposal to Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev at the Four Power Summit in Paris on May 16, 1960. However, on May 1, just two weeks before the summit, Soviet air defense forces detected an American U-2 flying 250 miles deep in Soviet territory. Soviet MiG-19 fighters were scrambled but were unable to intercept the U-2 on its high altitude flight path. However, an S-75 surface-to-air missile site near the town of Kosulino was able to target the U-2 and scored a direct hit. In the process, one of the Soviet MiGs was also targeted by the battery and accidentally shot down.

The United States had a pre-planned cover story for just such an event, and attempted to claim that the U-2 was simply a weather observation aircraft operating under NASA's control. The pilot must have passed out and autopilot carried the aircraft into Soviet territory by mistake. Khrushchev allowed Eisenhower to spread this story for several days before revealing to the world that not only did they have most of the crashed U-2 spy plane and its camera equipment still intact, but they also had the pilot, Captain Francis Powers, alive and as a prisoner.

This news proved disastrous for the planned summit, and thoroughly embarrassed President Eisenhower and the US government on the world stage. Khrushchev was outraged at the US over the U-2 incident, and any hope of the Open Sky Plan passing was gone. Even so, Eisenhower continued to promote the plan throughout the remainder of his presidency.

By late 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union was already well underway. A limited democratic election had already taken place in Russia, and several other Warsaw Pact nations had overthrown their communist governments. American President George H. W. Bush, who was himself a former director of the CIA, saw this as an opportunity to renew the push for a mutual surveillance treaty between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. In September 1989, the first Open Skies Conference was held in Ottawa, Canada between all member nations of both groups. This time, it seemed all involved parties were actually receptive to the idea. Negotiations over the details continued for three years, and on March 24, 1992 the Treaty on Open Skies was officially signed by the United States, Russia, and 22 other nations at a meeting in Helsinki, Finland. The agreement allows for any member nation to fly unarmed surveillance aircraft over the entire territory of any other member nation on short notice, and for any member nation to request copies of data recorded by any other member nation. This allowed even small nations who lacked the surveillance technology themselves to obtain crucial information about the other nations. While advances in satellite imagery had largely replaced conventional surveillance aircraft for monitoring fixed military installations, this treaty still provided valuable data to nations without their own satellites and who wanted flights over specific regions. It also served as a symbol of good faith cooperation between the member nations.

On May 21, 2020 US President Donald Trump announced that the United States would be withdrawing from the Treaty on Open Skies over alleged Russian violations of the treaty. The mandatory six month waiting period ended on November 22, 2020, and the US was officially withdrawn from the Treaty. In January 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would also withdraw from the treaty due to America's withdrawal, and on June 7 officially exited the treaty.

What is the Open Skies Project?

In August of 2021, a group of friends and family purchased the former Calumet Air Force Station in the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan. We debated what name to choose for the endeavor, wanting something that reflected the station's Cold War history but also the area's natural beauty and secluded location. The idea of someday registering the location as a Dark Sky Park led to several ideas being tossed around before eventually settling on "Open Skies Project". The idea was that much like the original Treaty on Open Skies, we would be opening up a formerly restricted military installation to public observation by anyone who was interested. That combined with the amazing views from the radar tower at the top of Mount Horace Greeley, the highest natural point in Keweenaw County, made "Open Skies" seem like the perfect name.

Sunset on Mt Horace Greeley

The Open Skies Project is the name we have chosen to encompass all of the work being done at the former Calumet Air Force Station. This includes all of our efforts in cleanup, restoration, preservation, and redevelopment at the site. To do this, we formed the company Open Skies, LLC which owns the actual property. It is composed of all sixteen founding members who share a love for history, the outdoors, and the Keweenaw especially! It was this group that chose to pool their resources and purchase the property with the hopes of restoring it and turning it into a site that can be enjoyed by the public.

The second and possibly most important part of the Open Skies Project is the preservation of the often overlooked history of this Cold War radar station. Few people know the whole history of the site, and with the buildings falling into disrepair there was a chance much of this could have been lost forever. That is why we have established the Calumet Air Force Station Heritage Museum, a non-profit organization that will be dedicated to preserving and presenting to the public the Cold War era military history of this amazing location! We have plans to open a physical museum on the site in the future, but in the meantime we will begin cataloging all information about the station, it's personnel, and its role in the Cold War.