In times of stability and instability, from the United States decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, validations of Russian violations of the INF, and Russian demonstrations of new weapons technology for long distance over-the-horizon cruise missiles, modernized ballistic missiles, and hypersonic guide vehicles; Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) is absolutely critical for transparency.
ISR is the coordinated effort to acquire and disseminate timely, accurate, and assured information about our competitors and threats to the United States and our allies. The United States and its allies have multiple ISR platforms, across multiple domains, globally deployed that fall into an important missile defense mission to track and observe our competitors missile development programs and tests. U.S. ISR systems important to this missile defense mission include, but not limited to, the Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites, the Space-Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS) in space, the U-2 High-Altitude Reconnaissance Aircraft, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) like the MQ-9 Reaper and the RQ-4 Global Hawk in atmosphere, land-based radars like the Cobra Dane, and sea-based sensors deployed in our Navy Fleet. After these ISR systems collect data on missile tests and missile technology tests, it is then reported and disseminated to missile defense policy-makers, developers, and operators to help further improve our missile defense capabilities and ensure they are prepared to defend against current and future missile threats.
With the same intent for stability, in a time of instability between Russia and the United States, 34 nations came together beginning in 1992 to sign and ratify the Open Skies Treaty that still stands in place today. The Open Skies Treaty allows unarmed aerial surveillance flights, which includes landing in the observed territory to refuel and share the data collected, over the entire territory of signatories. The two most prominent signatories, and the two that have leveraged this transparency for stability, are the United States and Russia.
The RC-135S Cobra Ball is the United States’ rapidly deployable aircraft that has fully operated over Russia since the inception of the Open Skies Treaty. Operators of the Cobra Ball are commonly tasked directly by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to collect on priority one missile launches based on the National Intelligence Priorities Framework. From long-range, the Cobra Ball uses infrared telescopes to track and collect optical and electronic data on ballistic missile tests. The Cobra Ball is also in the atmosphere and used during United States Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) testing, as well as United States Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) testing of ICBM targets. Captain Rex Villa was recognized as the U.S. Air Force’s 2018 MDAA Missile Defender of the Year for his leadership when he led one of the RC-135S Cobra Ball aircraft and its 50 member crew in 2018.
The data collected by the Cobra Ball confirmed Russia’s possession of the SSC-8 missile that is in violation of the INF treaty. Just since the start of the New Year, Russia has tested its nuclear-powered cruise missile, Iran tested a new long-range cruise missile and attempted two satellite launches, and China has tested its DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile and in each case U.S. ISR capabilities like the Cobra Ball were watching and collecting to help improve our missile defense capabilities.
Open Skies Treaty has helped increase transparency and stability between the United States and Russia, nations like China and others are not signatories of this treaty and continue to threaten the United States and its allies with the development of new missile technologies. China should consider the signing to the Open Skies Treaty to increase transparency and stability with the United States.
Keep your friends close and but your enemies closer, transparency is vital.