Negotiating technical implementation of the Open Skies Treaty

Summary: From a surprising challenge, starting as chairman of a complex international treaty negotiation, I was able to remove technical, interpersonal, and diplomatic barriers, over a period of three years, and deliver a the key element of a long-desired cooperative international treaty.

By 1993, twelve years into my career, I had worked in small technical collaborations, supervised a couple of technical support staff, and interacted with a diverse R&D group in LANL’s P-14 and P-15 and at EG&G. I had international contacts with people interested in streak camera technology: France, China, Russia, England, and Japan. I had chaired two SPIE symposia on high-speed photography.
In the spring of 1993, I was at Brookhaven National Laboratory, at their synchrotron, conducting x-ray experiments.

I received a call from Jim Ogle, our P-14 deputy group leader. He said that the Pentagon was looking for a sensor expert to chair an international sensor working group, and since I had received a gold medal for sensor work, would I drop by the Pentagon on my way home and see what they needed? I did so, and met with Mary Margaret Evans, who had an Arms Control Group in the office of the Secretary of Defense organization. The busy Pentagon maze was very intimidating for a workbench physicist, whose group of colleagues was a handful to maybe a dozen. The Open Skies Treaty concept, proposed by Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower, and initiated by Pres. George. Bush, was to have a cooperative observation regime in which potentially hostile nations work together to surveil each other’s countries to detect buildups of forces that could result in conflicts. This would enable shared intelligence and provide an opportunity to negotiate such potential situations of conflict.

After consulting with my wife, and since P-14’s nuclear weapons testing work was at a standstill, I agreed to take an (initially-one year) assignment to the Pentagon. This would be an IPA, an agreement in which I would assume the authority of a federal employee, while still being employed by the Laboratory. At this point we had 11 children in our home. My oldest left to college, and an exchange student went to other sponsors. We took nine children to Virginia in August.

A few months later, I followed the outgoing Chairman of the International Working Group on Sensors—IWGS (Rick Beckman-SNL) into the ballroom of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria. Delegations of 26 nations—all of the NATO and Warsaw Pact countries—each delegation of which consisted of some combination of political, technical, intelligence, and military personnel. Our own delegation included Arms Control Disarmament Agency, Air Force, Navy, Sandia National Lab, Northrop Grumman contractors, Institute for Defense Analysis, as well as contractor staff from DoD supporting the Chairman, and Russian/English interpreters. This large ballroom had a rectangle of tables around the edge of the room, with a podium and array of tables at the front for the Chairman and his staff. The meetings were conducted simultaneously in Russian and English, and all documents had to be translated before they could be discussed. The meetings lasted several weeks, and occurred every few months, with a lot of preparatory work taking place in between.

As we walked into that intimidating environment, with our large entourage, Rick looked over his shoulder and said to me, “Pay attention. Next session you are in charge.”

Myself as Chair with heads of national delegations: US, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, France, Canada

Up until that point, I thought my job would be to preside over a small group of a dozen or so technical people in a classroom. So walking into that formal ballroom full of serious and experienced delegations was a surprise. 

Over the next three years, I worked with the delegations of this group to wrestle through the challenges of deciding technical capabilities, limitations, and calibration methodologies of optical, infra-red, and synthetic aperture radar sensors that would be flown in military aircraft at prescribed heights over potentially hostile countries. There were many differences of opinion. The main fracture lines were between West and East, but there were many issues even within the US delegation and between the US and its closest allies.

Within the US effort, I was the chief technical person overseeing the US Open Skies efforts, with LtCol Mike McNiff as the military head from OSD Acquisition/Arms Control Implementation, and Compliance, the office I was in. Here we participated in an interagency Open Skies Sensor Working Group, oversaw research conducted by IDA, Northrop Grumman, Sandia National Labs, Air Force Research Labs, etc. (under contract to DSWA, which would become DTRA). We also oversaw the image processing efforts conducted by the Air Force at Wright Patterson AFB.

Meanwhile in Vienna, there were many protocol restrictions and conflicts. There were many national interests threatened. There were technical misunderstandings. There were personality conflicts. Oh my. 

But there were also successes, skills learned, cooperation obtained, and technical breakthroughs. In the end, after three years, we were able to come to agreement, present a technical implementation protocol, the IWGS guidance document, to the Treaty oversight group, and the Treaty was signed into force.

US OC135 Aircraft in Halifax, Canada on a collection exercise. I am in the lower right front.

Do What Is Required To Make It Work

One of the first barriers I encountered was the realization that the Russian delegation, the most prominent facilitator or barrier to progress, was unable to decide anything within their delegation at Vienna meetings. Any proposal had to be presented at one Vienna meeting, brought back to Moscow, and there possibly be resolved and then accepted at the following Vienna meeting several months later. At the rate of progress that represented, we would not complete our work for many years. Frankly, the professional diplomats (primarily the Russians) were okay with that. Traveling to Vienna, harvesting the per diem payments, eating Western food, and living in a Western city for long stretches was a lucrative situation.

I changed that. I began holding pre-meetings in Moscow with any delegation that had any new proposals, and invited the Russian interagency organizations to come to my meeting. That way, the Russian issues were resolved before the full IWGS meeting, usually the following week. We doubled the rate of progress. Initially the other delegations were flabbergasted! “You cannot do that! We have never done it that way!” But I found a way.

This approach changed the process whereby the Russians resolved issues internally, and they had their inter-agency discussions/fights at my venue, with a looming deadline. After we had completed the IWGS guidance document, the head of the Russian delegation told me that they were able to make progress in my meetings that they would not have otherwise been able to accomplish.

After three years of these international negotiations, now in both Moscow and Vienna, and with a number of international exercises with Open Skies aircraft, the US OC135 and the German aircraft, and with many internal US meetings to coordinate internal policies, technologies, and procedures, developing a technical Treaty Guidance Document that established the procedures and conditions for operating observation flights, for evaluating imagery, and for calibrating sensors and processing parameters. This was unprecedented for an international cooperative treaty!!

A certificate I provided to all of the delegates when we completed the Open Skies Implementation Guidance Document.
This was a highly prized trophy for all the delegates who had put so much effort into the Treaty!


Paid for by Stradling4Council, Ken Shelley, Treasurer