The U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane made an emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan because of damage caused by a collision with a Chinese fighter jet early Sunday. The spy plane was engaged in a routine surveillance mission.
The treaty permits foreign spy planes to fly unrestricted over the U.S., even over national security areas that previously have been off-limits. In return, the U.S. can conduct similar missions over the 27 countries that have access to this country.
"Open Skies aircraft are permitted by treaty to overfly any area, including restricted and prohibited areas, without restrictions for national security. The Department of Defense policy is to return all Special Use Airspace (SUA) to the FAA for the Open Skies flight. The flight cannot enter SUA until the using agency has released the area and has confirmed that all operations in the airspace have ceased. The SUA must be returned to the using agency, if appropriate, within 15 minutes after the Open Skies aircraft clears the area," according to HQ FAA ATM-417, Special Military Operations Branch, a Federal Aviation Agency document.
The U.S. Senate ratified the Treaty on Open Skies in 1993, and it went into full implementation in September 1996.
The spy planes have priority over all commercial and military aircraft, according to documents used by FAA air traffic controllers and provided to NewsMax.com.
"These flights, as stated in the treaty, have priority over all regular traffic, falling only behind emergencies, forces, or activities engaged in combat and presidentially-directed flights," say the instructions.
Such flights are also authorized to "transit all Prohibited Areas and to fly at speeds in excess of 250 knots below 10,000 feet," according to the document.
"Open Skies treaty aircraft are equipped with up to three different types of sensors. They are optical panoramic and framing cameras, infra-red line scanning devices and synthetic aperture radar," says another FAA document.
The countries that are engaged in spy plane flights over the U.S. are all of NATO's 16 nations, as well as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, the Slovak Republic, Russia, Georgia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
"Each participating country has agreed to open its entire territory to short-notice surveillance flights by unarmed aircraft capable of taking pictures 24 hours a day, with images clear enough to distinguish between a tank and a truck, in all weather. No signatory to the Treaty may hold any of its territory off-limits to overflights. The data derived from the overflights must be made available on a shared-cost basis to all signatories of the Treaty," said U.S. Sens. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and Sam Nunn, D-Ga., in their Committee on Armed Services recommendation of treaty ratification to the Committee on Foreign Relations.
Thurmond and Nunn said the treaty provided transparency of military forces and activities for all countries involved. However, their report did mention threats to national security.
"While it would be inconsistent with the provisions of the Treaty to sell or otherwise make available the information obtained during observation flights to states or groups not a party to the Treaty, the danger exists that a hostile group might acquire the information and exploit the imagery for criminal or military purposes," they said in the report.
Meanwhile, such an agreement does not exist with China, and tensions reminiscent of the Cold War have placed relations between both countries in a very tense situation.
President Bush has demanded the prompt return of 24 crew members, as well as release of the crippled Navy spy plane. China has not complied.
"Our approach has been to keep this accident from becoming an international incident. But now, it is time for our servicemen and women to return home," Bush said Tuesday at the White House.
Chinese officials insisted that the U.S. plane hit a Chinese F-8 fighter plane and violated China's air space. U.S. officials disagree.
It has been common practice for Navy spy planes to fly off China's southeastern coast to monitor military activity to determine if there might be a threat to Taiwan. Navy officials said Chinese fighter planes often shadowed such flights.
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