Here’s Why A Russian Aircraft Is Surveying The United States

A Tupolev 154 sounds like an odd aircraft to see gracing the skies above the United States. However, one belonging to the Russian government has been spotted a few times above the US. The unarmed aircraft is taking part in open skies observation flights.

Open Skies Treaty, Russian Air Force, Tupolev 152
A Russian Tupolev 152 is currently surveying the United States. Photo: Dmitry Terekhov via Flickr

The Open Skies treaty allows members from 34 countries to overfly the other members of the treaty in order to conduct aerial surveillance flights. The program is designed to foster a feeling of trust between member states. Every member state can keep an eye on the other member states from the skies.

Open Skies treaty history

The treaty on Open Skies was signed in March 1992, however, it did not enter force until the 1st of January 2002. There are currently 34 members of the open skies treaty. Some of the bigger names on the list include Canada, France, Germany, Russia, Turkey, The UK, and the US.

While the country Kyrgyzstan has signed the Open Skies treaty, it is yet to ratify the treaty. However, with approval of the Open Skies Consultative Commission, other states are able to join. In fact, since the treaty originally entered into force in 2002, eight additional countries have joined.

Open Skies Treaty, Russian Air Force, Tupolev 152
Members of the open skies treaty shown in green. Image: JayCoop via Wikimedia

What does the treaty mean?

Along with some rules, the treaty on Open Skies allows member states to conduct aerial surveillance flights over other members. The flights must be allowed over the whole of a nation’s territory. Additionally, the country being surveilled cannot restrict flights except for reasons of flight safety.

While overflying a participating country’s territory, aircraft are allowed to create images and videos. However, there is a limit on the cameras and sensors allowed to be used. They must be available to any member of the treaty. They are also limited to an image resolution of 30cm. This supposedly allows the aircraft overflying to “distinguish between a truck and a tank”. The aircraft must be unarmed for the flights.

Open Skies Treaty, Russian Air Force, Tupolev 152
A recent open skies treaty flight took interest in San Diego. Image:

Why is a Russian Tupolev flying over the US?

So why is a Russian Tupolev 154 overflying the United States of America? The aircraft is participating in the Open Skies treaty. It is observing the US for the Russian Air Force as is allowed. Other members of the treaty are able to acquire the imagery produced. The only associated cost is the cost of reproduction.

The aircraft currently flying above the United States is registered as RF-85655, a Tupolev 154. However, there seem to be very few details, such as the aircraft’s age and first flight, easily available online. However, according to, the aircraft has the construction number 89A798.

Have you seen an open skies observation flight? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!