Russia expected to ask for permission to fly new high-tech surveillance planes over US

Russian surveillance jets are already allowed fly over the US under the Open Skies Treaty

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Image: Ivan Sekretarev / AP/Press Association Images

Russia is expected to ask for permission to fly new high-tech surveillance planes over the United States.

The planes are equipped with high-powered digital cameras which US officials fear could be used to help Moscow gather sensitive intelligence. 

Moscow is already allowed to send surveillance jets over the US under the Open Skies Treaty, which allows all 34 signatories, including Russia and the US to conduct unarmed observation flights. 

The aim of the 2002 treaty is to boost transparency about military activity and help monitor arms control and other agreements.

But, US military and intelligence officials say they fear Russia is taking advantage.

"The treaty has become a critical component of Russia's intelligence collection capability directed at the United States," Adm. Cecil D Haney, commander of the US Strategic Command, warned earlier this year.

"In addition to overflying military installations, Russian Open Skies flights can overfly and collect on Department of Defence and national security or national critical infrastructure," Haney said.

"The vulnerability exposed by exploitation of this data and costs of mitigation are increasingly difficult to characterise."

Meanwhile, Stephen Rademaker, former assistant secretary of state for the US Bureau of Arms Control and the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, told Congress in October that Russia has adopted a number of measures that are "inconsistent with the spirit" of the accord.

Russia, for example, has imposed restrictions on surveillance over Moscow.

But other officials have played down concerns, saying the correct precautions are in place to ensure all nations signed up to the treaty are protected.

They include the requirement for signatories to share all the information gathered with the 33 other nations.

"... one of the advantages with the Open Skies Treaty is that we know exactly what the Russians are imaging, because they must share the imagery with us," Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told a hearing in December.

According to a State Department official, the treaty nations have not yet received notice of the Russian request.

It comes at a time of heightened tensions the US and Russia, chiefly over Moscow's actions in Syria and Ukraine.

US jets have also had to intercept Russian bombers on numerous occasions over the last few years after they flew too close to US territory or US military equipment.