Kevin Wright reviews the Vienna Document 1999 about Combat Air Base visits - does it provide transparency and reassurance, or is it just an anachronism?
The early 1990s saw the conclusion of three major international agreements which impacted upon the deployment and operation of air power within Europe after the end of the Cold War.
The first was the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, signed in November 1990. An arms control measure designed to limit the signatories holdings of tanks, artillery pieces, armoured combat vehicles (ACVs), combat aircraft and attack helicopters within Europe and restrict some elements of their deployment. Second, was the 1990 Vienna Document, subsequently updated on a number of occasions, which established a much broader regime of Confidence and Security Building Measures (CSBMs).
The relevant extract of Vienna Document agreeing CABs: Visits to Airbases reads: 'Each participating State with air combat units reported-under paragraph (10) will arrange visits for representatives of all other participating States to one of its normal peacetime air bases on which such units are located in order to provide the visitors with the opportunity to view activity at the air base, including preparations to carry out the functions of the air base, and to gain an impression of the approximate number of air sorties and type of missions being flown.'
These measures have a wider area of application and address more qualitative issues than CFE, aiming to encourage interaction between the armed forces of the signatory states. Finally the Treaty on Open Skies, signed in 1992, but which did not fully enter into force until 2002 after much delay. This Treaty, a stand-alone measure, has also proved a valuable complement to the other two.
These agreements impose numerous and detailed obligations on the respective armed forces of the signatory states. To oversee the implementation of the agreements most states have created specialist 'verification agencies' to conduct and host the many associated commitments. The Vienna Document alone contains measures for: annual exchanges of information on size and location of military forces, observation and inspection visits to units and specified military activities, programmes of contacts, demonstrations of new weapons systems, evaluation visits, constraints on some large scale military activities and in some situations 'crisis measures'. Most of the schedules are determined annually through the allocation of 'active' and passive' quotas for visits and inspections.
One small, sometimes neglected, element of Vienna Documents provisions is a five-year rolling plan of visits to Combat Air Bases (CAB). The intention to hold CAB visits in any year is generally signalled in advance through the Annual Implementation Assessment Meeting (AIAM) in Vienna - generally during March. The AIAM evaluates the previous year's activities and coordinates plans for the coming year. Two observers from each participating state are normally invited to take part in the visit. During a CAB visit inspectors are given briefings on the purpose and functions of the air base and its current activities. Visitors also have the opportunity to talk with personnel stationed there, to view all types of aircraft located at the base and check tail numbers. The very first of these visits took place in September 1991 to the then F13 Wing at Norrköping in Sweden - by the end of 2006 the number of CAB visits undertaken exceeded eighty.
The end of 2006 also marks completion of the third cycle of CAB visits, previous cycles running from 1991-95, 1996-2001 and 2002-06. Though there is some 'slippage' most states will have completed their obligations within the agreed timetable. 2006 has seen a record number of CAB visits in a single year in an attempt to meet the current cycle deadline. By the end of 2006 visits had been made to bases in Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Germany, Hungary, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, Portugal, Romania, Russia and Ukraine, with a significant proportion of these in the last quarter of the year.
Individual programmes are compiled by the host state who determines the location and content of a visit. The CAB provisions are open to some interpretation, which means the content of individual visits can vary substantially. Some adopt a very broad interpretation of the concept, to mean that visitors should examine all aspects of an air bases operation - support and domestic functions and facilities as well as those relating directly to the 'combat' tasks. Others tend to concentrate on just operational, combat related functions. Such differences of emphasis can generate minor friction on occasion.
Anatomy of a Visit
As an example of how visits are planned and undertaken, the most recent CAB visit to the UK took place in July 2003. It was somewhat unusual in that the UK and United States Air Forces Europe agreed to combine their CAB obligations. As signatories to these major agreements US facilities in Europe are open to possible inspection, visit and overflight.
Initial planning for the combined visit began over a year beforehand, when a team from the UK MoD, the Joint Arms Control Implementation Group (JACIG) and RAF Marham met with US representatives from the 48th FW at RAF Lakenheath. Both states compiled their individual programmes and cooperated on joint elements, including social and logistic arrangements. It is a Vienna Document requirement that invitations to other signatory states be sent at least six weeks in advance in a specific format. This was done in May 2003 to enable the visits to take place in early July. At each location preparations required assembling briefings and displays, assigning escorts and interpreters and making the detailed logistic arrangements.
The British element of the CAB visit, known under the JACIG acronym 'Op PATHWAY' included an attack demonstration at RAF Marham plus visits to the resident squadrons operating locations as well as training and domestic facilities. On this occasion visitors also went to the Stanford Training Area to watch demonstrations of RAF Merlins and recently introduced items of Royal Marines and British Army equipment (Op CRAY), covering another Vienna Document requirement.
The visit to RAF Lakenheath took place over 9-11 July 2003. As at RAF Marham there were some forty-seven representatives from twenty-seven of the signatory states including Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, Finland, Russia, Serbia & Montenegro, Sweden, Switzerland and the Ukraine, as well as most of the NATO states. The main visit included briefings from senior officers of the 48th FW, observation of static displays of the Wing's F-15s and their munitions. Also included were opportunities to look at the Wing's Component and Equipment Squadrons, Security Forces, as well as equipment demonstrations and Lakenheath's domestic facilities for its personnel and their families.
CAB visits are generally less formal events than CFE inspections, where the agenda is tightly defined using a standard methodology. Visits provide an opportunity to showcase the particular strengths of the units and their equipment and hosts, as a matter of professional pride, usually ensure that they are as advantageously presented as possible.
As was hoped with the original creation of the agreements, the protection of some military information has relaxed somewhat over the years. For example, during early visits even details such as longitude/latitude locations outside Hardened Aircraft Shelters were often obscured. Base location maps used to have important detail omitted. Now neither are generally regarded as being sufficiently sensitive as to require significant protection.
Even given the purpose of the visits, this does not mean that all is openness. Facilities and units still protect their 'sensitive' information and restrictions are still imposed on photography and other forms of devices that inspectors can use for recording purposes. For CAB visits this is most easily achieved by not visiting sensitive locations and rescheduling any base operations that hosts do not wish visitors to see. For inspections conducted as parts of other agreements this is often more difficult to do.
The almost routine nature of contacts created by these agreements would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. They are now an integral part of the military interaction between the states of Europe and North America and have greatly improved transparency. Perhaps the greatly enlarged extent of defence cooperation now renders such visits as largely redundant particularly with relations between the West and Russia so radically changed?
At the political level questions have been raised about the continuing value of undertaking CAB visits in today's more relaxed atmosphere, though few suggest totally halting them. However, for some of the smaller states, these activities are regarded as valuable opportunities for observation and information gathering.
Consideration within the OSCE's Forum for Security Cooperation (FSC) in Vienna continues on how these agreements might be enhanced to keep them relevant. For many states the threat perception has migrated beyond preoccupation with interstate wars to the different issues posed by intrastate conflict and the concerns of international terrorism. Thus the problem becomes both more complex and somewhat different to those previously experienced. The challenge is to ensure that measures, such as those contained in the Vienna Document, continue to maintain and enhance transparency and address the real security concerns of the participants.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Mr Andy Walker, 48 FW, and Lt Col Bengt Jansson, Swedish Armed Forces, for their generous assistance.