At a time when when relations between the US and Russia are about as bad as they have ever been outside of the cold war, despite expectations for a detente under the Trump administration which have not taken place for obvious reasons, the mere thought of a Russian military plane flying above the continental US, let alone the Capitol, would prompt incredulous follow-up questions whether it had been shot down. And yet, that it precisely what happened today when an unarmed Russian Air Force aircraft overflew the Capitol, the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency and Andrews Air Force Base at low altitude.
The plane also reportedly flew above Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains, the Trump National Golf Course in Virginia, and Mount Weather, one of the US government's secret relocation bunkers
The flight, however, was neither unexpected nor threatening, and took place as part of a longstanding treaty that allows the militaries of the two nations to observe each other from the air.
The Russian flight was part of the 2002 Treaty on Open Skies, which allows military aircraft from the United States and Russia and other nations to fly aerial observation flights to observe military sites of the 34 signatory nations. It just so happened that today it was Putin's turn, and on Wednesday afternoon the Russian Air Force Tupolev Tu-154 passed at around 3,700 feet over downtown Washington and Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, where Air Force One is based, according to flight tracking website.
According to the State Department, "the treaty is designed to enhance mutual understanding and confidence by giving all participants, regardless of size, a direct role in gathering information through aerial imaging on military forces and activities of concern to them."
Open Skies flights receive air traffic control priority and are closely coordinated with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Russian just flat out trolling us, Russian Tu-154 just overflew the Capitol and Pentagon at about 3700' and I got a nice front row seat!! pic.twitter.com/tcwqQKgGnx— ???? Tracker (@TXWayne) August 9, 2017
The Open Skies Treaty has been in effect since 2002 and over 1,200 flights have been conducted since, which contributes to verification of compliance with arms control agreements, according to the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). And, under the Open Skies treaty, the Russian plane is authorized to enter P-56, the highly secure airspace surrounding the White House.
???????? Low pass over Andrews AFB— CivMilAir ? ???? (@CivMilAir) August 9, 2017
???????? Russian Air Force
Open Skies Tu154 RF85655 pic.twitter.com/r7z7DRBpat
According to CNN, a second flight by the same jet is planned for between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. ET on Wednesday, when the Russian jet will overfly Bedminster, New Jersey, where President Donald Trump is vacationing, "according to two people familiar with the US government-approved flight."
The Russian aircraft has the ability to perform a variety of intelligence gathering functions, including aerial photography, thermal imaging, and picking up signals intelligence. ANd while the aircraft is capable of a variety of intelligence missions, overseeing the flyovers were several USAF personnel on board.
Still, law enforcement agencies were given very little warning of these "short notice" flights, according to CNN.
While treaty flights tend to be common, and the same Russian Air Force jet was recently spotted recently landing at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kansas, the flight Wednesday is notable because of the high-profile nature of its surveillance targets in the nation's capital.
While the US Capitol Police sent an alert regarding plans of an aircraft to overfly Washington between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Wednesday, it did not specific that the aircraft would be flown by the Russian Air Force.
"The aircraft will be large and may fly directly over the US Capitol," according to the alert. "This flight will be monitored by the US Capitol Police Command Center and other federal government agencies."
While CNN writes that the Russian Embassy in the US did not respond to a request for comment, it is unclear what if anything the plane can glean that the Russians can't already learn from spy satellite overlights, especially since anything of value would have been hidden well in advance of the pre-telegraphed flight.