The US Air Force deployed two of its latest and newest fighter jets to the vicinity of Russia on Tuesday, as two latest generation F-35 Lightning IIs flew from the UK to Ämari airbase in Estonia. The visit resembles that of two F-22 Raptors to the same location in September 2015.
The F-35s in question left Lakenheath airbase in the UK on Tuesday morning and in the company of a KC-135 tanker over flew the Netherlands, Germany and Poland on their way to Estonia . The F-35s are part of a larger deployement of eight jets in total, which all arrived in Europe earlier in April for training exercises, according to the Pentagon.
Washington last week stated the visit to Europe was ‘long-planned’ and not aimed at anything other than training. Nevertheless, sending the latest piece of US flying military hardware to within 100 miles of the Russian border can be regarded as more than just training.
NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission provides air defense for the Baltics states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. In the past week alone, NATO aircraft intercepted four Russian Su-24 Fencers and a single AN-26 over Baltic waters.
Spanish Eurofighter Typhoons and Belgian Lockheed Martin F-16s this week take over NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission from Hungarian Saab Gripens and German Typhoons respectively. Spain is acting as ‘lead’ nation.
Four Spanish Typhoons left their homebase of Albacate on Monday 4 January and headed for Šiauliai airbase in Lithuania. From there, Hungarian Gripens over the last three months performed 25 live intercepts of mainly Russian aircraft near the Baltics. The Hungarians clocked up 430 flying hours in total. Airheadsfly.com reported about Baltic Air Policing in Šiauliai last November, spectacular pics included.
Four Belgian F-16s- two from both Kleine Brogel airbase and Florennes airbase – are due at Ämari airbase in Estonia, previously a temporary home to German Typhoons.
The changeover ceremony for the total Baltic Air Policing mission is scheduled for Thursday 7 January. The changeover marks the 40th rotation for the mission, which in 2014 was doubled in size over increased Russian air activity.
The Baltic states provided the stage again for NATO exercise BRTE on Tuesday 29 September. It’s training on the job for Hungarian Saab Gripen and German Eurofighter Typhoon crews, who are on in the Baltics foremost for Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) duties. Finnish F-18 Hornet and Swedish Saab Gripen pilots also played are part in BRTE.
The abbreviation stands for Baltic Region Training Events, a series of military flying exercises conducted over the Baltics and Baltic Sea. The exercise is meant to keep QRA-crews on their toes. The Hungarians protect the Baltics from intruders from Šiauliai airbase in Lithuania, while the German do so from Ämari airbase in Estonia.
Today’s exercise focussed on Siauliai, with a Lithuanian C-27J Spartan simulating a loss of communications (COMLOSS) in Estonian airspace. German Eurofighter Typhoons launched to intercept and identify the transport aircraft and then hand it over to the Hungarian Saab Gripen jets, which escorted it back to Šiauliai. Also involved were a NATO Boeing E-3 AWACS and a US Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker.
The two Lockheed Martin F-22s arrived at Ämari airbase in the morning and flew back to Spangdahlem in Germany later in the day. On Monday, two Raptors paid a similar quick visit to Łask airbase in Poland.
The advanced stealth fighters arrived in Germany on 28 August, flying directly from their homebase in Tyndall, Florida. They are expected to leave Europe again mid-September. In other US military movements, eight US Air National Guard F-16s are due to arrive on Friday in Poland for exercises.
NATO is cutting down on its Baltic Air Policing involvement. The detachment of four Belgian Air Component F-16s at Malbork Airbase in Poland has already left, leaving the air defence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the hands of only twelve and soon only eight fighters on two in stead of three different airbases.
The diminishing of the air combat force has been acknowledged by the ministries of defence in the Baltic republics.
As of September the Hungarian Air Force will base four of its 12 operational SAAB JAS 39C/D Gripen jets on Šiauliai Air Base in Lithuania, while the German Air Force will fly four of its Eurofighter EF2000s (Typhoon) from Ämari Air Base in Estonia.
Until a week ago NATO had sixteen fighter jets committed to its Baltic flank, with the Belgian detachment in Poland and Italian Air Force and Royal Air Force EF2000 Typhoons being lead by the Royal Norwegian Air Force with four Lockheed Martin F-16AM/BM Fighting Falcons.
The move to cut the force by 50 percent is controversial and has probably a cost-saving background, as Russian military air activity in the region stays at a decade high. However, Poland retains one of its own MiG-29 Fulcrum air defence fighter units at Malbork, so some back-up is available. NATO members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania don’t have any fighter jets of their own.
The deployment in Lithuania puts an extra strain on the Hungarian Air Force, which had two Gripen crashes lately likely because of mistakes might by their crews. (Check our newstream!)