US Air Force F-15 Eagles tested Estonian Air Base Ämaris today, 22 April 2014, ahead of the upcoming NATO Baltic Air Policing deployment from May 2014.
Two of the USAFE’s air-superiority fighters, a F-15C and a F-15D, from RAF Lakenheath deployed to Ämaris from Šiauliai in Lithuania, where ten of the F-15s are based until the end of this month. The Lithuanian Air Base was until now the sole location for the rotating NATO fighter coverage for its northeastern flank (the Baltic states).
But after the military pressure from Russia on Ukraine, NATO has gladly accepted Estonia’s offer to use its main air base as a secondary location. According to the Estonian Ministry of Defence the US is sending an army company (150 troops) to the Baltic country this month for training. Such US presence might even be permanent sources within to the government in the capital Tallinn say on 22 April.
Estonian Airbase Ämari has undergone upgrades the last couple of years to serve as a fighter base. With the Estonian Armed Forces having no such aircraft themselves, it was fully aimed at attracting NATO jets. From May 2014 four Royal Danish Air Force F-16s will be based at Ämaris for their four month rotation, while four Polish MiG-29s and four Royal Air Force Typhoons will fly from Šiauliai.
With several offers on the table and Russia showing no sign in easing its military readiness exercises nor its concentration of forces on the border with Ukraine, NATO is eager to semi-permanently increase its Baltic Air Policing detachment from four to a dozen aircraft.
NATO officials confirmed on 9 April 2014 four Polish Air Force MiG-29 Fulcrums, four Royal Air Force Typhoon FRG.4 and six Royal Danish Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters will start their four month air defence mission of NATO’s in May this year. The force might get even more back-up as France is expected to send four Rafale or Mirage 2000s to a Polish air base.
The former Soviet Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are since 2004 part of NATO. Since they lack proper air defence assets themselves, other NATO members jump in on the joint task to protect the airspaces of its member nations. The same defence agreement also counts for the NATO countries of Luxemburg, Iceland and Slovenia who all lack fighter aircraft. Until Russia took control of the Crimea peninsula further southeast, the NATO Air Policing mission consisted of four fighter jets making 15 tot 20 flight hours per month of a combined total of 320 flight hours. The mission rotates between member states.
To spread the air coverage and to take some of the nervousness amongst the Baltic states away the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission will use two airbases from May on. Šiauliai Airbase in Lithuania will still be the main base of operations, with the RAF Typhoons and the Polish MiG-29s arriving for their four month tour of duty at the end of April. A quartet of Danish F-16s and about 50 Danish military personnel will deploy to Ämari in Estonia, confirmed the Danish Forsvaret on 9 April 2014. Ämari is situated in the northwest of Estonia. Another two RDAF Vipers will be on dedicated Baltic scramble alert at Skrydstryp in Denmark, ready to forward deploy to Estonia as well if necessary.
Despite the fact that Sweden is not part of NATO the biggest country of Scandinavia has also increased its military readiness. SAAB JAS 39 Gripen fighter planes are forwardly deployed to Visby Airport at the big Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. Moreover, a pair of Swedish Air Force Gripens trained with the USAF F-15C Eagles and Lithuanian defences in the beginning of April flying from Šiauliai in Lithuania as part of a pre-planned Partnership for Peace exercise. Several Swedish sources report increased flying activity of the Flygvapnet Gulfstream IVS or S 102 B Korpen as it is known is Swedish service. Two of these aircraft have been especially modified to gather electronic information (SIGINT) on behalf of the Defence Signal Intelligence Agency (FRA). The Swedish national security police Säpo recently called Russia a threat to the the Swedish state, for the first time in more than 20 years.
From Šiauliai Airbase in Lithuania every USAF Eagle pilot will fly about 20 hours per month, three months in a row, with 320 flight hours for the entire mission. NATO’s detachment of fighter jets in Lithuania regularly intercepts or shadows Russian military aircraft over the Baltic Sea. NATO provides a similar air policing detachment to Iceland, where it were also USAF F-15Cs that patrolled the skies during the last few months.
The former Soviet Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are since 2004 part of NATO. Since they lack proper air defence assets themselves, other NATO members jump in on the joint task to protect the aerospace of its member nations. The same defence agreement also counts for the NATO countries of Luxemburg, Iceland and Slovenia who all lack fighter aircraft. As of 2015 NATO is considering a second base of operations: Ämari in Estonia.
A fun side-note from Estononian newspaper Postimees: for the first time since it gained independence in 1991 Estonia recorded a supersonic boom in its skies on 6 November 2013. It was caused by exercising NATO aircraft that flew at an estimated 28,000 feet over the Viljandi and Valga counties.
Source: NATO / USAF / Lithuanian Ministry of Defence / Postimees