Tag Archives: Baltics

Baltic Air Policing: report from a hot spot

It’s as grey and cold a day as a November day can be in Lithuania, and from above the clouds comes the noise of jets. Since 2004, it’s NATO fighter aircraft making that noise, guarding the Baltic states while on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA). Today, Hungarian Saab Gripens are responsible for the noise as they perform a tango (training) scramble on a Lithuanian Air Force C-27J Spartan. A report from a hot spot.

The aircraft that were intercepted during those alpha scrambles, did they have red stars painted on them? At Šiauliai airbase in Lithuania, Hungarian JAS39 Gripen pilot Viktor Langó smiles a knowing smile. “We intercepted Su-27 Flankers and An-26 transport aircraft, but also some civil aircraft. It’s our job to go up there and see what unknown aircraft near the Baltic states are up to. We follow NATO’s rules of engagement on each intercept.” Do those rules allow waving or other gestures to Russian pilots? Again, a knowing smile.

For over a decade, NATO fighter aircraft have been on (QRA) at both Šiauliai and more recently, also at Ämari air base in Estonia. The Hungarians deployed four Saab Gripens and 80 personnel to Šiauliai, while the Germans sent Eurofighter Typhoons and staff to Ämari. The Hungarian detachment is currently in the lead over NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission.

(Image © Elmer van Hest)
A Hungarian Air Force Saab JAS39 Gripen on Quick Reaction Alert. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Scramble! (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Scramble! (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
Ready for engine start… (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
… and minutes later it’s up and away. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Activity
Last year saw a dramatic increase in Russian air activity near the Baltics and most of Europe, forcing NATO to temporarily reinforce the Baltic mission. At Šiauliai – the airbase that continues to see considerable modifications in light of NATO’s presence – the Hungarians still see Russian activity, although it seems safe to say Russia’s current operations in Syria do have an effect on their Baltic ops. NATO in 2015 also choose to reduce the Baltic mission to it’s regular size after the initial expansion.

The four Hungarian Gripens since September flew 230 hours over the Baltics, armed with guns, AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles. “In preparation, we went to Sweden in the Spring for a live firing exercise”, says Langó, a 600 hour Gripen pilot. “Also, exercise Lion Effort 2015 in the Czech Republic provided valuable training.”

(Image © Elmer van Hest)
QRA flights are always flown in pairs. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
A Gripen shows its Sidewinder and AMRAAM missiles, plus its fake cockpit painted on the underside. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
Hungarian Gripens clocked up 230 hours over the Baltics, plus over a dozen alpha scrambles. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Simultaneous
However, it’s not like the Hungarian Air Force doesn’t know how to provide a QRA, as they have been doing the very same at their homebase of Kecskemét in Hungary for years. Maintaining two simultaneous QRA’s in two different countries takes effort, however. A shift in the Iceland Air Policing mission may be on the cards in 2016. Luckily, the loss of two Hungarian Gripens earlier in 2015 (see here and here) doesn’t pose a big problem. Langó: “We are working to repair the single seat aircraft that was damaged.”

The Gripen is a ‘small but smart’ aircraft, says Langó. Similar to the Czech Air Force, the Hungarians are set to explore the Gripen’s air-to-ground capabilities with the use of Litening targeting pods.

Over Šiauliai, the clouds reveal two Saab Gripens returning from their tango scramble. Immediately, they are prepared again for the real thing. It may still be a grey and cold day, the Baltics remain a hot spot between NATO on the one side, and those in the red starred aircraft on the other side.

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Featured image (top): Up close over the clouds: a Hungarian Gripen. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

(Image © Elmer van Hest)
As grey as a November day can be. Clouds shroud the Lithuanian country side. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
Study of a Gripen. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
Four modern aircraft shelters have been erected at Šiauliai, housing the QRA aircraft. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
Back after another sortie. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
A Gripen pilot finds himself at the center of attention. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
A Gripen pilot finds himself at the center of attention. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Lithuanian Air Force C-27J Spartans regularly find themselves as targets for practice interceptions - or as photo platforms. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Lithuanian Air Force C-27J Spartans regularly find themselves as targets for practice interceptions – or as photo platforms. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)

“Russian bombers provoke Sweden”

During the political week of Sweden in July, when all politicians of all parties are together in Visby on the island of Gotland, two Russian bombers executed a simulated attack on the major Swedish naval base of Karlskrona and performed a narrow fly-by of Gotland. “This kind of behaviour is very aggressive,” Swedish quality newspaper Dagens Nyheter (DN) quotes a Swedish intelligence officer on 1 November 2015.

A Sukhoi Su-24M ("Fencer") on a snowy airbase of the Russian Central Military District (Image © Russian Ministry of Defence)
RELATED POST: Swedes slow while Russian bombers invaded

According to DN, new information shows that two Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire strategic bombers went straight for Karlskrona on 4 July 2015, after taking off from an airbase in the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad. Apparently the Russian bombers changed course only 15 to 30 seconds before entering Swedish airspace. They seemed to ingore the two Royal Danish Air Force F-16s and two Swedish Air Force JAS 39C Gripen jets scrambled to intercept.

The Backfires then headed north to Gotland and passed the strategic island just east of its territorial airspace, while practically all Swedish politicians were on it for the final days of the yearly main political event. The earlier released official statement of the Swedish Ministry of Defence on the incident did not include all these details.

Both Sweden and Finland have been strengthening their cooperation with NATO, causing both political and military protests from Moscow. While a full membership of the military alliance has not been asked for, the government in Finland recently ordered a quick investigation into the pros and cons of NATO membership to make a more fundamental decision on to join or not to join in 2016.

Sweden so far doesn’t go for full NATO membership, but more and more Swedish politicians are advocating in favour of joining while Russia is – in their eyes – acting more and more aggressively towards the Scandinavian nations.

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Marcel Burger
Featured image: Two Russian Air Force Tu-22M3s intercepted by Finnish Air Force F/A-18 Hornets in December 2014 (Image © Ilmavoimat)

A typical Swedish "incident readiness" flight of two JAS 39 Gripen fighters - here on an unarmed training mission in 1998 - fly by the city of Visby, the main town on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. (Image © Flygvapnet)
A typical Swedish “incident readiness” flight of two JAS 39 Gripen fighters – here on an unarmed training mission in 1998 – fly by the city of Visby, the main town on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. (Image © Flygvapnet)

Baltics: training ‘on the job’

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.

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Featured image (top): A Eurofighter escorts a Spartan. (Image © LAF Air Base)

(Image © LAF Air Base)
(Image © LAF Air Base)
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(Image © LAF Air Base)
(Image © LAF Air Base)
(Image © LAF Air Base)
(Image © LAF Air Base)
(Image © LAF Air Base)
(Image © LAF Air Base)
(Image © LAF Air Base)
(Image © LAF Air Base)
(Image © LAF Air Base)