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.
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.”
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)