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.
Star of the new fleet will be a Bombardier CRJ 900, planned to operate alongside smaller CRJ 700s in a fleet of four to six aircraft. The new airline will get its own brand name and livery, but in reality it will likely be flown by an existing company – or a new one to divide risks and play by the EU rules. Such construction is common not only in aviation, but even in Scandinavian public transport systems like the one of Stockholm. The name of the new airline is not known yet, but Nordic Aviation or Estonian Regional Jet are two circulating in Scandinavian and Baltic media.
After Estonia Air filed for bankrupcy Adria Airways jumped in to provide Estonia with its necessary air traffic connections with the outside world, while Air Baltic has been trying to scoop up some of the passengers. According to sources in Tallinn, the new “Estonian Airlines” is planned to be up and running by year’s end at the latest.
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!)
Four Su-34 Fullbacks, four MiG-31 Foxhounds and two An-26 Curls. That’s was the score in a single Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) last week for Royal Air Force (RAF) Eurofighter Typhoons participating in NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission over the Baltics. The Typhoons operated from Estonia to where they are deployed from homebase of RAF Lossiemouth in the UK.
The Typhoons met the Russian armada in international airspace over the Baltic Sea. The Russian aircraft appeared to be carrying out a variety of routine training missions, according to the UK Ministry of Defence. Since May, the Typhoons carried out 18 live intercepts of Russian aircraft, but never before did they encounter such a large formation of Russian airplanes.