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.
Shortly after the US Air Force took responsibility for its 4 months, the game changed. In stead of the usual quartet of fighter jets on a relatively low-key mission, loads of Russian combat planes move in the proximity of the Baltic republics. The Russian flew high-readiness missions, including live fire drills as close as 30 miles of the Finnish and Baltic borders and in the Russian Kaliningrad enclave squeezed between Poland and Lithuania. Moreover, Russia increased fighter and AWACS presence in neighbouring Belarus. The US government responded by sending an addditional six F-15C Eagle air-supiority fighters and a KC-135 tanker aircraft from its bases in the UK. Moreover, a dozen USAFE Aviano F-16s landed in Poland.
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.
© 2014 AIRheads’ editor Marcel Burger