Lithuania on Thursday 14 January celebrated the entry into service of the new Airbus Helicopters AS365 N3+ helicopters for search and rescue (SAR) duties. The new choppers, three of which have been ordered, are available for duty 24/7.
The Baltic country ordered the helicopters are replacement for ageing, Soviet era Mil Mi-8 Hip helos. Following the first two deliveries in June and September 2015, air force pilots, rescue workers and technicians underwent a full training program, including the use of a full flight simulator. The final chopper arrived in-country last month.
The three AS365 N3+ SAR helicopters are fully equipped with the latest technologies such as forward looking infrared (FLIR), radar, search lights, hailer, hoist, and stretchers. The full glass cockpit and 4-axis autopilot with SAR modes significantly decrease the crew workload, allowing them to perform their demanding missions safely.
Spanish Eurofighter Typhoons and Belgian Lockheed Martin F-16s this week take over NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission from Hungarian Saab Gripens and German Typhoons respectively. Spain is acting as ‘lead’ nation.
Four Spanish Typhoons left their homebase of Albacate on Monday 4 January and headed for Šiauliai airbase in Lithuania. From there, Hungarian Gripens over the last three months performed 25 live intercepts of mainly Russian aircraft near the Baltics. The Hungarians clocked up 430 flying hours in total. Airheadsfly.com reported about Baltic Air Policing in Šiauliai last November, spectacular pics included.
Four Belgian F-16s- two from both Kleine Brogel airbase and Florennes airbase – are due at Ämari airbase in Estonia, previously a temporary home to German Typhoons.
The changeover ceremony for the total Baltic Air Policing mission is scheduled for Thursday 7 January. The changeover marks the 40th rotation for the mission, which in 2014 was doubled in size over increased Russian air activity.
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.
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.
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!)