Aviation Week, By Tony Osborne
The sight of heavily armed NATO fighters in the skies over the Baltic States is one that the alliance hopes will continue to deter aggression in the region.
Every few months, member nations take turns policing the skies of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as well as the international airspace over the neighboring Baltic Sea.
The three tiny nations—bordering Russia, its exclave Kaliningrad or long-term ally Belarus—are spending heavily on their defense, but their small size makes a fighter-equipped air arm something of a luxury. Therefore, they remain heavily reliant on fellow NATO members for air defense.
The alliance is further increasing its presence both here and in other areas of Eastern Europe. The Enhanced Forward Presence, a plan outlined by NATO leaders at the Wales summit three years ago, is taking shape, putting battalion-sized army formations in place in an attempt to deter regional aggression. Hundreds of troops, armored vehicles and equipment have been arriving since in the Baltic States and Poland, by sea and air. NATO is also reinforcing air policing measures for countries on the Black Sea.
The U.S. Army deployed a Combat Aviation Brigade to Europe in February, delivering more than 80Black Hawks, Chinooks and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters into Latvia, Poland and Germany.
Britisharrived in late April at Romania’s Mihail Kogalniceanu air base, near Constanta, and this summer Italian Typhoons are expected to support a new Bulgarian air policing effort for several months.
This month, NATO air arms will operate with the air forces of neutral Finland and Sweden in a gathering of more than 90 combat aircraft as part of exercise Arctic Challenge, a considerably enlarged training drill to enhance the regional allies’ collaborative abilities.
NATO’s fleet of E-3 Sentrys also is seeing increases in operational tempo. On top of the reassurance flights in Eastern Europe and support of operations against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, the NATO E-3 component was asked by Turkey to provide additional monitoring of Russian activities on its border with Syria.
The Baltic States have been concerned with Russian aggression since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine, and their worries are perhaps best illustrated by a threat assessment published by the Lithuanian government in April, which describes Russia as a “major source of threats” to the country’s national security.
Vilnius says Russian intelligence services have been conducting active and aggressive activity against Lithuania, taking a significant interest in the country’s military buildup and personnel called up for conscription, which was reintroduced in May 2015. Vilnius also noted increased use of UAV surveillance of its military activities.
In addition, Lithuania has pointed out a significant military buildup in the Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia’s exclave on the Baltic Sea bordering Lithuania, Poland and Belarus, with advanced air defense systems and reequipping of brigades with advanced tactical ballistic missiles such as the Iskander. Electronic warfare units in Kaliningrad have been using jamming techniques against NATO aircraft flying in the region, Vilnius says, while research ships in Lithuanian waters are suspected of gathering intelligence on a strategic submarine power cable that links the Baltic state with Sweden.
Overall, threats to Lithuanian security from Russia and neighboring Belarus “will be growing in intensity,” the report says. “In order to strengthen its global power status or enhance support for the regime, Russia may undertake new, risky steps in foreign policy.”
It is perhaps no wonder then that security is so tight around the Baltic Air Policing compounds here at Siauliai, 80 mi. north of the Kaliningrad border. Dutch armed guards patrol the perimeter fence around an internal compound that was once a Soviet hardened aircraft shelter complex that housed Mikoyan MiG-23s.
Two Dutchare on 24-hr. alert, along with the Typhoons operated by their German colleagues at Amari, Estonia. Each F-16 is armed with a mix of four or six AIM-9 Sidewinders and AIM-120 AMRAAMs.
Just a few years ago, Baltic Air Policing aircraft would have toted a couple of the infrared missiles; the addition of AMRAAM perhaps reflects the seriousness of the threat. Some of Russia’s most capable combat aircraft are based in the Baltic region now. The Russian Navy based its first Sukhoi Su-30SM at Kaliningrad at the end of last year.
Since deploying here in January, the Dutch have attended some 15 so-called Alpha-scrambles to identify Russian aircraft flying in the Baltic, although two of the scrambles were in aid of airliners with radio or flight-planning issues. The Dutch have identified Antonov An-26,Il-18 and Il-22 intelligence-gathering aircraft as well as Sukhoi Su-24 and Su-27 combat aircraft, among others. The Russian aircraft are often not squawking with their transponders, have not filed a flight plan and are not talking to local air traffic control.
The Dutch have been using their Sniper laser-designator pods to visually identify aircraft of interest from long distances, cuing the pod with the aircraft’s radar, says the detachment commander, who identified himself only by his call sign, “Midas,” for security reasons. However, the crews will always make almost “face-to-face contact” with the target aircraft.
The Dutch are due to depart Lithuania at the beginning of May; Polish Air Force F-16s will take over the Baltic Air Policing missions for the first time. At Amari, the German contingent will be replaced by Spanish EF-18 Hornets.
In the final days of their deployment, the Dutch and German aircraft performed a multinational exercise, Ramstein Alloy IV, testing the capabilities of the deployed crews to work with other regional air arms and Baltic state ground controllers. A key part of the exercise was to train for incidents when aircraft lose contact and the intercepting aircraft looks to regain that communication link.
At the same time, the U.S. Air Force sent twoJoint Strike Fighters deployed to England on a 2-hr. visit to Estonia, hailing the close bilateral relations between Washington and Tallinn. The flight may have been part of a well-coordinated intelligence-gathering mission, however. Prepositioned for their arrival was a trio of RC-135s, two signals-intelligence-gathering RC-135Ws, one operated by the British , and an RC-135U Combat Sent collecting electronic data on radar emitters on station over Estonia near the Russian border. All three were clearly waiting for a Russian reaction to the arrival of the F-35s in the region.