From 1 September 2014 until early January 2015 six Portuguese F-16AM fighters, supported by four Boeing CF-188 (F/A-18) Hornets of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), were deployed to Siauliai Air Base in Lithuania on a NATO mission to police the skies above the Baltics. Jorge Ruivo guest reports for GAR.
A key role of NATO in peacetime is that of air policing. Preserving the integrity of the Alliance airspace is a joint undertaking of member countries and requires actions to be taken by NATO against violations and infringements of international rules of the air. In order to provide an agile and credible deterrent, NATO members without the capability to ensure their own airspace is effectively protected, are assisted by other member nations.
NATO assumed responsibility for the security of the Baltic airspace in 2004 when Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia became member nations. Since then, the NATO Air Policing mission in the Baltic states has been performed on a rotational basis by Belgium, Denmark, Czech Republic, UK, Spain, USA, Poland, Norway, Netherlands, Portugal, France, Romania, Turkey and Germany from the Siauliai Air Base for independent protection of the Baltic airspace. Hungary and Italy are set to join the list in 2015.
The Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, a sea port located between Poland and Lithuania, is the primary reason the Baltic Air Policing Mission exists with Lithuania being best positioned to conduct missions that involve carrying out surveillance sorties in that area. This deployment, Block 36, which included Canada for the first time, was the third rotation since the NATO Baltic Air Policing tasking was strengthened at the end of April 2014 as a result of rising regional tensions between Ukraine and Russia. The German Air Force operated from Amari Air Base in Estonia with four Eurofighter EF2000s while four Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16AMs operated from Malbork in Poland.
The Baltic Air Policing commitment is a purely defensive mission and involves the patrolling of Baltic skies and escorting any infringing aircraft out of European airspace. The interception of Russian military flights has multiplied, at a time when tensions between Moscow and the West are at their highest point since the end of the Cold War.
The Baltic Air Policing mission requires the deployed nations to maintain a 24/7 QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) posture of both personnel and aircraft, ready to respond to activity in NATO airspace that needs assessing. These “Alpha” (Active) sorties rapidly intercept and identify any civil or military aircraft that fly within a region of airspace without identification or without communication with air traffic control, thus posing a potential threat to other aircraft in the vicinity.
In November 2014, members of the media were allowed to spend two days at Siauliai Air Base to raise awareness of military activities in the region. The press conference was attended by local and foreign media with one military representative from each country.
Lt. Colonel Morais, commander of the Portuguese deployment, said that, “It is an honour for the Portuguese Air Force to participate in the mission of NATO Baltic Air Policing for the second time, and the biggest problem here is air safety. That’s why we went out to identify what it is and try to ensure that any civilian flights in the area are not flying in the same route, so we actually maintain the security of the skies”. In turn, Lt. Colonel Raklevicius, the Siauliai Air Base commander, pointed out that “Most of the unidentified aircraft belong to the Russian Federation; transport aircraft, fighters, bombers, strategic bombers, are military aircraft of various types”. The RCAF’s Lt. Colonel David Pletz highlighted the fact that, “For Canada to be back in Europe and engaged in NATO missions, this collective effort is a good example that demonstrates the commitment of the alliance to the harmony and security of Europe, sharing experiences with other allied countries, achieving interoperability, community and supporting our response capability “.
The press conference was followed by a visit to the site where the Portuguese troops were based. The Portuguese Air Force performed one QRA “Tango” (training) mission, simulating the readiness levels required of a real scramble which saw two F-16s take-off followed by a single Canadian CF-188 Hornet. The media programme continued in the control tower where there was also a brief presentation from the Royal Canadian Air Force and we observed the aircraft recoveries at the end of the mission. We were then granted access to a CF-188 Hornet that was parked on the apron in front of the control tower.
The following day a C-27J from the Lithuanian Air Force was launched, providing the media with air-to-air filming and photography opportunities with the two types of aircraft present during this deployment, one F-16 of the Portuguese Air Force and one CF-188 from the Royal Canadian Air Force together.
During the deployment the air activity increased to three times the level seen in 2013. Portugal, in addition to the interception missions in the Baltic area, also carried out the same type of mission at home towards the end of 2014 when on several occasions Russian Tu-95 “Bear” strategic bombers approached its coast without communications and flight plans. But for the Portuguese Air Force these types of missions are part of their routine daily training, and two F-16s can be found permanently manning a QRA commitment at Monte Real Air Base from where they are used to intercept any unidentified civil or military aircraft that come close to its airspace.
At the time of publishing, Block 37 of the Baltic Air Policing mission has just commenced with Italian Air Force Eurofighter EF2000s replacing the Portuguese F-16AMs in the leadership role, while Polish MiG-29s have replaced the CF-188s from Canada. Spanish Eurofighter EF2000s are also active from Amari accompanied by Belgian F-16s at Malbork.
The Baltic Air Policing mission began a decade ago, was declared a permanent mission by NATO in February 2012 and will continue with this enhanced air policing until further notice.