US Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt IIs and F-22 Raptors were recently deployed to Ämari Air Base, Estonia, in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve and the European Reassurance Initiative. Jeroen van Veenendaal writes.
Estonia cannot afford its own combat aircraft and is therefore focused on supporting allied air training. For this purpose, and with funding assistance from NATO, Estonia has rebuilt the former Soviet Su-24 base at Ämari into a fully operational airfield that meets the NATO standards. Since 2011 it has the infrastructure and aircraft services necessary for Host Nation Support.
On 22 August 2015, eight A-10 Thunderbolt IIs and approximately 170 reservists from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, were deployed to Ämari Air Base in Estonia as part of a flying training deployment in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve. The aircraft belonged to the 303rd Fighter Squadron, 442nd Fighter Wing. The purpose of the Atlantic Resolve deployments is to show NATO’s commitment to protecting its Eastern borders, and to make sure peace and stability will continue in the region.
Guardsmen from three Air National Guard units supported the mission, during which the A-10s trained for three weeks with NATO partners and also with the Finnish Air Forces, who are eager to join NATO as they also share a border with Russia and would profit greatly from NATO article 5 (which specifies that an attack against one NATO member is to be considered an attack against them all). Missions of course consisted of Close Air Support (CAS) and a lot of low-flying activity, a task the A-10 is built for. Since the last European-based A-10s left their home at Spangdahlem in May 2013, they have become frequent visitors across Eastern European countries following the war in Eastern Ukraine and subsequent hostilities with Russia. The aircraft is beloved by the troops, particularly those who have experienced the power of the A-10 Thunderbolt II first hand when the aircraft and its huge 30mm cannon have swooped in to save them in combat.
Two F-22 Raptors, the most advanced stealth fighter jets in the US Air Force, arrived on 5 September 2015 at Ämari Air Base as part of the European Reassurance Initiative. The Raptors made the trip to Estonia one week after arriving at Spangdahlem and helped reassure Estonia of NATO’s support with a visit to Ämari . The F-22s and approximately 20 supporting airmen were from the 95th Fighter Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. The F-22 deployments to Spangdahlem AB in Germany, Łask AB in Poland, and now Ämari AB in Estonia prove that European bases and other NATO installations can host fifth-generation fighters while also affording the chance for familiarisation flight training within the European theatre. The Raptors were supported by a KC-135 Stratotanker refuelling tanker from the 100th Air Refueling Wing at RAF Mildenhall, UK.
“This forward deployment of the Raptors is part of the inaugural F-22 training deployment to Europe while demonstrating the US commitment to regional and global security”, the US Air Force stated.
US Air Force Maj. David Ruiz, an F-22 pilot, was part of a team that surveyed the base in August prior to the deployment. He came along with the KC-135 to support the F-22 deployment. “I think it’s awesome,” he said. “I think it’s great to see how committed the US has been to the safety and security of Europe. Bringing the F-22 really just showcases that.”
The F-22 fighter jets’ visit to Estonia might have been a brief forward deployment, but their presence left a mark. The historic, mostly symbolic visit left the Estonian people reassured of help whenever it’s needed. Col. Jaak Tarien, the commander of the Estonian Air Force, said “It felt like a wild dream, when we heard it was coming. These aircraft don’t just land anywhere. It’s a big compliment to our capabilities that they chose to come here.” Estonian Defense Minister Sven Mikser said, “It is very symbolic that the region where we have probably the most sophisticated integrated air defense system environment in the world, we have no aircraft here that make those systems relevant.”
He also shared a poignant story regarding the expression ‘the sound of freedom’, to demonstrate the Estonian attitudes towards their NATO allies: “Last summer when flying activity picked up, local people naturally started talking to each other as it’s getting a little bit too noisy. It lasted until an 84-year-old lady wrote a letter to [a] local paper and said: ‘Let me tell you what noise is. I was [an] 11-year old child working on a farm land [sic] here when during World War II, Soviet aircraft came and started strafing us down’, she wrote. ‘The sound of aircraft guns firing at me is the noise that I will remember forever. And if the flight activity from Ämari Air Base can keep that noise away, let them have it.'” Since then, the air base hasn’t had any noise complaints.
The F-22s have previously deployed to both the Pacific and Southwest Asia for airmen to train in a realistic environment while testing partner nations’ ability to host the advanced aircraft. “The F-22 is the most advanced military aircraft that’s visited Estonia”, Sven Mikser told the media. “Everyone in the Estonian Air Force can be justifiably proud that we have this opportunity to host this incredible aircraft.”
In addition to being a show of force against Russia, a nation which has taken a more aggressive posture in the region since last year’s annexation of Crimea from the Ukraine, the deployment of the F-22s was noteworthy in part because the aircraft flew alongside the aging A-10, which the US Air Force is trying to retire.
“This deployment is the perfect opportunity to train closely alongside our fellow US aircraft, our joint partners and our NATO allies”, another F-22 pilot told us. “[It] assures that the F-22 and the airmen can fly, maintain and support F-22 operations and can provide air dominance anywhere, anytime in Europe.”
On 11 September, 14 years after the attack of the World Trade Centre in New York, the F-22s returned to the continental USA. After encountering refuelling problems necessitating a diversion back to Spangdahlem, the next attempt was successful, and the European deployment ended.
Tension in the region
The Estonian Defense Minister was not afraid to clarify the regional tensions. Whilst air force leaders have favoured a more diplomatic approach when debating the Russian threat, Sven Mikser told the media, “This as a whole is the most important message in a situation where our Eastern neighbor is still aggressive and is carrying out different unnecessarily aggressive and provocative activities”. He also told the journalists, “Over the past year and a half we’ve seen the security situation in Europe change quite fundamentally. The more aggressive and provocative behavior by our Eastern neighbour Russia has made it necessary for the NATO alliance to readjust.”
Tensions are high in the region following Russia’s military incursion in Ukraine. For Estonia, a country of about 1.3 million people on NATO’s Eastern border, memories of Soviet occupation still run deep 24 years after the country regained its independence. Shortly after Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula over than a year ago, Estonians were prepared to send their families out of harm’s way “and get ready for war”, Col. Jaak Tarien said. “People were that nervous, really.”
Sven Mikser was happy to see that the quick response NATO partner nations “really calmed us down and showed us the allies are standing by us when we need support.” He added in closing, “It’s a great feeling.”