From September, Belgian and German military aircraft will take over responsibility for patrolling Baltic skies as part of NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission, at a time of growing concerns over security in Eastern Europe.
Four Belgian F-16s and some fifty soldiers will lead the mission and operate from the Siauliai base in Lithuania, while four German Eurofighter aircraft will fly out of Ämari, Estonia, as the defence ministries of both Baltic countries said. They will replace Portuguese, Spanish and French Air Force units which were patrolling the region since May 2018.
Earlier this year, the governments in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius called for a ramp-up of the air defence capabilities, considered as one of the weak points in the defence of the Baltic states. Especially since the Ukraine crisis, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been seeking to station short-range air defence systems in addition to deploying Patriot-type US anti-aircraft systems in the region.
Since their accession to NATO in 2004, other alliance members have been in charge of patrolling the skies over Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on a rotational basis as the Baltic States do not have their own fighter aircraft The air corridor west of the Baltic States’ airspace is often used by aircraft flying from territorial Russia to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
Russia’s military reconnaissance flights over the Baltic Sea, which is also patrolled by NATO, have increased sharply since 2014, often leading to dangerously close meetings with the other side’s planes or ships at sea.
“In recent years, we have seen a substantial increase in Russian military air activity along our borders. NATO aircraft take to the skies hundreds of times to intercept Russian military aircraft along the edges of the alliance’s territory. This happens for example when Russian aircraft do not follow a flight plan or do not speak to air traffic control,” a NATO Official told EURACTIV.
“In response, NATO has increased its air patrols in the east of the Alliance.”
According to a report by Global Zero, a security research and advocacy group, between March 2014 and April 2017 alone, 97 midair confrontations between Western and Russian military aircraft over the Baltic were recorded – which makes up two-thirds of the global total of air intercepts in that period.
Last Thursday (23 August), NATO fighters of the British Royal Air Force flying out of Kogalniceanu airbase in Romania intercepted a Russian military aircraft over the Black Sea, in the second such incident that week.
“Whether in the skies over the Black Sea and the Baltic, or on the ground in Estonia, our actions send a clear message – we are collectively ready to respond to any act of aggression and will support our Eastern European allies to deter any threats faced,” British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said in a statement.
Nevertheless, according to renowned Estonian security researcher Andres Kasekamp, the situation is now calmer than in 2015.
“This is partly due to the deployment of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (a multinational battalion in each country) in the Baltic states in 2017, which has done a lot to reassure the Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians and to deter Russia,” he said.
In response to growing tensions with Russia, in July 2016, NATO had decided to send about 1,000 troops to each of the three Baltic States and Poland with the aim to adopt a longer-term strategy for NATO’s Eastern flank. It was the largest troop deployment eastward since the end of the Cold War. The number has since increased to 4,000 troops.