Guarding Baltic Skies

Gerard Gaudin reports on the basing of Belgian F-16s in Lithuania to provide an air defence to the Baltic states.

FOUR BELGIAN F-16 fighters have been defending Baltic airspace 24 hours a day, seven days a week since Estonia. Latvia and Lithuania and four other former communist Eastern European states joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) on March 29 this year. As new members of the Alliance, the three Baltic countries come under NATO’s collective security and defence umbrella, which includes routine policing of all NATO airspace as required. However, all three countries lack dedicated air defences.

Historically, all members of the Alliance have either carried out their own air policing functions or have fulfilled the mission in co-operation with other nations. The latter is the case with Iceland, which relies on US Air Force F-15s on TDY (Tour of Duty) to protect its airspace. Tiny Luxemburg has had a similar agreement with Belgium for several years.

None of the Baltic states can rely on significant military forces: for instance. Lithuania’s entire armed forces total 13.000 troops, less than a classic Cold War division in a Western country. NATO, in fact, has urged them not to invest heavily to bolster their air forces and navies, but to rely instead on collective defence, particularly for air policing cover. Instead, they have invested in the modernisation of their ground forces — they contribute soldiers to NATO operations, including those in Bosnia and Afghanistan — and focus on ‘niche fields’, such as special operations and mine counter measures (MCM).

An interim solution

All three Baltic states asked NATO in March to provide them with air cover from their first day of accession, later fixed as March 29 when a welcome ceremony was organised at the White House in Washington, DC, USA, for NATO’s seven new members (the other four being Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia).

The ‘interim’ solution chosen by the North Atlantic Council (NAC, NATO’s supreme body) was to deploy a ‘small number’ of allied fighters in rotation, while Slovenia concluded a bilateral agreement with Italy for its air defence, which went into force on the day of its accession.

At short notice, the Belgian Air Component (BAC, formerly Belgian Air Force) was called upon to provide initial air policing over the extended NATO skies for a period of three months, until late June. Following a site survey, the final go-ahead was given on March 29 by Belgian Defence Minister Andre Flahaut. Moments later, four F-16AMs from 349 Squadron took off from Kleine-Brogel AB to land at Zokniai AB, in the north of Lithuania, shortly before the ceremony in Washington, after a 90-minute flight.

Zokniai was once one of the Soviet Union’s largest bases, and is now the home of most of the Lithuanian military aircraft — four L-39C Albatrosses, two L-39ZAS, two An-2s, three An-26Bs and two L-410UVPs.

The four F-16s have been fully operational since April 1, and are served by some 50 Belgian personnel, aided by around 20 Danes and a few Britons. Norway has sent an Air Control Unit (ACU) to Kaunas (Lithuania) to provide overall air command and control capability. The Norwegian contribution consists of two containers housing equipment and ten operators deployed for a period of up to three months. Some 200 Lithuanians guard the base and provide Host Nation Support (HNS). Armed with two radar-guided AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAMs) and two short-range all-aspects heat-seeking AIM-9M Sidewinders, the F-16s are on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) to respond not only to any intrusion, but also to commercial airlines in distress, or hijackings such as were involved in the September 11. 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. Two of the fighters must be ready at any moment to take off in 15 minutes from a somewhat improvised parking area at the end of the main runway, in front of some former Soviet shelters.

They are only allowed to fly ‘T-scrambles’ (training) or routine training missions if authorised by the Combined Air Operations Centre (CA0C-2) at Kalkar (Germany), which is responsible for the whole NATO Northern Region.

Close to the Russian borders

NATO officials and military commanders stress that the operation is purely defensive, comparing the total size of the three Baltic countries (67,450 sq miles/174,700km2) with France (209,700 sq miles/543,000km2), which has five active QRAs. However, the territory being patrolled borders some 500 miles (800km) of Russia’s western frontier, including the isolated enclave of Kaliningrad.

Pilots must stay outside a buffer zone 8nm (14km) wide inside the Baltic borders to avoid any misunderstandings with Russia. «An incident is highly unlikely,» Major-General Michel Audrit. commander of the BAC, told reporters during a visit to Siauliai.

Despite these precautions, Russia has expressed sharp criticism of the Alliance’s eastward expansion and its decision to deploy combat aircraft to protect the three former Soviet republics.

«Deployment of NATO’s reconnaissance and strike complex in the Baltic countries is a real threat to both Russia and Belarus,» Russian air defence commander Yury Solovyov told colleagues in Minsk on April 2, the day the seven new members’ flags were ceremonially raised at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

«Deployment of NATO’s reconnaissance and strike complex in the Baltic countries is a real threat to both Russia and Belarus,»

Russian Air Defence Commander Yury Solovyov

Solovyov added that NATO had gained the opportunity to «launch a surprise attack, but we are ready for it» He said it would take an aircraft four minutes to fly to Belarus from the region and 20 minutes to reach Moscow.

Sergei Mironov, Speaker of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Parliament, and Russia’s third highest-ranking official, reiterated Moscow’s opposition to the eastward expansion. «The Russian armed forces are in a state of continuous battle-readiness and we will track the situation that is developing at our borders,» he said.

A majority in the Lower House of the Duma (Parliament) said the move by NATO did not «facilitate the consolidation of stability and security in Europe», and urged President Vladimir Putin to ‘beef up’ the nuclear arsenal should NATO now fail to react satisfactorily to Russian security concerns.

Defence sources said in March that Russia would deploy batteries of surface-to-air missiles to Belarus by September as «free military assistance» to its ally. Together with other former Soviet republics, the two countries held air defence exercises in early April. According to Solovyov. these would include flights by Russian combat planes and early warning aircraft over Belarus. As a further security measure, Moscow is demanding that the Baltic states and Slovenia be included in a revised version of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE). They were not part of the original 1990 agreement between members of NATO and the Warsaw Pact which limited the military forces deployed in their territory.

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