The NATO Baltic Air Policing mission has been ongoing since March 30, 2004, and provides interceptors for the policing of Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian airspace. The Baltic states currently do not have the assets to provide their own airspace security.
The mission has been carried out in various rotations, typically lasting two to four months, and is part of the NATO Integrated Air Defense System. Usually, four fighter/interceptor aircraft are deployed in every rotation, supported by 50-100 associated personnel. The aircraft are based in Siauliai Air Base in Lithuania, where over time NATO has built up significant infrastructure and logistics to handle the ongoing rotational deployments. More than 30 deployments have already been completed.
The types of aircraft deployed during the history of the Baltic Air Policing mission have been varied, reflecting the diverse inventory of the large number of contributing NATO member states. Aircraft include:
- Tornado F3
- Mirage F1M
- Mirage F1CR
- Mirage 2000C
- MiG-21 Lancer 'C'
- Eurofighter Typhoon
The most common aircraft type deployed has been the F-16AM, and the country with the most deployments so far is Germany.
The United States is currently tasked with the air policing mission. Before the crisis escalated in Ukraine, the United States had four F-15C aircraft deployed in Lithuania. As tensions worsened, and in an effort to reassure its Baltic allies, the United States deployed six additional F-15C interceptors for a total of 10, plus a KC-135 aerial refueling tanker.
The U.S. rotation is scheduled to end May 1, but the expanded nature of the air policing mission is set to continue and even increase through the next deployment. Given the enlarged scope of the mission going forward, three nations are going to deploy aircraft starting May 1. These nations are Poland — originally tasked with the rotation before the crisis — Denmark and the United Kingdom, fielding the MiG-29A, F-16AM and Eurofighter Typhoon, respectively. With Poland expected to send four aircraft, the United Kingdom another four to six, and Denmark an additional six, the mission will be greatly expanded with up to 16 aircraft — a fourfold increase over usual deployments. France has also signaled that it is willing to send Rafale jets to the mission, and although no firm commitment has been made, they could join the August deployment.
The expanded mission will have to contend with two challenges: the problem of multiple nations with diverse types of aircraft deploying simultaneously and the issue of congestion.
Denmark, Poland and the United Kingdom have already carried out multiple exercises together and are well versed and trained for such deployments. But even then, they will need to take advantage of the time before they deploy to arrange communication and logistical procedures and preparations. Poland is deploying the MiG-29A, which is not as compatible — by NATO standards — as the F-16AM and the Typhoon. Fortunately, the Polish MiG-29A fleet, which includes ex-German MiG-29s, has been heavily upgraded with NATO compatible avionics, and the Poles are used to flying them alongside their own F-16s. The issue of interoperability remains, however, with different platforms requiring different physical components and different operating procedures.
It is also unclear whether there is enough space in Siauliai Air Base for all the aircraft that are expected to deploy. It may be necessary to make use of additional airfields in the region such as Lielvarde Air Base in Latvia or Amari Air Base in Estonia. Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas has already said that, after talks with NATO, the alliance has accepted an Estonian offer to use Amari Air Base.
Policing the Skies
The Baltic states are not the only NATO members without adequate air assets that benefit from a NATO air policing mission. Italian aircraft traditionally cover Slovenian and Albanian airspace while Luxembourg is well covered by its neighboring NATO countries. For NATO states closer to Russia, such as the Baltic states, the benefit of an allied air presence remains all the more crucial.
There is one NATO state that maintains an air force but is concerned about its air force readiness and has already voiced alarm over its particular situation: Bulgaria. Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev has said Sofia should cooperate with NATO partners Turkey and Romania in the face of increased Russian surveillance flights coming close to Bulgarian airspace.
Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin accurately highlighted the problem facing the Bulgarian air force when he lamented the aging inventory of Bulgarian aircraft. Their primary fighter, the MiG-29, is still dependent on Russian technical assistance at a time when Bulgarian aircraft are intercepting Russian aircraft. To compound the issue, the Bulgarians are forced to scramble multiple interceptors for every Russian flight detected, which is causing unaffordable wear and tear on an already stretched force. In the last year alone, the Bulgarians have reportedly scrambled more flights than in the previous 20 years combined.
Despite putting on a brave front, Bulgaria cannot escape the fact that it is severely outmatched in the air. Should Moscow decide to exert a stronger presence in the skies above Sofia, there is little Bulgaria could do to resist. An air policing agreement with Turkey and Romania might conceivably result in an effective deterrent, but it remains to be seen whether there is enough political will to turn a Bulgarian aspiration into a reality.