Sunday 7 January, 2018 Update: Baltic Air Policing Starts New Rotation This Week

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This week will mark the end of NATO’s current Baltic Air Policing rotation which stood began in September, 2017. USAFE F-15C Eagles of the 493d Fighter Squadron spent the rotation operating from Šiauliai air base in Lithuania, and Belgian F-16A MLU Falcons flew from Amari air base in Estonia. Later this week Danish F-16AMs will replace the US fighters, and Italian Air Force Typhoons will assume BAP duties from the Belgians. The September-January time period was a busy time in the air over the Baltics. US fighters were scrambled 30 times to intercept Russian aircraft flying near the airspace of the Baltic nations. Most of the activity took place in September around the time of Zapad ’17. Overall, the numbers are similar to those of recent BAP rotations, but still significantly higher than what they were in the days before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and involvement in the Ukraine conflict.

The Baltic States are not the only area NATO conducts air policing missions. Iceland is another. The USAF ended the practice of rotating fighter squadrons to Keflavik in 2006. Shortly thereafter, Russian aircraft began to make incursions into Icelandic airspace. As a result, NATO stood up the Icelandic Air Policing mission in 2008 and has been rotating fighter detachments from member nations ever since.

The air policing rotations safeguard the sovereignty of air space for member nations that do not possess their own air arms, as well as provide valuable experience for pilots and ground personnel deployed. In a time of crisis, the numbers of NATO fighters operating from the Baltics and Iceland would increase. Therefore, it is heartening to know that there is a good amount of aircrews and support personnel who are familiar with operating from these locations.

The next Baltic Air Policing rotation will run from this coming week until May, 2018.

Friday 1 September, 2017 Update: As Zapad ’17 Approaches, US Fighters Arrive in the Baltics

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With Zapad 17, the major Russian military exercise that has the Baltic states. and Eastern Europe on edge, set to begin in two weeks, US airpower is making an appearance in the region. NATO’s Baltic Air Police mission has just gone through a rotation of forces. Spanish F-18s and Polish F-16s, which have guarded the airspace of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia over the summer of ’17 have been replaced by a contingent of 4 Belgian F-16s and 4 USAF F-15C Eagles. The Belgian -16s will be based at Amari Air Base in Estonia while the US fighters bed down at Šiauliai Air Base in Lithuania. The US will assume overall mission command for this BAP rotation, which will run from 30 August until late December, 2017 or early January, 2018. The US F-15s belong to the 493rd Fighter Squadron based at RAF Lakenheath. The squadron, like its parent unit the 48th Fighter Wing, is no stranger to deployments. Its aircraft have taken part in air policing rotations in the Baltic and Iceland in recent years.

With Zapad 17 coming closer, Russian air activity over the Baltic Sea has been increasing. The number of interceptions carried out by NATO over the summer was larger than it had been at the same time last year. Since the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the start of fighting in Ukraine, the Russian air force has kept NATO Baltic Air Police pilots on their toes. As tension goes, so does the number of interceptions. If the numbers lately are any indication, relations between NATO and Russia are anything but harmonious at the moment.

 

East Is Forward: The NATO Response

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Happy New Year!

Christmas and the holiday season are now officially behind us. A new year has arrived, and with it will come challenges, crises, and conflict. Some will be extensions of previous conflicts and crises like the war against ISIS, Syria and the fighting in the Ukraine. Others will be entirely new and unfamiliar in their textures and complexities. In any event, 2015 promises to be no less violent than the previous year.

I will begin 2015 with the final East Is Forward post. This post will focus on the NATO military response to events in the Ukraine and Baltics. As Europe struggles to maintain a united front against Russia with regards to what is happening in the Ukraine, NATO is moving ahead with plans to strengthen its military capabilities in Eastern Europe and widen its response options should a new crisis with Russia appear out of the simmering tensions. The Alliance’s response to heightened Russian air and naval activity has been resolute, however, nowhere near as decisive as its reaction to facing a potential conflict with Russia on the ground.

Baltic Air Policing

The 37th rotation of NATO forces assigned to the Baltic Air Policing mission officially stood up today ( 2 January, 2015) with the Italian Air Force taking the lead. Since last May, the force had been heightened in response to the annexation of Crimea and events in the Ukraine.  For the current rotation, four Italian Eurofighter Typhoons will be fly from Siauliai Airbase, Lithuania. Four Polish MiG-29 Fulcrums will support them, flying out of the same base. Four Spanish Typhoons are being based at Amari Airbase in Estonia, along with four Belgian F-16s at Malbork Airbase, Poland.

From September 2014 through the end of the year, Russian air activity in the region was very high. NATO aircraft flew 250+ sorties, intercepting Russian aircraft that were flying close to member nation airspace, flying without flight plans or transponders and not communicating with civilian air traffic controllers.  Until the situation in the Ukraine reaches a conclusion, the level of activity will probably not be diminishing. Therefore, the expanded NATO mission should be expected to continue through 2015.

One advantage of the expanded air mission has been in the number of airbases available to NATO in the Baltics. Until 2014, NATO fighters flew almost exclusively from Lithuania. Now, Amari Airbase in Estonia has been utilized for use by the alliance and the Polish airbase at Malbork has seen an increase in activity since last year. In the event of hostilities, the familiarity with these airfields will be an advantage for NATO pilots and ground crews, allowing them to operate with a greater degree of ease.

Boots And Treads On The Ground

A lot of attention has been given to plans for a strengthened NATO rapid-reaction force and for good reason, given what has been happening lately. Whether or not this force will come into being in time to be of use is another question entirely. With constricting defense budgets and a lack of alliance resolve, there is no guarantee that the 5,000 man force can even be created. Fortunately, SACEUR has not been idle on the matter of contingency plans for reinforcements in Eastern Europe if a crisis calls for it.

In October, 600 troops and accompanying armored vehicles from the 1st Brigade/1st Cavalry Division deployed to Poland and the Baltic states for a series of exercises over three months. The move was made to reassure nervous allies as tensions with Russia increased. Now, the US presence is going to be permanent, it would seem. Plans to preposition equipment and supplies for a US armored brigade in Europe are moving forward. The bulk of the equipment will probably be placed in Poland in storage sites similar to the POMCUS facilities in West Germany during the Cold War. US troops would fly from bases in the US to Eastern Europe and mate up with their equipment. Smaller numbers of tanks and other armored vehicles will be placed at US training sites, namely Grafenwoehr in southern Germany. The presence of heavy US forces would serve as a deterrent in a time of crisis and as an effective instrument of war if fighting broke out.

Concluding Remarks

Think of Eastern Europe and the Baltics as a chessboard, with military units acting as the playing pieces for both sides. The board is becoming increasingly crowded. The buildup is nothing comparable to the number of NATO and Warsaw Pact forces that faced off against each other for over 40 years in central Europe. Nor is the level of tension as great as it was during the Cold War.

All of that can change in an instant. And if war should ever come between NATO and Russia, the first shots will be fired in the Baltics or Eastern Europe.

A Quick Look Around The World: Ukraine, ISIS and the Baltics

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2014 has been a dangerous year thus far. Crises and conflicts have been cropping up across the globe at an almost regular pace. From the Middle East to Europe, conflicts rage and crises simmer, threatening to explode into regional conflagrations at any moment.  With the final two months of the year approaching, it does not seem that the trend will change anytime soon. At the moment, ISIS and the Ukraine are the two most significant international crises in the world.  Ebola, despite the danger it poses, is a healthcare crisis and cannot be included in the same category as the aforementioned. Recent events in the Baltic Sea area suggest the potential formation of a new regional crisis by the end of the year.

Below is a quick overview of each of the three crises that currently hold the world’s attention.

Ukraine

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Putin continues to successfully play the Brinkmanship card in the Ukrainian Crisis.  An energy deal between Russia and Ukraine is yet to be completed with winter fast approaching. Russia is demanding assurances on how Ukraine will find the money to pay in advance for November and December gas supplies. The Ukraine is requesting an additional 2 billion euros in credit from the EU to cover the costs. If Kiev receives the credit, Gazprom is prepared to reopen the gas flow shortly thereafter. There are serious concerns in Europe that energy supplies from Russia to Europe –piped through Ukraine – will be disrupted if a deal is not struck soon.  Putin is threatening an energy crisis in Ukraine and Europe in order to ensure that Russia is paid.  Some would consider this to be a Realpolitik approach to the problem while others consider it blackmail. I see it as Brinkmanship and so far it is working well for Putin.

Officially, the faltering ceasefire agreement (Minsk Memorandum) is holding. Sporadic fighting between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces has continued off and on, however. Today, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donestk People’s Republic announced that the rebels are ending the ceasefire agreement. With parliamentary elections coming soon, this appears to be an attempt to influence the outcome of the voting, orchestrated by Russia. Ukrainian law enforcement and security apparatuses are increasing their readiness in anticipation of possible terrorist attacks by the pro-Russian separatists.

ISIS

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The light footprint has been a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s foreign policy doctrine. Militarily, the idea behind a light footprint is to achieve large results with small means. The concept was brought to the forefront by Donald Rumsfeld, yet President Obama has adopted and tailored it to fit not only military policy, but foreign policy as well. The results have been mixed to say the very least. In Libya, a light US footprint helped to remove Gaddafi from power. In Pakistan, a light footprint utilizing mostly drones led to some large achievements in the War on Terror. However, there were pitfalls to the use of drones, namely in the form of collateral damage.

The light footprint behind Operation Inherent Resolve has not yielded significant setbacks to ISIS yet. The reasons for this are diverse. In short, the campaign against ISIS will be almost impossible to win without the introduction of ground forces in substantial numbers at some point. With the exceptions of Desert Storm and Allied Force, airpower alone has never been responsible for singlehandedly winning a military campaign. Iraq in 1991 and Serbia in 1999 were relatively modern militaries. ISIS, despite its claims, is not a modern military force.

Airpower alone is not going to keep ISIS from expanding its influence and territory. The performance of the Iraqi military still leaves much to be desired and the Kurds, while excellent fighters, do not have the numbers to stand up to ISIS on a large scale. ISIS has to be stopped on the ground and eventually it will be up to the US to bear the burden. Unfortunately, the political will for such a move does not exist at the moment. In all likelihood, that will not change for some time, if ever.

Sweden and the Baltic

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In October 1981, a Soviet Whiskey class diesel submarine hit an underwater rock and had to surface a few kilometers from Sweden’s main naval base and in Swedish territorial waters. The event was not the first instance of foreign submarines being detected in Swedish waters. Throughout the Cold War, a number of foreign submarines (For the most part Soviet/Russian) invaded Swedish waters to conduct surveillance and intelligence gathering missions. Now, decades after the Cold War came to an end, Sweden is enduring another submarine ‘chase’ in its territorial waters. Or is it?

The truth is that no one knows for certain. Most people assume the submarine is Russian. Unfortunately, there is no solid proof that the object is a submarine or submersible, let alone one of Russian origin. Civilian sightings, as well as some photographs that show something on the water, have sparked the biggest Swedish naval operation in years. The problem is that defense cuts have all but gutted the Swedish Navy and Air Force. ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) platforms such as ASW helicopters and maritime patrol aircraft are practically non-existent. The Swedish Navy does not have any warships dedicated to ASW.

That is not the only military activity going on in the Baltic neighborhood either. Swedish and NATO fighter jets were scrambled to intercept a Russian Il-20 Coot intelligence aircraft that briefly entered Estonian airspace. Danish F-16s from Denmark, and then Portuguese F-16s, operating with the Baltic air policing program, were scrambled. The Danish F-16s first intercepted the Coot and it turned north towards Swedish airspace. Swedish fighters then intercepted it and the Coot turned south again and entered Estonian airspace. Portuguese F-16s then intercepted it and led the Il-20 away from NATO airspace.

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Since the beginning of the Ukrainian Crisis, interceptions of Russian military aircraft by NATO have become regular occurrences.  This encounter was different in that the aircraft actually violated the airspace of a NATO nation. At a time when tensions are increasing over the Ukraine and the submarine hunt in Swedish waters, encounters like this do nothing to decrease the tension level.