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.

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

Destroyed T-72 tanks are seen on a battlefield near separatist-controlled Starobesheve

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.