Thursday 22 March, 2018 Update: Israel Sends a Message

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The Israeli government admitted it was responsible for a 2007 airstrike on a nuclear reactor in northeastern Syria capable of producing weapons grade material. The attack was launched on 6 September, 2007. Eight Israeli Air Force F-15I Ra’am multirole fighters (essentially F-15E Strike Eagles) struck the reactor located in the Deir ez-Zor region and destroyed it completely. The nuclear facility was under construction when it was hit. A number of North Korean technicians and workers were among the casualties. North Korea and Iran were working with Syria to build the facility. There was widespread speculation at the time that Iran and North Korea helped to fund and construct the site in order to use it to produce weapons grade material in the future should their own facilities become unavailable. In the aftermath of the strike, Syria, Israel, and every other nation in the region kept quiet publicly about what had actually been hit. The truth was known, however, in capital cities from the Middle East to Washington DC and beyond.  President George W Bush even mentioned the attack in his memoirs released in 2010.

Israel chose now to release the details about Operation Outside the Box, as it was officially know, to serve as a shot across Iran’s bow. Tel Aviv wants Tehran to know that Israel is willing and able to use force in order to prevent its enemies from acquiring nuclear weapons. The 2007 strike against the Syrian site, as well as the 1981 Osirak raid, serve as proof of the Israeli government’s commitment to the Begin Doctrine. Iran’s continuing quest to gain influence in Syria, coupled with last month’s Israeli military action against Iranian targets inside of Syria have made Israel reconsider whether or not Iran will abide by the boundaries that are currently in place to prevent armed conflict between the two nations.

Israel’s other motivation for releasing details about its 2007 action could be the increasing possibility of the United States walking away from the Iran nuclear deal entirely. At present, efforts to revamp the deal are underway, however, it appears unlikely a middle ground will be reached by US and European officials. In the event of the deal being scrapped, Israel is concerned with how Iran will respond. Reminding Tehran of Israel’s willingness to use force against its enemies nuclear ambitions may help deter Iran from resuming its nuclear program…..assuming they even stopped it in the first place.

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.

 

Tueday 3 May, 2016 Update: USAF F-15s To Finland

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Next week, six US F-15C Eagles and around 100 airmen from the 173rd Fighter Wing (Oregon ANG) will arrive in Finland to take part in joint exercises with the Finnish Air Force. This marks the first time that US fighters are participating in exercises on Finnish soil and it comes as tension between Russia and NATO remains high. Military cooperation between the US and Finland has increased in recent years. Finland, like its neighbors, has been unnerved by Russia’s behavior in the Baltic region lately.

The US participation in the Finnish exercises is just one of many USAF rotations that have taken place in Europe lately. In April, US fighters deployed to Iceland for air-policing duties over the North Atlantic nation, and to the Netherlands for the annual Frisian Flag exercises. Later in April, three sections of F-22 Raptors arrived at RAF Lakenheath in England and continued training at other locations in Europe until May, including Romania. All of this activity comes under the auspices of Operation Atlantic Resolve.

Eastern Europe has been a beehive of military activity so far in 2016. Russia and NATO have been engaged in a prolonged series of moves and countermoves. From the forests of the Baltic States and Poland to the Baltic Sea and the skies above it, military units have been maneuvering and in some cases encountering forces from the other side. Sometimes on purpose, other times inadvertently. The perils that come with these encounters is very real and cannot be overlooked. The USS.Donald Cook encounter in the Baltic and the Russian interception of a USAF RC-135 provide perfect examples of situations where one wrong move can result in disaster and potentially lead to a shooting war.

A Gradual NATO Awakening

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The headlines coming out of Europe for the last month paint the a picture of NATO awakening: A month long multinational training exercise in Estonia involving aircraft and airmen from the United States, Estonia, Finland and Sweden. Florida Air National Guard F-15C Eagles  commence a six month deployment to Eastern Europe. A number of NATO nations increase their defense spending in light of recent Russian actions. Germany decides to recommission 100 Leopard 2 Main Battle Tanks to bolster the combat capability of its long neglected ground forces.

NATO exactly is not making like its 1985 all over again, but the latest moves by alliance members are steps in the right direction. The unwillingness to adequately meet the dangers posed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia is slowly melting away. The notion of conceivably having to confront a militarily resurgent Russia is becoming less theoretical and more concrete as time goes on. Military preparedness is becoming a hot topic in capitals across the continent. Some alliance members are coming around to the realization that their armed forces are not adequately prepared for modern conventional warfare. Almost twenty five years of relative peace, shrinking defense budgets and political indifference have taken a toll. Now, in order to ensure that their forces are ready to meet treaty commitments, the majority of alliance members are being forced to play catchup.

Even the United States has had to adjust to the new realities. US combat power in Europe was drawn down dramatically from what it even a decade ago. EUCOM had become something of a clearinghouse more than a combat command. Fighter wings and Army brigades based in Europe were being deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq regularly for combat tours. In April of 2013, the last American tanks had been withdrawn from Europe. The strategic shift to Asia and the Pacific was underway.

Now, two years later, it’s a different situation altogether. The European Reassurance Initiative will allow US commanders in Europe to draw funds from $1 billion dollars set aside by Congress for contingency operations. American armor is back in demand in Europe. Abrams and Bradleys are rolling through the Baltics. USAREUR is exploring options for prepositioning equipment in Eastern Europe. F-16s are thundering across the Estonian sky while Flordia ANG F-15s take part in Frisian Flag and prepare to deploy east to Bulgaria. Power projection and combat preparedness are the priorities. Once again, US European Command has become a combatant command in its own right.

Germany’s reaction to Russian aggression is somewhat more ambiguous. On April 10, the German government announced that it will be placing 100 mothballed Leopard 2 MBTs back into service and modernizing them. The move is intended to give the German Army more combat power at a time when NATO revamping its Reaction Force to meet the threat emerging from the east. This is not a short term solution, though. The tanks will not begin modernization until 2017 and only after that is completed will they be placed back in service with line units. Two or three years is a long time. If relations between NATO and Russia begin to normalize by then, the modernization can be cancelled and the tanks placed back in reserve. In essence, the Germans are hedging their bets with this move. It will not change the balance of power in the short term, so Moscow will have a difficult time viewing it as a provocation.

NATO’s Eastern European members are addressing the threat posed by Russia with robust increases in defense spending. After all, these nation-states share a border with Russia, and at one time most were either part of the USSR or the Warsaw Pact. Lithuania’s defense spending will increase by 50% in the foreseeable future. The other Baltic States will join the trend with more modest defense budget increases. Poland began a military modernization program in 2013 before Russian annexed Crimea or the Ukrainian conflict began. This year, Poland’s defense spending will rise by 20%.

In contrast, defense spending in much of Western Europe continued to decline. Austerity remains the name of the game and defense cuts continue to occur. In Paris, Brussels and London, Russia is not yet viewed as an imminent threat. In Warsaw, Vilnius, and Riga, Russia is. Little by little, NATO is awakening. Progress is being made, but will enough of it be made in time?