When the Soviet Union dissolved in December, 1991, its successor the Russian Federation hastened the withdrawal of its military forces from Eastern Europe. The United States followed a similar path, decommissioning scores of units, and closing dozens of installations that had protected Western Europe from the threat of Soviet attack for decades. Neither country could further justify maintaining large military forces in Europe with the Cold War having come to an end.
Russia’s military withdrawal from Europe was complete. No troops, aircraft, tanks, or ships remained in Eastern Europe owing to political and financial considerations both in Eastern Europe and back home in Russia. The US military pulled out the lion’s share of its forces from Western Europe, however, a respectable number of units remained in theater. Even though the possibility of a major conflict erupting in Europe was non-existent at the time, the Pentagon deemed it essential to US national interests to maintain a presence there in the post-Cold War time period. An underlying reason for the move was the growing importance of the Middle East to US policy. With US bases in Europe closer to that region than bases in the continental United States, the ability to quickly move forces there from Europe was certainly a factor.
The state of the US-Russia military balance in Europe was not a priority for the Pentagon during much of the early 21st Century. The conflicts in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and the overall Global War on Terror consumed the lion’s share of attention, money, and material. After the pullout from Iraq began in 2009, a smaller drawdown of US forces in Europe also got underway. Budgets were being cut and the forces in Europe were targeted. More installations were closed, and units either decommissioned, or moved to new home bases in the continental US. In April 2013, the last US armored unit left Germany. Less than a year later, Russia annexed Crimea, fighting began in eastern Ukraine. Almost overnight Europe again became a central interest to the United States and the Pentagon began to seriously examine the military balance in Europe, and think about the future.
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.
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.