The Baltic States’ Air Policing – a Change of Command and the Future of the Mission
Veiko Spolītis, Parliamentary Secretary of the Republic of Latvia Ministry of Defence
Translated by 1LT (res.) Kārlis Līdaks, Latvian National Armed Forces
Technical Editor, Military Information Section, Military Information Department,
Republic of Latvia Recruitment and Youth Guard Centre;
Public Relations Adviser to the President of the European Military Press Association (EMPA)
NATO’s air policing mission in the Baltics was launched in 2004 after Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia joined NATO. Since then air force fighters from 14 countries have performed air policing. There are countries that have fulfilled this mission only once but others, like Germany, have fulfilled the mission already five times. Poland has participated in this mission four times, the United States, France and Denmark three times, Belgium, Norway and the Czech Republic twice. Air policing mission has experienced a number of extensions, the latest being at NATO Chicago Summit this summer where it was extended for indefinite period of time which surely should be regarded as an excellent result of the three Baltic States’ diplomatic performance and cooperation.
On 1 September, Poland handed over command of NATO’s air policing mission in the Baltics to the Czech Republic. Poland has patrolled the Baltic skies with four Polish Air Force supersonic fighters Mig-29 that were replaced by four Czech Air Force JAS-30 Gripen (Saab 39 Gripen) fighters. Both, the Baltic States’ air policing mission’s outgoing Polish Military Contingent Commander Lieutenant Colonel Leszek Blah (Leszek Błah) and the Commander of the Czech Contingent Colonel Petr Lanci pointed out that they consider this mission a challenge. Still the change of command of mission’s performers does not affect the responsibilities of the host nation’s support even though there might be slight variations. Due to the fact that each participating country may have different financial possibilities, each mission takes place on a consensual basis, including, for example, such everyday things as the usage of fuel tanks or fire brigades. This mission needs constant support which means constant self-readiness, presence of several fire fighters and medical personnel, and of course the 24/7 impeccable cleanliness of the airfield.
The Baltic Defence ministers had decided to increase the financial contribution of the mission’s host nation already before the Chicago Summit. Presently Lithuania with the host airfield pays half of the costs, while Latvia with Estonia covers the rest. In the future, the three countries have decided to provide the host nation support on a rotating basis; according to this strategically important decision, Estonia and Latvia should also ensure the host nation’s support. This would give a break to the Lithuanian Air Force and provide the necessary experience for the Estonian and Latvian air traffic services’ personnel. Estonia has already expressed its readiness to use its Amari (Ämari) Air base on a rotating basis. This issue involves thorough costs and benefits analysis; it would have to be decided at the trilateral meeting of the Baltic Defence Ministries’ and armed forces’ officials. The Latvian National Armed Forces’ Lielvārde Air base early operational capacity is planned to be achieved in the near future; the decision for its preparation for 24/7 level missions would require a political decision in Latvia.
Today's financial situation questions whether any firm decisions will be taken concerning the additional funding for the air force. However, with regard to the provision of NATO’s basic capabilities and to unmanned aircraft, it is quite clear - the training for the host nation’s airport logistics staff will be required for several decades. Consequently, for the Baltic air policing mission to continue in the future, the existing cooperation among the three Baltic States should be maintained and, bearing in mind the transformation of the European Union that was caused by the financial crisis, to sustain the closer cooperation with the Nordic countries.
The reasons for developing an air policing system in the Baltic States (3B) is not just the impressive costs that would arise to equip the air force of the three countries with modern aircraft but also a small number of human resources. The use of our allies’ resources in air policing mission in the Baltic States contributes to ensuring the training of air controllers and host nation’s personnel, career development for mission’s performers as well as the efficient use of NATO’s resources in the context of its Smart Defence initiative. For the 3B policy makers the rationale is simultaneously challenging and clear because the use of allied material and human resources always come at cost based on quid pro quo basis.
The mission assessment by the Polish Military Contingent Orlik 4 Commander Lieutenant Colonel Leszek Blah (Leszek Błah).
- How important was the Orlik 4 mission in the Baltic States for you personally?
- This mission was very important because it is more challenging for the military pilots to fly over the Baltic States than flying in Poland. For our wing of four Mig-29 fighters this was already the second mission in Siauliai (Šiauliai). For the first time we were here in 2010, but in general, this is the fourth mission of the Baltic air policing for the Polish Air Force. Identification or, if necessary, interception flights (A scramble) by observing and following such aircraft as Su-24 or Su-27, Il-18, Il-20 and Tu-22 strategic bombers, is not an easy task, and these aircrafts do not often fly close to Poland’s borders. I consider training flights (T scramble) also quite challenging and during our mission we had an opportunity to participate in a highly useful exercise Saber Strike 2012.
- Did you encounter any problems during the mission?
- We had no problems whatsoever even though we lived in a modular army carriages; we were provided with all the necessities for life and service. My family lives in Malbork [one of the Polish Air Force bases] but we all are citizens of the EU and Malbork was just 660 km away so the family came to visit me very often.
- Are there any suggestions on what should be improved in the future when providing the mission support?
- I understand that the Baltic Defence ministers have agreed to increase the host nation’s support which will certainly make the mission more effective. Currently air policing is performed only from the Siauliai airfield which has been recently renovated and improved, and is available 24/7. The Baltic States’ BALTNET project anticipates developing of host nation’s airfields in Amari in Estonia and in Lielvārde, Latvia. We understand that the economic crisis has severely affected the economies of the Baltic States but if Amari and Lielvārde status scheduled for 8 hours five days a week could be lifted up 24/7 level, it would definitely make the air policing mission more valuable and contribute to equal development of all three Baltic States’ host nation’s support services.