NATO's air defense system - or at least that part of it in northeastern Europe - is lousy. Or so believes Vladimir Mikhailov, commander of Russia's Air Force. Commenting the recent crash of one of his Su-27s in Lithuanian territory, Mikhailov said, "We, of course, hadn't planned to probe NATO defenses, but they turned out to be good for nothing. The much-praised German pilots were on duty there - drinking beer or doing I don't know what - but by the time they were dispatched the plane had already hit the ground."
To be sure, the Su-27 incident is a poignant reminder of the effectiveness of military programs and hardware. Reports indicate that the Russian fighter spent 20 minutes in Lithuanian airspace before crashing 50 kilometers from Kaunas. Prior to that moment, the aircraft even disappeared from Lithuanian radars several times.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has already stated that the alliance must draw a lesson from the airspace violation, even if it was an accident, as the two official investigative commissions are likely to conclude.
Investigators have suggested that the accident occurred due to a malfunction of the aircraft's navigation system, though there have been hints that the fighter jet, flying a short path from St. Petersburg to Kaliningrad, might have run out of fuel. Given the scarce amount of fuel allocated to Russia's Air Force, and hence the few number of hours fighter pilots actually spend flying, an empty fuel tank cannot be ruled out.
Indeed, the real motivation behind Mikhailov's mocking commentary is likely incompetence. In one month he has lost two $25 million jet fighters. The first took place on Sept. 5 when a Su-33 fell off the flight deck of the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier (the only one in Russia's navy) while landing and subsequently sank.
As chief of Russia's military aviation, Mikhailov will have to explain these messes to the commander-in-chief, Mr. Vladimir Putin (known to be fond of sitting at the helm of military aircraft). Because worse than the loss to Russia's fleet, is the blow to its reputation as a manufacturer of reliable military hardware. In recent years the Kremlin has ratcheted up its campaign to win major arms contracts, and with China increasing defense spending, Russia can ill-afford to have its fighter planes falling off ships and out of the sky.
The Balts are spending several million euros to finance the presence and upkeep of four NATO fighter planes on Lithuanian territory. All in all, it is money well spent - not for reasons of national security, but to have the planes nearby in case of a major event such as a civilian airliner that might lose its bearings in Baltic airspace, or to police a 9/11-type terrorist who could appear out of nowhere. Still, they have a right to demand value for their money. If there's any lesson in what has happened, that should be it.