VILNIUS - The commanders of the Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian armies have decided to establish a joint air control and reporting center, which will take over command of NATO fighters patrolling Baltic air space.
The decision was made during a meeting in Vilnius between Lithuanian Armed Forces Commander Valdas Tutkus and his Latvian and Estonian counterparts, Juris Maklakovs and Tarmo Kouts, last week.
"It's a historic decision, which will enable us to contribute considerably to the protection of Baltic airspace," Tutkus told The Baltic Times.
The center will operate from Karmelava, located just outside Kaunas, Lithuania's second largest city.
Although the current joint air surveillance center also operates in Karmelava, it has no authority to command NATO fighters, who take orders from a NATO air base in Germany.
"Things will change once the new control and reporting center goes into operation. The NATO fighters will take commands from this new location," Tutkus said, noting that the center would begin operating this year.
Fighters from old NATO members have been patrolling Baltic air space since March 2004, when they joined the alliance, since Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia did not have their own capacities.
Four fighters and some 100 military staff usually are deployed at Zokniai airport, the former Soviet military base. Spanish troops and "Mirage" fighters have been deployed in Zokniai since August. They are to be replaced by the Belgian military at the end of 2006.
NATO also sends representatives to Karmelava's air surveillance center, and will continue to do so for at least a few years, Tutkus said.
"We plan to educate our own specialists and believe that, in some three years, we will be able to assume full responsibility of the control and report center," Tutkus added.
He stressed that it is very important that the three Baltic states will have an Air Control Centre.
"There was a proposal to establish separate centers in all three countries, but NATO supported the idea of a joint center, which would contribute to cooperation between the three states," Tutkus said.
The Lithuanian Army's commander also noted that the new center would ensure faster reaction to air space violations.
"I believe that [with the new center] we can avoid incidents such as the one that occurred with a Russian fighter jet last year," Tutkus said.
In September 2005, a Russian Su-27 fighter went down outside the city of Jurbarkas, which is near Lithuania's border with Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave wedged between Lithuania and Poland.
Nobody was hurt during the incident, as the pilot safely ejected and the aircraft crashed in an open field.
German Phantom F4 fighter jets in charge of NATO's mission to patrol Baltic air space were alerted of the violation. However, by the time they responded, the Su-27 had already crashed.
A special government commission later concluded that the crash was caused by both technical and human errors, including mistakes by the pilot.